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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Meeting of the Parliament 08 June 2016

Agenda: Business Motion, Portfolio Question Time, Queensferry Crossing, Named Person Policy, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Point of Order, Decision Time, Child Safety Week 2016


Queensferry Crossing

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

The next item of business is a statement by Keith Brown on the Queensferry crossing. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of the statement; therefore, there should be no interventions or interruptions.


The Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work (Keith Brown)

I take this opportunity to provide further information to Parliament on the progress of the Queensferry crossing construction project.

Last week, the contractor for the Forth replacement crossing, the Forth crossing bridge constructors consortium, submitted an updated construction programme for the Forth replacement crossing project following a detailed analysis of the overall impact of weather to date. Since the project began, like with all major projects, we have encountered a series of challenges. Although each of those has been overcome, they have nevertheless taken time to resolve. As a result—not least of the weather that we had last year—much of the contractor’s contingency time has been used up.

Since deck-lifting operations commenced in September 2015, the downtime due to adverse weather—specifically, wind—has been 40 per cent compared with the 25 per cent anticipated by the contractor. Until May, FCBC believed that it could mitigate those weather effects. However, the impact of the weather in April and May was particularly severe, with 13 days and 12 days lost to the weather respectively. As a result, FCBC has advised ministers that, due to the combined effects of the time lost in those two months, it can no longer deliver the December 2016 target opening date for the structure.

It is important to remind Parliament that the contractual completion date for the bridge is, actually, June 2017—December 2016 was a target date for opening the bridge six months ahead of contract.

I advised Parliament of the changes to the expected opening date earlier today. I should also stress that what I am reporting to Parliament today is a very recent development. As recently as March, I visited the construction site and I was assured by FCBC that the project remained on schedule to be completed by December 2016.

Every possible measure has been taken by the contractor in a sustained effort to meet the December 2016 target. In order to mitigate the on-going weather impacts that have arisen over the past few months, FCBC has procured additional physical resource; it has increased staffing by taking on 100 additional workers; it has increased working hours; it has altered its construction methodologies consistent with safety, where possible; and it has challenged critical construction sequences to identify where any programme efficiencies could be found.

The contractor has now reached the stage at which further additional resources would not bring the delivery date forward due to the complex technical nature of the construction work, which means that a complex sequence of operations must be used to complete this innovative structure. The deck lifting must be carried out in a balanced sequence on each side of the three towers—it cannot involve lifting two segments on one side and just one on the other; the balance must be kept and one side has to follow the other—and the loads applied by the various construction activities such as road surfacing and, crucially, the wind barriers must be carefully controlled across the structure to ensure its structural integrity.

Under robust challenge from ministers, FCBC has confirmed that it firmly believed up until May that its previous programme showing the December 2016 target date for opening the crossing to traffic could still be met with the help of the mitigating actions that were being taken, albeit that it was becoming increasingly challenging to meet that date due to the continuing weather impacts.

The subsequently revised FCBC programme, submitted on 1 June, has been the subject of extensive internal challenge by senior management in the FCBC partner companies. The programme includes the effects of weather to date and their impact in pushing future activities into periods of greater weather risk, particularly weather-sensitive activities such as waterproofing, road surfacing and, as I have mentioned, the installation of wind barriers. The contractor has also built in allowances for future weather based on the experience to date.

Over the past week, independent experts employed by Transport Scotland have also provided further robust challenge to FCBC’s revised programme, analysing each critical activity to make sure that everything possible is done to ensure an opening date as close to December as possible. That review concluded that all that could be done was being done to open the bridge as soon as it is safe to do so.

FCBC has assured us that it will continue to target the earliest possible date on which the structure can be opened safely to traffic. However, at this stage, the programme shows that the Queensferry crossing is now expected to be open by mid-May 2017, which is prior to the contractual completion date of mid-June 2017 but some months after our projected target date of the end of this year.

We will continue to work closely with the contractors, and I personally will ensure that every pressure and resource is brought to bear to safely deliver or indeed better the May 2017 date that I have just mentioned.

To date, FCBC has successfully managed every risk to the construction of the project that was within its control. The only risk that the contractor has no control over is the weather, although it has made significant efforts to mitigate weather effects, where possible.

Ministers have always been ambitious about the project and work on the project has always been done to a deliberately ambitious target of December 2016. As Parliament may recall, the original timescale was set to address concerns about the long-term condition of the Forth road bridge and the belief that it would suffer usage restrictions, with heavy goods vehicles having to come off the bridge as early as 2017. Notwithstanding the more recent problems with the bridge, those concerns have proven to be less immediate, and the recently installed structural health monitoring system is providing additional surety on the ability of the existing bridge to sustain traffic loading into the future. However, that has not decreased our determination to complete this once-in-a-generation project at the earliest opportunity, as long as doing so is consistent with safety requirements.

It is important to stress that FCBC fully expects the project to be complete well within the timeframe of its contract. Although we will not meet the December opening target, it remains true that the project will be completed by the contractual completion date. Additionally, there will be no impact on the public purse. In that regard, I confirm that there will be no additional cost to taxpayers and that our previous projection of a £245 million saving still remains in place following my announcement.

The project directly employs more than 1,200 people, many of whom have been performing some of the most complex civil engineering ever seen in Scotland, and doing so in the highly challenging environment of the Firth of Forth. More than 12 million work hours have gone into the project so far and we should not lose sight of the workforce’s hard work and dedication. Anyone who looks at the works in the Forth cannot fail to be impressed by the achievements to date.

We have been and will continue to be fully transparent about the delivery of the project, the timescale and the costs, providing regular updates to the Parliament, communities and the public. With that in mind, I offer the opportunity to any interested MSPs from across the chamber to attend a dedicated technical briefing this Friday, when any questions that members have that they do not get the opportunity to ask now can be answered.

It is important to remember that, in the space of about nine years, remarkable progress has been made in advancing the project from feasibility study to near completion. It is the contractor’s expectation, based on the robust timescale that it has laid out, that 94 per cent of the project will be complete by the end of this year. It is expected that, by that time, the approach roads on both sides will be ready for traffic and a continuous structure will span the Forth and that, by the middle of next year—May 2017—traffic will be flowing across it. That is the timescale as laid out by the contractor and we will hold it to that timescale while trying to improve on it. The Scottish Government will continue to ensure that this iconic structure brings benefits to the people of Scotland at the earliest possible opportunity.

The Presiding Officer

Thank you, Mr Brown.

The cabinet secretary will now take questions. A large number of members wish to ask questions, so if questions and answers could be kept relatively brief, we will get through them all.

Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I thank the cabinet secretary for his statement, for the advance copy of it that he provided and for answering my written parliamentary question earlier this morning.

I am sure that all members would wish to applaud the contractors who are working on this ambitious and challenging infrastructure project, particularly given the difficult weather conditions that the cabinet secretary has outlined.

My constituents in Fife and across the east of Scotland well remember the catastrophe at the end of last year, when the Forth road bridge was closed for weeks, which caused huge disruption to people’s lives and untold damage to the local economy. At that time, we were assured by the Scottish Government that the long-awaited new crossing would be delivered on time and under budget.

On 5 January this year, the First Minister told the chamber:

“By the end of this year, the new Queensferry crossing will be completed.”—[Official Report, 5 January 2016; c 17.]

There were no ifs, no buts and no maybes, and there was nothing about that being dependent on the weather. A clear promise was made, which today has clearly been broken.

The people I represent in Fife and further afield will be dismayed at today’s announcement of a delay and will worry about the implications. I invite the cabinet secretary to help them by answering three questions. First, what guarantee can he now give in relation to the new date for completion of mid-May? Is it also weather dependent, and can we have more confidence in it than in the First Minister’s previous assurance? Secondly, given that the existing road bridge will have to carry heavy traffic for up to six months longer than previously planned, can he assure us that it is up to the task and that there is no risk of a further catastrophic closure to cars or HGVs? Finally, is it true that contractors working on the new bridge were aware of the delay some weeks ago and were asked to sign confidentiality agreements not to disclose that information until after the Scottish Parliament election on 5 May?

Keith Brown

Murdo Fraser asks a series of questions. His first point was about the weather. I make an offer to him and to any spokespersons from other parties: if they would like to come to the top of the bridge towers—[Laughter.] I make it clear that I would be happy to accompany Murdo Fraser on such a visit. We acknowledge that the public might see what they believe to be relatively fine weather, but the environment at the top of the towers can be completely different—I can testify to that. If members watch the video of two men in a basket pulling the strands for the cables that is available today on Transport Scotland’s website, they will get some idea of the pressures.

I think that it is also true to say that it has never been the case that we have said, “No ifs and no buts.” I am not resiling from the target date that we had; I have said that repeatedly. However, in the testimony that has been given to committees of the Parliament, Transport Scotland and the contractors have always talked about weather, which, as I said earlier, is the one variable that they cannot control.

On the level of confidence that people can have in the new date, the confidence of the contractors—I have to take the word of the contractors, although we get Transport Scotland to interrogate such matters and we, in turn, interrogate Transport Scotland and the contractors—is based on their experience to date of the weather during the most critical part of the project, which has been over the past few months. They expect to have 94 per cent of the project complete by the end of this year, which allows sufficient time to ensure that they can finish by the date that they have given me of mid-May. I will do everything that I can to hold them to that, but—to be perfectly blunt—weather is still a factor, and we cannot control it.

I confirm to Murdo Fraser that the existing Forth road bridge is perfectly able to take any traffic, as it has been doing for quite a number of months. Members may remember that, in addition to the work that was carried out to effect the repairs that were necessary, a further few stages had to be gone through to make those repairs permanent. Those are on target. There is no question of the bridge having to close. In addition, a full health check on the existing bridge has been carried out.

The crucial point to make is that we ended up with a December 2016 target because we expected that the state of the cables—which, when they were examined back in the 2000s, showed moisture—would necessitate the removal of HGVs from the Forth road bridge. Members may remember that, back in 2012, we had the issue looked at again and dehumidification was carried out. We are confident in the ability of the cables of the existing bridge to carry the level of traffic that they will be required to carry. In summary, we are confident that the Forth road bridge will carry traffic for many years to come.

I have no knowledge whatever of—and certainly the Scottish Government has never entered into—any confidentiality agreements with contractors that say that they cannot speak about this until, as I think the member said, after the election. I repeat the timescale that I already gave: it was in May this year—April and May being the months in which most of the days were lost—that the change was necessitated. I am happy to provide Murdo Fraser with a timeline in that respect.

I conclude by once again inviting Murdo Fraser and any other spokespeople to come to the top of the bridge to see what the weather is like for themselves.

Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

Today’s announcement will be greeted with disappointment in Fife and beyond. However, as someone who has campaigned for decades for a new crossing, I would say that, although the delay is disappointing, we need to keep it in perspective and make it clear that the new bridge is good news for Fife, the east of Scotland and, indeed, the economy of the whole of Scotland.

That is why it is important for ministers not to announce unrealistic deadlines, and why it is crucial to have full transparency on the project. First, can the cabinet secretary confirm that there are no further concerns with the existing bridge or the volume of traffic that it carries every day? Secondly, when did the Government become aware of the delays on the new crossing?

Finally, if the project has been delayed by six months as a result of bad weather in April and May, what steps has the cabinet secretary taken to ensure that bad weather this winter does not delay the opening even further, and is he therefore able to commit to June 2017 as absolutely the latest date on which the bridge will open?

Keith Brown

First of all, I agree with Alex Rowley that the bridge is very good news. I think that we sometimes lose sight of how unique this structure is. If we think of the central span alone, it will be the longest cable-supported structure of its type in the world.

There are huge challenges. Alex Rowley knows as well as I do—I, too, live on the other side of the Forth—the challenges that we can face in the Forth, and it is those challenges that have led to the disappointment that we are having to express today about the timeline going beyond the end of the year.

The bridge is good news for Scotland, and we think that it is hugely beneficial. I would have loved for the decision to have been made many years ago and for us to be further down the road than we are. However, that is not the case. When we took the decision, we moved on it very quickly. I do not think that Alex Rowley was in Parliament at the time, but I point out that we started the procurement at the same time as we started the legislation in order to get the bridge done as quickly as possible.

On Mr Rowley’s point about “full transparency”, I have already said that any member, including Alex Rowley, can go along on Friday and ask any of the contractors or Transport Scotland officials who will be there any questions that they feel have not been answered today. Those questions will be answered. There has also been a great deal of transparency as a result of the attendance by Transport Scotland and the contractors at meetings of committees of the Parliament.

As for the existing bridge, which Alex Rowley also asked about, I have already given the assurances that I can to Murdo Fraser. The action that was necessary to get the bridge back into operation was taken; further steps are still to be taken to make the bridge safe for well into the future, but they will not jeopardise its continued use. Because of the recent work that was required, a full health check has been done on the bridge; moreover, as I have pointed out, the cables have undergone a dehumidification process, and the risk in that respect has receded from what was expected in 2005.

With regard to the point about continuing to ensure that we get the bridge open at the earliest possible date, I have undertaken in my statement to do that work personally, as we have been doing. We will do all this consistent with safety requirements. I have been very impressed with the contractors’ approach to safety. The chief contractor, Michael Martin, meets every new member of staff; when he asks them what the priority is, they all say, “Getting the bridge open,” and he says, “No—it’s safety.” That is the approach that is being taken but, consistent with that, I, along with the contractors and Transport Scotland, will be making sure that everything possible is being done to ensure that we open the bridge as soon as possible.

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

I thank the cabinet secretary for his statement and, indeed, for the advance copy that we saw.

Much about the statement suggests a project in abject distress. How on earth does the loss of 25 days to weather in April and May equate to a 180-day delay in opening the bridge? Does the cabinet secretary take us for fools? Does he expect Parliament to believe that, conveniently, the first that ministers learned of this was days after the Scottish election, and will he now publish all correspondence pertaining to a potential delay in the opening of the crossing?

Keith Brown

I am sure that the idea that the project is “in abject distress” will produce some distress in the workforce that is working on it. That workforce thinks that it is involved in a fantastic and unique project that will benefit the infrastructure of Scotland. That kind of statement from Alex Cole-Hamilton does him no credit whatsoever. It is also true to say that we would not find a project “in abject distress” with a saving of £254 million attached to it. If that is compared to the cost of the Lib Dems’ favoured trams project in Edinburgh, for example, it will be seen that that was a project in abject distress.

I have already said that we will have full transparency, and I have set out the process by which that will be carried out. Of course, we will make available any documents that are required and which we can release. There are issues of commercial confidentiality, but none of that amounts to any statement on the part of the Scottish Government to try to get people not to speak to anybody. We have information that we can make available, and I commit to ensuring that it is made available. Over and above that, any question that any member requires to ask of the contractor or Transport Scotland can be asked on Friday. I repeat the offer. I genuinely do not know whether Alex Cole-Hamilton is his party’s spokesperson on the subject, but I know that he is a local member. If he wants to come along to the bridge in that capacity or as a spokesperson, I will ensure that that happens. There is no shepherding of the officials or the contractor by ministers. They are open to answer any questions that are required.

We have ensured transparency, we will continue to do that, and I deplore Alex Cole-Hamilton’s comments in talking about “abject distress”.

Jenny Gilruth (Mid Fife and Glenrothes) (SNP)

What steps have been taken to keep the Queensferry crossing project on schedule?

Keith Brown

As I have mentioned, the contractor has taken every possible measure in a sustained effort to meet the December 2016 target. I repeat that everyone will, of course, be disappointed that we cannot meet that target, as Alex Rowley said. However, the contractor has procured additional physical resources. It has increased the staffing by taking on an additional 100 workers, increased working hours consistent with safety, and altered construction methodologies where possible, again consistent with safety. It has also challenged the critical construction sequences to identify where any programme efficiencies could be found.

I think that Alex Cole-Hamilton asked why the days that were lost in April and May are so critical. The bridge has to be completed sequentially. At the crucial points when the decks are lifted, as limited a number as two people work in a very small space, which produces constraints such that no amount of additional resources can now recover the time lost. The contractor has confirmed that, at this stage, further additional resources will not bring the delivery date forward, partly for the reasons that I have mentioned and partly because of the complex technical nature of the construction work and the sequence of operations that must now be undertaken to complete the structure. However, everything possible is being done, consistent with safety, to complete the structure as soon as possible.

Alex Johnstone (North East Scotland) (Con)

When the timescale was being reviewed, the project suffered its first and so far—thankfully—only casualty. Were days lost in the construction process during that period as a result of that incident?

Furthermore, given the anecdotal suggestions that health and safety compromises may be taking place, can the cabinet secretary guarantee once again that the pressure that he has undertaken to place on the contractor and the management of the project will not result in health and safety compromises?

Keith Brown

The tragic death to which Alex Johnstone referred was that of Mr John Cousin. I think that everybody on the bridge knew him as a very popular person who was very committed to the bridge and the project. It is probably hard to convey how devoted to the project the people who are working on it are. It is unique, and it has produced real loyalty to it. It was, of course, tragic that Mr Cousin lost his life, and that is quite rightly being investigated by the Health and Safety Executive. Yes, there was a delay. The bridge was closed for two days out of respect for Mr Cousin, and for one day, I think, on the day of his funeral.

I have made it clear to the contractor that I will not apply any pressure that jeopardises safety, and more important, the contractor has made it clear to me that it will not do anything that jeopardises safety. It had a very good safety record until that tragic accident, of course. I will not do anything that jeopardises that.

I think that that covers all the questions that Alex Johnstone asked, but he can come back to me if he has any more.

Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

Given the weather dependence of the construction of the Queensferry crossing, what other aspects of work have seen weather-related delays?

Keith Brown

Weather can have varying impacts on construction activities. The critical activities that have been delayed due to wind in particular have been the deck lifting and cabling operations. Since that part of the work commenced in September last year, the down time due to adverse weather—specifically, wind—has been 40 per cent, compared to the 25 per cent that the contractor anticipated for that activity. That in turn has had an unavoidable knock-on effect on subsequent activities, such as road surfacing and installing wind barriers. The wind barriers cannot be put on to the bridge until it is substantially complete; if they were, there would be unacceptable stress on the structure. That work will now have to take place in wet and cold conditions during autumn and winter 2016-17. Overall, the contingency that was built into the construction programme from 2011 was 20 per cent, but much of that was eroded during the weather that we had last year.

Neil Bibby (West Scotland) (Lab)

In the interests of full transparency, will the Government publish all the dates that were affected by adverse weather from the start of the project?

In terms of safety, we cannot forget that, as has just been mentioned, there was a death earlier this year of a worker helping to build the bridge. Can the cabinet secretary assure us that he has spoken to the trade unions to assure them that no undue pressure will be applied as a result of the timescale for the project?

Keith Brown

On that last point, that is properly done by the contractor. I have conveyed my views to the contractor, which is the employer, and it has done what Neil Bibby suggests. We just would not put pressure on the contractor to do things that are not consistent with safety.

I am sorry, but I have forgotten the first part of Neil Bibby’s question.

Neil Bibby

Will you publish all the dates?

Keith Brown

We already have the data for the crucial periods from April to May, which shows day by day when work was not possible because the wind at the crucial levels exceeded certain speeds—I think that it is 28mph for the cabling operations and 35mph for the deck lifting. We have that information for the crucial period, and I will check what further information is available going further back. We will of course produce all the information and pass it on to Neil Bibby and to any other member who is interested.

David Torrance (Kirkcaldy) (SNP)

Have problems with the marine foundations of the new crossing played any part in the delay?

Keith Brown

They have not. The contractor has confirmed to us that, up to May, it firmly believed that the previous programme showing the December 2016 target date for opening to traffic would still be met—with the help of the mitigating actions that I have mentioned—albeit that that was becoming increasingly challenging due to the continuing weather impact. On the point that David Torrance raises, the marine foundations have not played a part in the delay.

Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

I thank the cabinet secretary for his statement and for providing an advance copy of it. In his statement, he said that when he visited the site back in March this year he was guaranteed that it would be completed by December of this year. As that guarantee has now been broken, what confidence can we have that the project will be delivered under budget? Now that he has missed this target, what other targets will he miss?

Keith Brown

Jeremy Balfour’s question—apart from his other questions—was about the budget, and there will be no impact on that. It is worth repeating that we have projected a saving of £245 million. To be clear, when the project was first tendered, the tender range was between £1.75 billion and £2.25 billion or thereabouts, and we expect it to come in at around £1.3 billion. The saving of around £245 million, which has arisen since that earlier figure came in after the tender, is not impacted by the delay. Any further work that has to be done or resources that have to be applied will be at the expense of the contractor.

Mr Balfour asked about guarantees. I have tried to be specific and I have said that the mid-May date that we have been given by the contractor has been robustly investigated. We have made the same point that Jeremy Balfour has just made to me, which is that we do not want to announce a date that cannot be met. The contractor has told us that it can do it in that time. Of course, it has until June until the contractual completion date. In the meantime, I give a personal guarantee that we will do everything that we can to work with the contractor through Transport Scotland to ensure that the contractor meets, or indeed improves on, the date of mid-May next year, which is what the contractor has said that it can do, with the usual caveat around weather.

Claire Baker (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

The cabinet secretary has said that he aims to be fully transparent. What steps will be taken over the next six months to ensure that local partners are kept informed of progress? My understanding is that, until the statement was made today, people were not aware that a delay was about to be announced.

Keith Brown

On Claire Baker’s last point, I note that we can make an announcement only when we have the information, and I said how recently it was that the information came to us. She is right to say that communities and stakeholders want to be kept up to date, and in the project there has been an excellent track record of keeping communities on both sides of the bridges involved and up to date. I undertake to ensure that what we have announced today is passed out to those communities and that they are kept up to date during the rest of the construction project.

The Presiding Officer

The last question will be from Bruce Crawford.

Bruce Crawford (Stirling) (SNP)

I am glad that the cabinet secretary has confirmed that there will be no impact on the public purse as a result of the delay, but I am curious to know whether any finance has been released to the Forth Crossing Bridge Constructors for meeting contractual milestones in accordance with the December 2016 target.

Keith Brown

The project is, I suppose, one of those odd projects in that John Swinney had to pay for it as we went along. It has not been like a normal project where we could take other action for borrowing. We have had to pay for the project and, of course, any moneys that are due to the contractor have been paid.

In conclusion, I say to Bruce Crawford that the delay is disappointing. If we look at the recent record on large-scale public infrastructure projects, the M74 and the M80 were delivered on time and on budget, as were the Airdrie to Bathgate project and the Borders railway. We have taken great strides in ensuring that we bring such projects in on time and on budget.

The Forth crossing project will come in substantially under budget. It is with great regret that I say that we cannot meet the original timescale, but we undertake to do everything that we can to get the project in by the end of the contract date. The target date is mid-May next year, and we will try to improve on that.

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

That ends questions on the ministerial statement. I apologise to those members who wished to ask questions but were not called.