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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 18 February 2020

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Social Prescribing, Minister and Junior Minister, Decision Time, Gaelic-medium Education (Western Isles)


Topical Question Time

Queensferry Crossing (Closure)

To ask the Scottish Government what lessons have been learned from the recent closure of the Queensferry crossing. (S5T-02006)

Following the occurrence of falling ice in March 2019, Transport Scotland engaged with a range of expert advisers and undertook a review of worldwide experience of the issue. The review concluded that operational management remained appropriate and that arrangements should be made to enhance it by additional forecasting and monitoring. Acting on lessons learned, our engineers were monitoring the conditions on 10 February, which allowed them to act quickly when conditions worsened.

Initial learning from the events of 10 February has resulted in a five-point plan being put in place to further enhance monitoring and gather increased intelligence from the observations. A full debrief is due to take place on 24 February. A technical briefing will also be provided to Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee members and local MSPs to inform them of the circumstances of the closure, our developing understanding of why such events happen and how we plan to manage and respond to challenges ahead.

Visual monitoring, which remains the primary source of understanding the effects of such conditions, will be assisted by the installation of ice sensors in the coming months.

The design of the bridge was approved by Parliament in 2011.

The closure of the bridge came as a shock to many, not least to Fife Council, which last week informed me that it had no prior warning of the plan to close the bridge from either Transport Scotland or Amey; nor was it consulted on that action. Is a formal emergency closure procedure in place for the bridge? If so, who are the key stakeholders for the procedure? Was it implemented according to the plan, and why were local councils excluded from the process this time round?

I understand and recognise the difficulties that the bridge closure caused people, and I regret that, given that a very quick decision was made to close the bridge. As I am sure the member and others in the chamber will appreciate, the decision was taken for safety reasons. It was recommended by the operator, Amey, and supported by Police Scotland, which is why the action was taken to close the bridge within a short period of time.

From the discussions that I have had with the engineers who were involved in the decision, my understanding is that, because of the diversion works that needed to be put in place, they engaged or sought to engage with Fife Council in order to make it aware of the closure. They also contacted public transport providers to look at what enhanced public transport provision could be made. I therefore understand that attempts were made to make contact with Fife Council within the very limited period of time that was available between the decision to close the bridge and the diversion being put in place.

However, the debrief on 24 February that I mentioned, which will be conducted by the engineers and those managing the bridge, is an opportunity to look at further measures that can be put in place to improve communication when such instances occur again.

I welcome the fact that those matters can be considered at the debrief, and I hope that lessons can be learned. However, last Tuesday, I was also contacted by residents of Kincardine, whose village once again faced gridlock following the official advice from Transport Scotland for people to divert via the Kincardine and Clackmannanshire bridges. Given that the opening of the Queensferry crossing has resulted in more than a million extra vehicle journeys across the Forth, will the cabinet secretary accept that simply diverting traffic via Kincardine is no longer an option, and that emergency closure plans need to be developed that prioritise the modal shift to public transport first and foremost.

I very much recognise the concerns and challenges that have been created for residents who live on the diversion route, particularly in places such as Kincardine. When the decision to close the bridge was arrived at, action was taken to look at what enhanced public transport provision could be provided. For example, one of the carriageways on the Forth road bridge is presently undergoing major refurbishment work, but the other carriageway is operating as a contraflow for public transport provision. It was agreed with Stagecoach and other bus providers that there would be a 50 per cent increase in bus provision the following morning for people who were trying to make their way into Edinburgh and people trying to make their way from Edinburgh to Fife. Alongside that, ScotRail considered what enhanced morning peak-time services it could provide. Those services were enhanced and additional buses were provided to deal with overcrowding. As soon as the diversion had to be put in place, the first port of call was enhancing the public transport provision.

Given that major refurbishment work was taking place on the Forth road crossing, one of the actions that I have asked my officials to consider is minimising works on the crossing in future winter periods so that it can be used as a diversion route should that be required. That would reduce the need for the extended diversion route through places such as Kincardine.

I inform the cabinet secretary and members that eight members wish to ask supplementary questions. We will try to get through as many as we can.

For my constituents in Fife, one of the most frustrating aspects of last week’s closure of the Queensferry crossing was the fact that—for entirely understandable reasons—they were not able to divert across the Forth road bridge. Given what the cabinet secretary has just said, in the event of a potential future closure of the Queensferry crossing, will consideration be given to allowing vehicles to access both carriageways on the Forth road bridge, thereby avoiding some of the congestion in west Fife villages to which Mark Ruskell referred?

Murdo Fraser makes a reasonable point. There is a challenge in striking a balance between continuing the public transport provision and using the Forth road bridge as a diversionary route for cars, and I have already asked my officials to explore that possibility. I am very keen to explore and understand the issue, but we have to recognise that that could cause significant congestion in areas such as South Queensferry, given that temporary road works would have to be put in place.

All those issues have to be worked through, and I have asked officials to ensure that that is done—including, as Murdo Fraser suggested, by identifying whether further measures could be put in place to manage the situation better.

I think that most motorists understand that safety has to be paramount and that the closure of the bridge was, indeed, due to exceptional weather conditions. Will the cabinet secretary outline what measures are in place to optimise information sharing with motorists? How can that be improved going forward?

As soon as the decision to close the bridge was made, a range of information was placed in the national media and across social media to inform people of the decision and its implications for them. That included information on the need to use the diversionary route, and on enhancement of public transport provision that was being made.

It is clearly important to ensure that, when such incidents occur, our communication of information is as timely and effective as possible. I am sure that all members recognise that, when a safety issue arises as it did last week, it is important that action is taken swiftly. There were attempts to communicate as effectively as possible, but I am always prepared to look at how we can enhance communication in the future. I will ensure that the points that Mr MacDonald and others have raised are taken forward in the debrief.

The issue was first identified last March, and the cabinet secretary advised the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee in May that contractors had been

“appointed to monitor the issue, identify the exact source of it and look at what mitigation may have to be put in place”.—[Official Report, Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, 15 May 2019; c 14.]

If work has been going on since the spring, what exactly have those mitigation measures achieved? Why was there not full mitigation in time for this winter?

A range of work has been undertaken. As I have mentioned, expert advisers have been engaged with, and advice has been taken worldwide on the particular problem and ways in which it can be more effectively addressed. A number of points that relate to enhancing the weather forecasting for the bridge and looking at the introduction of weather sensors and ice sensors have arisen from that. That work was all finalised last November. There has been a procurement exercise and the award of the contract is due to take place in the next couple of weeks, the plan being to install the sensors in the coming months.

All the expert and international advice is that human observation is the critical element in identifying whether there is any ice on the bridge’s structures. The incident that occurred last March involved an unspecified area of the bridge—at that time, the engineers were not able to identify where the ice had come from. The incident that occurred last week clearly involved the cables. That information will inform the approach that will now be taken with ice sensors and the installation of any other equipment that will be necessary to monitor the issue.

Mitigation measures could, however, be more complex, given that such icing occurs only in very specific circumstances. There was no problem with snow or ice accumulation on the Queensferry crossing during the beast from the east, and there have been no problems in other periods of adverse weather. The problem appears to occur only in very specific circumstances, which will make it more challenging to find a means of mitigation. However, that is part of the work that engineers will take forward in the weeks and months ahead.

I welcome the new members of the Government’s front bench and thank the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity for the manner in which we have conducted our debates in the past few years.

The decision to close the bridge for safety reasons was the right one, but several vehicles were damaged prior to that decision being made. It is, frankly, a miracle that nobody was injured or worse. Winter is not over. Considering the severe consequences of falling ice, what reassurance can the cabinet secretary give to motorists who use the crossing that they can cross the bridge safely and without fear or risk to themselves or their vehicles during similarly inclement weather?

I am sorry if I am behind the news—I get the impression that Mr Greene is on the move to another portfolio. I have enjoyed my exchanges with him and I wish him well in his new portfolio.

There is a five-point plan in place, whereby enhanced monitoring will take place alongside additional forecasting. Following the incident last week, forecasters and engineers now have a clearer understanding of the perimeters within which this kind of icing takes place. They did not have that understanding following the incident that occurred last March. They can now more accurately predict when it is likely to happen and know when to undertake enhanced monitoring of the cables, which is where the ice fell from last week.

Those additional measures, which are over and above what was already in place prior to this winter, will be taken should the weather forecast indicate a risk that icing could occur. Once the sensory equipment is installed, it will provide an additional measure to support the engineers’ understanding. However, the primary source of information will be visual checks, which appear to be the core way in which such icing problems on any large structures of that type are identified throughout the world.

I am grateful to the cabinet secretary for the extensive briefing that he offered Opposition parliamentarians last week.

It is now two years since the Queensferry crossing was given motorway designation, and the problem of icing is just one of a number of issues that have emerged during its operation. Those include problems with road layout at the bridge access and issues with traffic flow around South Queensferry. Those issues were meant to be swept up in the one-year review that was due to be published in December 2018, yet we are still waiting for the review. Can the cabinet secretary confirm when the review will finally be published?

The review has been delayed because of challenges with the data that were being used for the assessment work. I understand that Transport Scotland expects to receive that review in the spring of this year, when it will be technically reviewed. As soon as that technical review has been completed, the review will be published.

In his response to Murdo Fraser, the cabinet secretary said that his team will examine the various approaches to the Forth road bridge in situations in which there are difficulties. Can the cabinet secretary confirm whether that relates only to situations in which there are problems due to severe weather or whether that is a part of a general plan to review the approach roads in response to the issues that Alex Cole-Hamilton has just raised, which involve situations outwith times of bad weather? Can the cabinet secretary confirm that he is looking at those situations, too?

I can confirm that that is not the case. The work will be only for the purposes of events during which the Queensferry crossing is not available and cannot be used. It will look at only exceptional circumstances, not the routine circumstances that the member referred to.

I apologise to Alexander Stewart, Dean Lockhart and Claire Baker, as we have not been able to get through all the supplementary questions.

Flooding (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it is giving to communities affected by recent flooding. (S5T-02011)

This morning, I visited Newcastleton to see the damage that was caused by the storm and flooding, and the First Minister visited Hawick yesterday. My sympathies go out to those who have been affected by the recent severe weather, and I pay tribute to the first-class response by local authorities, emergency responders and the public, who went above and beyond to help others, often to the detriment of their own properties.

Reducing flood risk is a priority for this Government, and we will continue to support authorities to deliver actions that protect our communities and raise awareness among the public and businesses.

As the minister knows, at the weekend, storm Dennis caused unprecedented flooding across the entire Borders region, with Newcastleton being first hit as the river reached its highest-ever recorded level. More than 70 homes in the village have been affected, and it is estimated that many more homes in outlying rural areas will have been affected as well. Many people, including elderly and vulnerable people, have had to be rehoused, and the roads in the local area are almost impassable. The B6399 has seven major areas that are unsafe, and the B6357 will remain closed until Saturday due to the damage and destruction that have been left by the storm. Essentially, this already remote village is cut off in most directions.

Like the minister, I thank the resilience team, who have worked tirelessly to ensure that residents in Newcastleton have been rehomed or looked after. However, as the minister knows, more resources are needed. Following her visit this morning, what immediate support will the Scottish Government give to the village of Newcastleton to assist in the clearing of flooded roads and of drain and flood water?

I echo a lot of what Rachael Hamilton has just said. What I got from the meeting that I had today and from talking to some of the residents and people who were involved in the immediate response was that sense of isolation.

I completely understand what Rachael Hamilton said about the roads, as a lot of areas are still cut off, which has compounded the problems.

As a result of the meeting and what we have learned about the issues that people encountered throughout the weekend, I have undertaken to take some immediate actions. As Rachael Hamilton noted, housing is a major issue. I know that the issue of temporary accommodation is being looked into, but I am also raising it with the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning. We want to take work forward to ensure that everyone gets the accommodation that they need, because the Government and I are committed to helping out and doing what we can to support the local authority and local people and businesses.

A host of issues were raised today. I hope that we can help with some of them immediately, but there are other issues that will need to be addressed in the medium and longer term. I would be more than happy to arrange to go back to Newcastleton with Rachael Hamilton in a few months’ time or as things settle down a bit to see how the situation is progressing and how we can move things forward.

I thank the minister for her response. It is encouraging that she visited Newcastleton and has addressed the issues directly. Of course, we know that incidents of flooding are only going to get worse as the frequency of major climatic events increases. Villages such as Newcastleton and others in rural areas are often the worst affected by flooding events as they do not have the same large-scale flood defences that much larger towns have. Given the nature of the widespread flooding that was caused by storm Dennis and storm Ciara, the council will be left with a significant repair bill at a time when its funding is under huge pressure.

It looks as if there has been a 10 per cent real-terms reduction in the flood risk management budget line, which is now £2.7 million. I ask the minister to look into that and consider what funding there might be in future budgets.

The Scottish Government needs to address the issue of flooding, and I believe that it is taking it seriously. However, will the minister outline exactly what support is on offer to the village of Newcastleton, and will the Scottish Government take seriously the calls for better flood defences in Newcastleton and other villages that are often overlooked?

Rachael Hamilton makes another important point, which I will come back to in my substantive answer. When we consider the damage that storm Ciara did, it is interesting to note that there was double the amount of rainfall compared with the most recent storm. However, snow melt and other factors compounded the problem in the most recent event.

The Scottish Government is committed to doing what we can, which is why we have committed to provide a minimum of £42 million a year until 2026, which will be available for local authorities.

There is also the Bellwin scheme. I can write to Rachael Hamilton with more details about the scheme, which allows ministers to make additional revenue support available to local authorities, to assist them with immediate and unforeseen costs in dealing with the aftermath of emergency incidents.

There are a few different options. I want to consider the issue holistically, to see what we can do in the short, medium and longer term to make sure that our communities are as resilient as possible and that we are working in partnership with everyone, so that when these events happen—because such events will happen again—we get our response right.

Will the minister say how local authorities, including Dumfries and Galloway Council, can access the support that she just mentioned?

As I said in my previous response, extra funding is available through the Bellwin scheme, the key criterion of which is the need

“to safeguard life and property or to prevent suffering or severe inconvenience”.

Any local authority that wants to make a claim should inform the Government of the emergency incident that it thinks meets the scheme’s criteria; the claim will then be considered. The need for extra funding in the current circumstances could well be considered as part of the scheme.

Fife Ethylene Plant (Elevated Flaring)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on elevated flaring at Mossmorran. (S5T-02004)

A period of elevated flaring occurred on Thursday 13 February, during the restart of Fife ethylene plant. The Scottish Environment Protection Agency recorded a significant increase in complaints regarding the site during that period.

We fully appreciate the concerns and anxieties of local communities about the impact of flaring, which have been expressed repeatedly in this chamber. Prior to the recent shutdown, the frequency of unplanned flaring was unacceptable and our expectation is that work carried out during the shutdown, combined with work to address SEPA’s permit variations, will bring about a reduction in the frequency and impact of flaring.

I stress that the unplanned elevated flaring last Thursday night was truly apocalyptic in its manifestation—I do not know whether the minister saw it; I certainly did. It went on for four long hours, causing extreme disturbance by way of light pollution, in particular, and giving rise to fear and alarm among many of my constituents.

Surely it is time that SEPA pressed for an accelerated timescale for the proposed new ground-flare capacity to be installed. The current position is entirely unacceptable.

I completely understand the concerns that the member raised, which are reflected in the number of complaints that were received during the incident.

SEPA has been clear about its objective of making flaring, which is an important safety mechanism, the exception rather than a routine. SEPA’s action is driving the installation of noise-reducing flare tips this year and in 2021, and the planning, design and delivery of new ground-flare capacity as soon as possible thereafter.

The ExxonMobil chemical site at Mossmorran is jointly regulated by the Health and Safety Executive and SEPA, both of which are independent of the Scottish ministers.

I know what the minister is saying, but the fact is that the patience of many of my constituents has been exhausted. Does the minister agree that it is time for SEPA to get tough and use its enforcement powers to impose stringent penalties for breaches by the operators?

Given that SEPA’s investigation into the April 2019 unplanned elevated flaring incident is about to be completed, will the minister commit to commissioning an independent inquiry into the environmental, health and social impacts of Mossmorran?

Again, I completely understand the strength of feeling around the issue. SEPA has confirmed that it is focused on a rapid conclusion to its independent regulatory investigation, which is being undertaken to an evidential standard.

SEPA’s enforcement powers are exercised independently of Government and in line with SEPA’s publicly available enforcement guidance, in order to maximise transparency. It would not be appropriate for me to comment in any way that would prejudice SEPA’s independent regulatory investigation or limit its ability to act. However, SEPA has been clear that compliance with Scotland’s environmental laws is non-negotiable.

Given the action that has already been taken by regulators, the planned investment by the operators and the publication of a recent report by NHS Fife, it is not clear what any independent inquiry would add at this time. However, that will be kept under review.

Residents feel utterly abandoned by management and ministers on the issue of flaring. The community wants action, not words. Therefore, will the minister commit to meeting local residents in the community to allay their fears and support them, given their concerns, as a matter of urgency?

I reiterate that we absolutely appreciate the concerns and anxieties of local communities. However, as has been indicated, the intervention of ministers would not be appropriate while a regulatory investigation by SEPA is on-going. I assure the member that we are receiving regular updates on the situation.

What we need is an independent inquiry that will look at the condition of the plant. I was a teenager when that plant was built, and I have lived in the communities around it for most of my life. I am well aware that unplanned flaring happens when something in the plant breaks. The flaring is a safety precaution, and if it did not occur, there would be a danger. At a recent public meeting about the plant, a young person asked, “Is it safe? Will it blow up?”

That links to the question about an independent inquiry, which Fife Council and Annabelle Ewing have raised, which relates to health and wellbeing. There are two issues. First, what is the condition of the plant? People in the area live in fear that one of these days the plant will go up in smoke—they fear the consequences. That knocks on to the second issue of health and wellbeing, because the people who live next to the plant are living in fear. That cannot be allowed to continue.

So, I ask again: will the minister order an independent inquiry into the condition of the plant, so we can get reassurances about how safe, or otherwise, it is? Will she then look at the impact on the health, mental health and wellbeing of the people in the communities that surround the plant?

Again, I completely understand the strength of feeling around this. As a Government, we take those concerns absolutely seriously. However, as I have said, we have to wait and see the outcome of SEPA’s investigation. It is not appropriate for us to intervene in that, because SEPA is the independent regulatory body. We need to see the outcome of that investigation. HSE is also involved in the issue.

Given the action that is already being taken, as well as the planned investment and the work that is already being done by NHS Fife, it is difficult to see what an independent inquiry would add at this time. That does not mean that it will be ruled out, and we will keep it under review.

Thank you. Apologies to Mark Ruskell for not calling him. We have run over time, so we need to end topical questions now.