The consultant's report is still being studied carefully, but it does not appear to provide justification for the building of a rail bridge.
Does the Minister not accept that the independent report presents a powerful and emphatic case for the building of the Dornoch rail bridge at the same time as the road bridge? When the Minister has finished studying the report, may I ask him not simply to pass the buck to British Rail but to take the initiative and have discussions with British Rail about how money for the funding of the bridge might be found?
We are looking closely at the report, but our first examination of it shows that the social cost-benefit analysis describes the net present value of the bridge as negative. The hon. Gentleman knows that according to British Rail's analysis last year the revenue at risk was about £120,000, against a very conservative estimate for the cost of building the bridge of £12·7 million. When the spending of public resources is involved, this is a matter that has to be taken into consideration.
Will my hon. Friend take into account the fact that many people in the central belt question the justification for the priority given to the Dornoch road bridge within the total programme? Will he publish in the House of Commons Library a technical evaluation of the costs and benefits of the Dornoch road bridge?
In building any bridge or any road careful evaluation is made to show the positive benefits resulting from the work. This was done for the Dornoch road bridge and that is why we agreed to go forward with it. As regards a rail link associated with it, if this matter were to be re-opened it would delay severely the beginning of the construction of the road bridge.
Has the Minister not recongised that the consultants' report called for a cost-benefit analysis to be done and said that it was not possible for Mackay Consultants to do it? Will he therefore finance an independent cost-benefit analysis as a matter of urgency, since the narrow financial appraisal to which he referred and which was conducted by British Rail did not make out the case which Mackay Consultants felt was capable of being made out? Will he please not support his own party's spokesman's view that the road bridge will be delayed? The work on the approach roads could begin while this cost-benefit analysis was going ahead.
On that latter point, I must disagree with the hon. Gentleman. Were a rail bridge associated with the road bridge to be considered, the design competition which is presently taking place would have to be put off while the design specifications for a rail bridge was drawn up. That would have the effect, as I said earlier, of delaying the start of the construction of the road bridge by a year. This is essentially a matter for British Rail, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware of the question mark which the building of a rail bridge would place over the Lairg loop.
Will the Minister reaffirm the excellent case put by the Government for the Dornoch rail link in his own submission to the European regional development fund, which takes into account the fact that the implications of this decision are far wider than the finances of ScotRail and British Rail and could well affect every aspect of life in the north of Scotland in the future? So will he stop passing the buck between his Department, the Highlands region, the Department of Transport and ScotRail and accept his responsibility to take this unique opportunity to secure the future of the north rail line?
The hon. Gentleman cannot accuse the Government of passing the buck when this is a matter which has to be initiated by British Rail in the first place. British Rail made its own analysis last year, which showed a revenue at risk which was very small in comparison with the total cost of the bridge, and on that basis it did not believe that the project should go ahead. That was British Rail's judgment then, and I have no reason to think that it has changed its mind.