Meeting date: Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Meeting of the Parliament 17 January 2018
Agenda: Urgent Question, Portfolio Question Time, Education and Skills, Public Services, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, Robert Burns (Economic Potential)
- Urgent Question
- Portfolio Question Time
- Education and Skills
- Public Services
- Business Motion
- Parliamentary Bureau Motion
- Decision Time
- Robert Burns (Economic Potential)
M74 (Stranded Motorists)
To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that hundreds of drivers were stranded overnight on the M74.
First, I repeat, on the record, my apology to any driver who was stranded last night in hours of queueing, especially on the M74. That would have been a deeply unpleasant experience that I would not have liked to have had—nor, I imagine, would anyone else in the chamber.
It is worth pointing out that the majority of the wider trunk road network was moving, despite extremely challenging weather. Clearly, though, there were issues on the M74, as the member has highlighted. At 6 pm, seven heavy goods vehicles on the M74 southbound skidded and came to a halt, blocking all three lanes and closing the road. More than 15 gritters and two fast-track vehicles were resourced and brought to junction 9 southbound, and they undertook salt treatments and pre-treatments at that time. Lane 3 of the road was opened at around 8 pm, which enabled traffic to pass the blockage slowly, following gritters in convoys.
However, the weather persisted and snowfall continued to be challenging. We saw a number of HGVs continue to lose control and traction at 9 pm, and a further four HGVs were involved in incidents at 2 am on the M74.
Preparations were put in place and appropriate travel warnings were issued, and last night, 162 gritters were patrolling. However, localised issues persisted—often, as I have said, involving HGVs losing traction.
Looking ahead, the Met Office has now confirmed an amber warning for the south and south-west of Scotland for this evening. I have just come off the phone with Police Scotland, which has advised that it will correspondingly upgrade its travel warning from stage 3 to stage 4. In practice, that means that all travel should be avoided on those parts of the trunk road that are affected by the amber warning—namely those in the south and the south-west of Scotland—for the duration of that warning. Of course, more information on that will be released shortly.
I conclude by thanking drivers for their patience and thanking Police Scotland, the emergency services, mountain rescue, gritter drivers, council staff, Transport Scotland staff and others who worked tirelessly through the night to help us to recover the situation as best we could. Our focus is now on the challenging weather ahead and ensuring that we can keep Scotland moving.
I thank the minister for that answer. I echo his thanks to our emergency services and winter service workers, and I thank the volunteers of Moffat mountain rescue team for their heroic efforts yesterday evening as they tried to keep the M74 open and support drivers who were stranded.
In December, the minister said, in response to a parliamentary question, that the
“winter service capability has never been higher”.—[Written Answers, 15 December 2017; S5W-13464.]
Is the minister absolutely confident that everything possible was done and that all resources needed were deployed on the M74 to try to keep the motorway open and to prevent traffic accessing the stretch of the road that was blocked, which is well known for being badly affected during adverse weather? Given the amber warning that the minister has mentioned is now in place, what specific lessons have been learned to ensure that we do not have a repeat of drivers being stranded on the motorway this evening?
I thank Colin Smyth for the tone of his question and for making the point that we must learn lessons from every weather event that we have. I stress that we faced extremely challenging weather that we have not seen in Scotland for a number of years, in relation to the widespread nature of the snowfall, its persistence and its depth. As I said in my previous answer, preparations were made. As can be seen from our live gritter tracker, 162 gritters were deployed last night.
With regard to the amber warning and looking ahead, in co-ordination with our partners—primarily Police Scotland, but also local authorities and others—we will do everything in our power to ensure that we have resources in strategic locations. On top of that warning, we face yellow warnings more widely for snow and ice around the country. We will undoubtedly be tested to our limit, which is why Police Scotland has taken the decision to raise its travel advice warning from stage 3 to stage 4.
We will appeal to drivers to heed the warning to avoid all travel on the parts of the trunk road network that are affected by the amber warning. We will also ask drivers who are travelling in other parts of the country to check the traffic Scotland website, plan their journey ahead and, importantly, drive to the conditions.
The minister will know that the adverse weather also impacts the roads that are maintained by our local authorities, which are often used as alternatives to motorways when they are closed. This week, council after council from the north to the south of Scotland reported that they have already overspent their winter maintenance budgets for this year. What assessment has been made by the Scottish Government of the effect of cuts to councils on the level of their winter maintenance budgets? Does the minister accept that the cuts will impact on the extent to which our councils can keep Scotland moving and the public safe on the roads and pavements during the current adverse weather?
We have to look at that in the context of each winter that passes. Some years, local authorities might underspend their winter budget due to a milder winter; this is clearly a challenging winter and therefore they have overspent. In answer to questions that have been asked by the media this morning on that specific issue, I said that my door is open. We are proactively contacting the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to speak to the local authorities that have particularly faced the effects of a challenging winter thus far, and I will continue a dialogue with them to see how we can assist.
I reassure Colin Smyth that we have plenty of salt in stock and on order. We have more salt in stock now than we used throughout the entire winter last year, so there are resources available to be deployed and shared, whether through mutual aid or other mechanisms.
I will not get into a discussion on the financial settlement for local authorities in the 2018-19 budget as I am sure that that will come up in debate later this afternoon. However, when it comes to conversation with local authorities on the matter, we work closely with them, they know that my door is open and we will be proactively contacting COSLA.
I noted this morning that a Dumfries truck driver who was caught up in the snowdrift on the M74 called BBC Radio Scotland to praise the emergency services and the snowploughs that he saw. He said that they were working flat out to address the situation and to help motorists. Will the Scottish Government set out what discussions took place with officials and stakeholders once the Met Office issued an amber warning for snow and ice around Scotland, and what preparations were put in place to best address the weather warnings?
That is an important point. At the end of last week, we knew from the Met Office, which is embedded in a control centre in Queensferry, that we would get severely challenging weather this week. Therefore, a multi-agency response team was set up, and the Scottish Government resilience calls, which bring in all the stakeholders who are involved in tackling the extremely challenging weather, including local authorities, took place.
The member and the caller to that radio programme are right to highlight the efforts of those involved in winter resilience. The gritters are a good example: they work on Christmas day and new year’s day, if needed, and they have been working absolutely flat out. There were 162 gritters out last night working all hours; I received messages from Transport Scotland officials at 1 in the morning, 4 in the morning and 6 in the morning. They worked overnight and through the early hours of the morning.
Clearly, lessons should be learned, as none of us want to see the scenes from last night repeated elsewhere, which is why Police Scotland has taken the step to upgrade its travel advice warning.
I thank local emergency services and the mountain rescue team. Given that the local police had advised against all but essential travel, was any consideration given to putting in place an advanced closure or HGV restrictions on the M74 as the conditions deteriorated yesterday?
All options will have been considered. The difficulty with road closures when we have, for example, the amber warning that we are facing this evening, is that a number of trunk roads—the M74, M77 and M75—could be affected. The police have told me this afternoon that to close those roads entirely would require a huge amount of resource, and all we would end up doing would be diverting the traffic on to local roads, which could increase the requirement for police resource.
To answer the question directly, all options will have been considered. I go back to my response to Colin Smyth, which was that we should learn the lessons from every weather event that we have. It would be folly to say that we should not learn those lessons. We should also learn lessons from that very unpleasant experience that people had on the M74 last night.
We have to strike a balance. I am not saying that road closures will not happen; the police have said that that is always an option and they will consider that tonight. There might be localised trunk road closures, but the police are aware that, if they do that, they might well shift the pressure on to local roads. However, it remains an option.
The clear advice from Police Scotland—we will release more information on this—is that the warning has been upgraded to a stage 4 warning, which means that all travel should be avoided in those areas of the trunk road network that are affected by the amber warning for the duration of the amber warning.
Aberdeenshire Council has spent its winter maintenance budget and it has also said that it will spend its winter reserve funds. Does the minister not see that, in these conditions, it would be helpful if he could speak to the finance minister to see whether funds can be made available in the budget that we are about to debate in Parliament to assist our councils that are in need and that have spent their winter maintenance funds so that we can keep our traffic and people moving?
From speaking to my officials, I understand that we have not necessarily had a proactive approach from any local authority about their winter budgets. As I said in my earlier answers, some winters they will underspend and some they will overspend. I completely understand that local authorities might well have been stretched this winter.
It is, of course, for local authorities to decide how to use their budgets, but my door is open to a conversation. I have already instructed officials to proactively contact COSLA to have those discussions.
There are mechanisms in place for emergency situations. The member will be aware of the Bellwin scheme for flooding.
We will have that conversation with local authorities and I will keep an open mind. There is plenty of salt in stock and resources can be shared if any local authority needs more salt and does not have the financial resource to procure it.