Transport Links

– in the Scottish Parliament at 11:03 am on 18th January 2001.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour 11:03 am, 18th January 2001

The next item of business is a debate on motion S1M-1547, in the name of Murray Tosh, on route action plans and priority trans-European network road links, and one amendment to that motion. I invite members who wish to speak to press their request-to-speak buttons now. This is likely to be a short debate, and I advise members in advance that they may be restricted to three minutes.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

I am sorry, Mr Tosh—I have not called you to speak yet. Please give me a few seconds.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

My apologies—I now call Mr Tosh to speak to and move the motion.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative 11:11 am, 18th January 2001

That was probably the most sensible 20 seconds of today's discussions—I do not mean that seriously; they are about to improve significantly.

The issue that the Conservative party wishes to highlight in the debate is a Scottish, British and European matter of considerable importance: the future of the strategic road routes, known as Project 13, which connect Ireland—north and south—through Scotland and also through Wales and England to the entire European Community.

The trans-European network route was established in December 1994 at the Council of Ministers in Essen, together with the upgrading of the London-Glasgow west coast main line railway. The Parliament has had the occasional opportunity to raise the railway issues involved, but we have not focused in any detail on the road route—that is the purpose of today's debate.

After the Euro-route was designated in 1994, the then UK Government worked up the A75 route improvements at the Glen, to the west of Dumfries, for implementation and, as noted in the minister's amendment, that scheme has been completed.

At the same stage, two important schemes were also identified at the Stranraer end of the route, but they have not been implemented. In 1996, the route accident reduction plan was brought forward, which led, in 1997, to the development of the route action plan, which was published last year. There has been a strategic response, but our concern is what happens now. How will the RAP be carried forward and what outcomes will derive from the strategy?

The concern that we have felt and which has been expressed to us by people from Dumfries and Galloway Council and from the north channel partnership is that the proposals are not adequate and do not meet the necessary standards to deal with the identified difficulties on the A75—and much less with the anticipated traffic growth in the years ahead.

The A75 is a slow route, and the overtaking opportunities are not what they should be. Major investment is required. Some major investment has been made by the private sector in the development of the harbour facilities for the routes from Stranraer and Cairnryan to Northern Ireland. However, our concern is that, if there is no public sector investment in the road network, in an area where there is no effective rail alternative, business might be lost, the economy might be damaged, and there will not be the potential for growth in the area that there should otherwise have been.

The whole future of Stranraer as a viable economy is at stake in the years ahead. The level of investment in the Holyhead route is of gathering concern to the community around Stranraer. We must attempt to match the sheer volume of cash that has gone into the Holyhead route and the dramatic improvement in journey times along that route, otherwise we will lose the business that is currently going through Stranraer.

One of the concerns that has been expressed about the route action plan is that, while a number of valuable individual schemes were identified, there appeared to be no cumulative assessment of the overall impact of a comprehensive strategy; we do not appear to have the net present value of the whole route's upgrading.

Another remarkable feature of the plan was its being led by the anticipated financial constraints—which are clearly a real issue—instead of by the need to bring the route up to standard. The whole approach is back to front.

What we want today is a clear indication from the Minister for Transport of the Executive's strategic view on the A75 corridor. Does the Executive recognise the need for and the value to Scotland of the traffic that goes through Stranraer and Cairnryan? Is it committed to retaining that traffic and to building on it in the future? Is it really committed to having a road freight route through Scotland? Given the Executive's views on road transport, there might be a view that the traffic ought to go through Holyhead. That is not our view, and I am not saying that it is the minister's view, but we need to know what the Executive's view on that is.

To follow from that, we need to know the Executive's thoughts on funding. The plan indicates a possibility of £30 million of investment over the next 10 years. It is not clear that that is a commitment—in so far as it can be committed—and it is not clear when the investment will be made, nor whether it will be front-loaded or back-loaded. We need to find out from the minister whether there is a definite, firm intention to implement the entire firm list of projects. We then need to know what the Executive's intentions are in relation to the statement in the plan that, when the firm list has been completed, there will then be the opportunity to bring forward further projects.

We need to know the Executive's attitude to Euro-funding. Dumfries and Galloway Council is unclear about whether the opportunity for Euro-funding exists, and about the level of investment necessary to attract match funding. The council also wishes to know the Executive's attitude to the route action plan. Is the RAP set in stone, or is it capable of being revisited? The council has expressed the view that, if it had been offered £30 million and asked to do the planning, it would not have selected the priorities that the Executive has selected; it would have put different projects on both the firm list and the extended list. It feels that there has been insufficient dialogue and it wants the opportunity to press the case for weighting more proposals towards improvements at the Stranraer end, which are the pressing concern of the ferry operators and of the road hauliers.

The council would really like—it hopes to do so within a year of the route action plan study having been published last March—the opportunity to meet the Minister for Transport and her officials, to analyse thoroughly what is happening, what is proposed and the direction in which the Executive is going. I am aware that there is an outstanding request to the minister to meet representatives of the council. I hope that the minister will be able to respond to that in the very near future, because there is real concern about the matter.

I am in no way attempting to minimise the difficulty that the minister and the Executive will have. We all know that the bids for road expenditure are much higher than current resources will allow, and we would all be able to draw up an extensive list of priority projects. I acknowledge that the Executive has spent heavily on necessary roads maintenance this year and last year, but we draw attention to the fact that the road construction budget is half what it was a decade ago in real terms. We would be anxious for that road construction budget to be built up again in the years to come. Some of this may be invented, and some of it has been cruel, but we have all read in the press that the minister's budget is to be filleted in the weeks and months ahead.

I hope that we can make it clear that we are behind the minister in protecting the roads budget and in attempting to increase the resources at her disposal. I accept the logic of much of the argument that she has presented over the past year and a half, that we should seek to develop and allocate more resources away from the mega-projects and towards the route action plan developments, which can be promoted in all parts of Scotland. We must not lose sight of those route action plan priorities.

I believe—although I might not be entirely correct—that the minister is probably at the stage of being able to roll her budget forward by another year. I think that it was about this time last year that the Minister for Transport announced the £44 million programme. If she is in the position to roll that forward, I hope that she is also in the position to extend the coverage in Dumfries and Galloway and to extend the budget by a year to bring in a further couple of projects.

We are asking Parliament to approve the principle of roads expenditure in an area where there is no satisfactory alternative and where the economy manifestly depends on a good roads infrastructure. It is an area which, while not among the most deprived, is one of the poorest in Scotland in terms of wages; its recent economic performance shows that it is in relative decline. Local councillors and members of Parliament from all parties believe that improved transport infrastructure is one of the keys to reversing that decline and giving the area a vibrant future. For local, Scottish and European reasons, as we attempt to connect our economy and the Irish economy with the rest of Europe in the single market, the A75 route action plan is a strategic priority for Scotland and a matter of major concern to us all.

I hope that the minister will go as far as she can with a positive and encouraging response. I hope that she is prepared to be flexible and that she might be in a position to increase the level of activity on such an important route in the next few years.

I move,

That the Parliament recognises the strategic importance of the ports of Stranraer and Cairnryan and the A75 corridor, in linking Northern Ireland and Scotland with the rest of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland and in developing priority Trans-European Network links; applauds the efforts of Dumfries and Galloway Council and the North Channel Partnership to highlight the strategic importance of the corridor as well as its economic importance to South West Scotland; notes the concern of the Council and the Partnership that the Executive's current proposals for the A75 will neither ensure improvements to the standards required for a Trans-European Networks road link, nor deliver agreed improvements within a timescale which would allow Stranraer and Cairnryan to compete effectively with the A55-Holyhead corridor, and calls upon the Scottish Executive, in recognition of the strategic importance of the A75 corridor, to work with all relevant partners to reassess the A75 Route Action Plan proposals, with a view to promoting a more comprehensive upgrading of the route and bringing forward firm funding proposals.

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour 11:21 am, 18th January 2001

I welcome the opportunity to discuss the A75 today. I am well aware of the arguments for more investment on such a strategic route and I recognise the importance of the ferry ports at Stranraer and Cairnryan, not just to the local economy but to Scotland as a whole. Murray Tosh asked me for that commitment; it is implicit in our amendment.

I want to put on record our acknowledgement of the work done by Dumfries and Galloway Council and the north channel partnership in raising the profile of the economic importance of the route. Dumfries and Galloway Council has consistently pursued the issue; as Minister for Transport I have heard from others, including the north channel partnership, the British-Irish Council and the Northern Ireland transport minister.

Clearly, life in the chamber would be a great deal easier for me if I could respond positively to every trunk road issue raised with me by members. Unfortunately, that is not the real world. My job is to try to ensure that we have the best investment across Scotland. Understandably, Dumfries and Galloway Council wants significant improvements to the A75, to give guaranteed journey times and to speed up traffic on the route. However, for large parts of each day the route has more than enough capacity for the volume of traffic. The main delays occur when ferries arrive. Around Dumfries, there is the additional issue of congestion caused by people travelling to work. The investment strategy for the route has acknowledged those issues and brought important benefits. Crucially, the accident rates on the A75 have fallen since 1997 and are below the average for that type of route.

On occasion, critics ignore previous Governments' investment, much of it by the Tories, who were working on a broadly similar strategy for investment in the A75, as Murray Tosh will be aware. The 1997 Labour Government also invested in the A75. One of the only two projects that escaped the moratorium that we introduced on the massive road building programme—without the resources to implement it—that was left by the Tory Government, was on the A75. The Glen, a £7 million scheme, was one of the two projects built while the strategic roads review was under way—the other was Creagan bridge in Argyll.

We are implementing the route action plan quickly. The short-term measures are due to be completed this year, and the two highest priorities for the medium term are in the two-year programme that I announced last March. The funding for that work—the Cairn Top to Barlae route and the Chapelton to Bush O' Bield route—is just under £5 million and is guaranteed. The Chapelton to Bush O' Bield route will be first. I am pleased that the council is working with our consultants to deliver those two improvements by 2003.

I know that more investment for the A75 is the top priority for Dumfries and Galloway Council, but I restate a point that I made earlier: as Minister for Transport for the whole of Scotland I must consider competing demands for trunk road improvements elsewhere. Other investments are going into the south-west, for example, work on the A/M77, the M74 and A76. All three are routes of importance to Dumfries and Galloway and its economy.

The Conservative motion raises the question of future plans. An additional £68 million is available for motorway and trunk roads in the period to March 2004 but, as members are aware, there are enormous and costly pressures throughout Scotland. I do not underestimate the challenge. If I asked them, every member of the Parliament would come up with a trunk road project that they saw as the top priority in their area. We could go to all the councils and they would all come up with several top priorities. I will be more than happy for members to support the transport budget today. I caution that some of the press coverage of it is ill informed and exaggerated—that will not come as a surprise to anyone here.

The route action plan was commissioned in 1997 and was completed by external consultants who consulted a wide range of bodies before producing their final report in December 1999.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

Is not it the case that, in assessing schemes to include in the route action plan, the consultants had regard to the potential budget, so some schemes are not included because the consultants knew that there was no hope of them getting into the department's budget?

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour

All the route action plans throughout Scotland must be prepared so that we can prioritise, not just on the route concerned, but across all of Scotland. We cannot ignore the budget implications. The RAP takes account of our core criteria: economy, environment, accessibility, integration and safety. It identifies a clear strategy for improvement that the Executive has already begun to implement. As I said, we have begun work on the short-term measures identified in the plan and two schemes identified as medium-term priorities should be completed by 2003. That work will provide overtaking opportunities between Stranraer and Newton Stewart and between Newton Stewart and Dumfries.

I am well aware from discussions with members and officials from Dumfries and Galloway Council that it takes a different view of the priorities. I will announce, by the end of March, the roll forward for further minor schemes identified in the A75 RAP, as an addition to the programme that I announced in March last year. In considering that, I will take into account the council's views and look at the scope for additional work.

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour

No, I am coming to a conclusion.

I will be happy to meet the council again to discuss its economic strategy. It would seem best to do that when the new economic strategy is available—it has not yet been passed to me, but I know that it is to be issued shortly. I hope that the council will send it to me so that we can take a long, hard look at it and see whether there are issues that can be built into our programme. However, I do not want to build up expectations.

I stress the point that I made earlier—we have record levels of investment and new money in the trunk roads programme, but there are also new demands and commitments. I am keen to ensure that we consider fully the issues raised by Dumfries and Galloway Council, but I will not make commitments today that are unrealistic and cannot be implemented. There will be further work on the issues by the Executive and the prospect of further discussion with the council. Through that, we will make sure that if we have the opportunity to deliver more than we are delivering at present, we will take it.

I move amendment S1M-1547.1, to leave out from "notes the concern" to end and insert:

"welcomes the Executive's decision in the Spending Review 2000 to increase expenditure on transport by £500 million in the period to March 2004, recognises the progressive improvement of the A75 most recently through the scheme at The Glen completed in 1999 and the measures covering the next 10 years set out in the Route Action Plan, and notes that the Executive has already completed the short term measures and is now implementing the medium term priorities in that Plan."

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party 11:29 am, 18th January 2001

This is not the first time that I have risen to speak on the A75. In my maiden speech in the House of Commons, I called it

"the Euro-route from Ireland to Leningrad".—[Official Report, House of Commons, 16 May 1997; Vol 294, c 325.]

I was obviously an unreconstructed Marxist, as I had not changed to St Petersburg. I referred to the only two 30mph speed limits on the road from Stranraer to Leningrad being in the villages of Crocketford and Springholm.

I confess that I had not gone to east Europe to check the veracity of the statement, so it might have been a slight exaggeration, but all that has changed in the UK section is an increase to three speed limits, because a 40mph speed limit has been added in Dunragit. The residents of Dunragit are—rightly—delighted, because the bulk of the village is separated from the school by the A75, but I suspect that they would be even more pleased if they had got a bypass instead of some signs and traffic calming.

I congratulate the Conservatives on lodging the motion. The cause unites the rainbow coalition that runs Dumfries and Galloway Council with the Tory opposition. As the minister said, it is not easy for politicians to deal with the issue because all politicians in non-urban areas will put almost identical paragraphs about upgrading roads in their election leaflets. We could almost write such a statement today—all we would have to ask the politicians to do is fill in the number after the "A".

There are competing priorities in my constituency and the rest of Dumfries and Galloway. The minister mentioned the A77 north from Stranraer to Ayr. The A76 is, unfortunately, used by far too much traffic that comes through Dumfries instead of leaving Ayrshire in another direction to reach the motorway network. Furthermore, the A7 lies in the constituency of Dumfries.

Despite all the competing electoral pressures, the council has said that the A75 is a strategic priority. That is to its credit and shows the importance that we all place on the route. There are three reasons for that. The route is important for the future economic development of Dumfries and Galloway, for the ferry operation and the staff who are involved in that and for the economies of Northern Ireland and some parts of the Republic of Ireland. The issue goes much wider than Dumfries and Galloway.

It is obvious that good communications are essential for economic development and particularly tourism. Dumfries and Galloway used to advertise itself as the best-kept secret in Scotland. One reason for that is that people found it so difficult to get there.

Evidence about what can happen when good road infrastructure exists is easily found in the report from Cardiff Business School's Welsh economy research unit on the economic impact of the A55 improvements. A conclusion of that report says:

"There is no doubt that the impact of the A55 improvements have been both substantial and significant to the economy of North Wales. More importantly, the benefits of the improvements will continue to grow over time . . . North Wales now faces the positive challenge of becoming a fully integrated part of the UK economy" and the European economy. That challenge exists only because the necessary infrastructure is in place to connect north Wales to the rest of the UK and Europe. Would that south-west Scotland faced the same positive challenge. It will have it only if it has the necessary infrastructure.

I know that time is limited, so I will pass briefly over the importance of the ferry traffic to the port of Stranraer. I am sure that someone else can provide the relevant statistics. I have written on the subject to every member of the Northern Ireland Assembly and all the TDs for the relevant provinces in the north of the Republic of Ireland. Members of almost every party in Northern Ireland have sent me replies that support the proposals and emphasise the A75's importance for Northern Ireland, Donegal and some other counties in Ireland. The road is important not only for Dumfries and Galloway and Scotland, but for the whole UK.

The route action plan contains typical civil-service speak. It is not really a plan, because its dates are not firm. Frankly, the plan is just a wish list—and not a particularly good one at that. The early actions just tinker at the edges. This year, there is little or no action. I would welcome some stronger guarantees that we will get some action in the future. When I look at all the big initiatives that roll out to 2008—which still do not get near to satisfying what the ferry operators or the council would like—I am not very hopeful for the future.

I know that amendments such as the Government's are just items for debate, but I wish that the Executive's amendment did not seek to remove the bit in the motion that notes Dumfries and Galloway Council's concern, because we must recognise that the council has legitimate concerns. We need a firm commitment from the Executive that it will heed the economic study that the council has commissioned with its slim resources. We also need a convincing commitment to the strategic importance of the road.

Photo of John Farquhar Munro John Farquhar Munro Liberal Democrat 11:35 am, 18th January 2001

As we have heard, route action plans would be marvellous if only we had the resources to implement them. To be fair, route action plans have already been completed in several areas, but it is regrettable that many of our arterial roads remain in a seriously dangerous condition. One criticism of the route action plan strategy is that each action plan has been commissioned in isolation, so no strategic comparison has been made of the allocation of funding.

I welcome the opportunity to raise the importance of strategic road links through rural areas. They can be seen as the economic backbone of those areas, especially in places with similar geography. It is interesting to consider that the distance between Stranraer and Dumfries is greater than that between Dumfries and Edinburgh.

The A75 has been talked about for many years. It is important, given that the European Commission has identified it through its trans-European network programme. Will the proposals in the route action plan reflect that status? Why has action taken so long? After 22 years of improvements, we are still debating the road.

The answers to those questions must be found in how we plan and manage our road network. There has been a lack of strategic thinking and a culture of building on the basis of who shouts loudest. For example, the A75 was not even mentioned in the 1999 strategic roads review. Why are we considering roads in isolation, when all routes are linked and depend on one another? Hard but fair choices must be made. I ask the minister to examine the criteria that have been used to decide whether roads gain funding.

The A75 has a good case and I support the Tories' motion, but I am concerned because although what they propose will require additional spending, the Tories promote the need for massive tax cuts. That causes a dilemma. When the Tories tried that strategy before, the roads budget was cut again and again. I know that from my days on Highland Council. I note that Michael Portillo has not changed his mind about that plan. He has said that he is not prepared to match the Labour Government's transport spending pledges. He claims that the necessary money can be found from—watch it—the private sector.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

Does the member accept that he is being a bit unfair in criticising the Scottish Conservative party? The policies to which he refers are Mr Hague's. It is by no means clear whether the Scottish Conservative party supports him and his policies.

Photo of John Farquhar Munro John Farquhar Munro Liberal Democrat

That is an interesting suggestion. I caution against private finance initiatives, public-private partnerships and other deals. I do not want to sound alarmist, but Michael Forsyth managed to privatise the Skye bridge at a stroke and our Labour colleagues have privatised the skies, so anything is possible.

I will concentrate on the situation in the Highland Council area, which I represent. Under successive Governments, roads have suffered massive real-terms reductions in the capital and revenue budget allocation to roads and transport services, with the inevitable result of a rapid decline in the infrastructure of the area's roads and bridges. That has had an undoubted effect on the area's economic viability, as we heard earlier. The situation must not be allowed to continue or, collectively, we will be accused—justifiably—of presiding over another Highland clearance.

Three of the busiest fishing ports in Europe are found in the west Highlands. Mallaig, which is classified as Europe's premium herring port, is almost inaccessible because of the narrow, twisting and tortuous sections of single-track road. Similarly, ports such as Kinlochbervie, Lochinver and Scrabster are poorly served by the direct route north of Inverness.

Photo of John Farquhar Munro John Farquhar Munro Liberal Democrat

Much of the system is deteriorating and does not meet today's standards for safety and traffic volume.

We may have a romantic notion of the road to the north and "The Road to the Isles"—members all know the words of the song:

"by Tummel and Loch Rannoch and Lochaber I will go

By heather tracks wi' heaven in their wiles."

Nothing has changed—

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

The member is winding up, Mr Crawford.

Photo of John Farquhar Munro John Farquhar Munro Liberal Democrat

Heather tracks are still masquerading as passable roads.

I am pleased that, at last, the Scottish Executive is putting money back into the transport system, but more must be done if we are to reverse the legacy of underfunding. I hope that the minister will reconsider the situation and that she is monitoring whether there are adequate resources to tackle the problem.


Photo of John Farquhar Munro John Farquhar Munro Liberal Democrat

—I urge the minister to give local people and councils a greater say in the development and management of the trunk road network. At present, when it comes to policy, all roads lead to Edinburgh—

Photo of John Farquhar Munro John Farquhar Munro Liberal Democrat

The fiasco over trunk road maintenance is just one example of the problems that that causes. Clearly—

Photo of John Farquhar Munro John Farquhar Munro Liberal Democrat

We require more local involvement and scope to address regional priorities.

If we can fund—

Photo of John Farquhar Munro John Farquhar Munro Liberal Democrat

If we can fund the extension of the M74, surely we can allocate more funding for some of the smaller schemes in rural areas.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

I must ask members to observe the time much more strictly. This is a short debate and I will be able to give members a maximum of three minutes for speeches in the open part of the debate.

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative 11:42 am, 18th January 2001

I will try to be brief, Presiding Officer.

I welcome this debate, which is an opportunity to highlight the strategic importance of the A75 for Scotland, the United Kingdom and Europe. For too long, the A75 corridor and the ports of Stranraer and Cairnryan have been seen as an issue for Dumfries and Galloway. I hope that the Parliament will redress that balance today by indicating that it shares the European Union's view that the A75 is a priority project and fills a missing link and by ensuring that Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are linked properly to the heart of Europe by a modern and efficient infrastructure.

The minister knows that the A75 corridor is one of only 14 trans-Europe priority links, many of which are rail links. That makes the A75 far more than a road that links Annan to Dumfries, and Stranraer more than a community that is reliant on ferry jobs for its existence. The route and the ports at the end of it are part of a much wider overview of the flow of people and freight across the United Kingdom and Europe.

I hope that when the minister sums up, she will clarify her strategic approach to those issues and confirm that she is in favour of freight and people from Ireland coming along the A75 into the rest of the United Kingdom, as she did not do so in her opening speech. I also hope that she will confirm that she will work closely with the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Government of the Republic of Ireland and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions in London, which liaises with the EU on such issues.

The minister gave me a helpful reassurance that the Executive does not favour Troon over the ports of Stranraer and Cairnryan; she must now confirm that she wishes traffic to use the A75 and that she understands that its viability is threatened by the investment in the A55 to Holyhead. I hope that today's debate will be a watershed and that the minister will make clear the Executive's position on the A75. I also hope that the minister will accept that some people in Dumfries and Galloway perceive the Executive to be ambivalent and her civil servants not to have been overly helpful on this issue.

I welcome the minister's commitment, which I hope will be firmer than that which she gave me on 5 October, to meet representatives and officials of Dumfries and Galloway Council for a full discussion of the A75, as I know that the council would welcome such a discussion. I thought that the minister might come to Dumfries to open a cycleway bridge, although it appears that that is no longer the case. That would have provided an excellent opportunity for her to bridge the gap between her, her officials and Dumfries and Galloway Council.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party 11:46 am, 18th January 2001

I welcome this debate, which is really about the urgent need to integrate the south-west of Scotland into the European economy. Both the Scottish Executive and the Scottish Office before it demonstrated a lack of vision and understanding by failing to recognise the economic potential of the Loch Ryan corridor and the link with Ireland.

To be frank, there can be no excuse for the failure to invest sufficiently in the A75, which links the ferry ports with the UK motorway network. In 1993, the A75 was designated as part of the trans-European network, linking Northern Ireland with the ports of Felixstowe and Harwich. In 1995, it was included as part of the Ireland-UK-Benelux road link, which is one of the Essen 14 European Council priority projects.

By contrast, the route action plan proposals are severely limited: the plan is an unambitious, piecemeal development that is far from being the step change that is required to free up the flow of traffic and reduce journey times.

Over the past 20 years, the A75 has attracted Government investment of only £110 million, compared with the £730 million that has been spent on upgrading to dual carriageway status the A55 from Holyhead, with its ferry link to Dublin, in north Wales. I suspect that the average journey time between Stranraer and Gretna has barely improved in that time, while average journey times on the Bangor to Chester section of the A55 have reduced from five hours in 1965 to less than 90 minutes today. The private sector has shown far more faith in the Stranraer ferry ports and their economic potential than have successive UK Governments. In the past four years alone, Stena Link has invested £90 million in its Stranraer to Belfast route and it employs 600 people in Dumfries and Galloway.

Historically, the north channel route between Northern Ireland and Scotland had a competitive advantage over the Dublin to Holyhead route as the sea journey time is shorter, but that advantage is rapidly eroding because of the lack of investment in road links to Stranraer. In that context, it is worth mentioning that the A77, which is the main link to central Scotland from Stranraer, also requires significant upgrading, particularly the single carriageway section that lies south of Ayr. That road has become notorious for its slow journey times, high accident rate and lack of bypasses for communities such as Maybole and Girvan.

From the Irish perspective, fast transport communications with Europe are vital for the maintenance of the Republic's economic success story. Recently, the Republic announced a £4.5 billion investment programme for its national road network, with the explicit aim of reducing journey times. There has been significant upgrading of the Belfast to Dublin rail link, with passenger journeys increasing from 400,000 to 1 million in the past few years.

On both sides of the Irish border, high priority has been placed on establishing a northern transport corridor from Ireland through its ferry ports straight into Europe, avoiding the south-east of England. For the Larne to Stranraer route to continue to work, the A75 must be brought up to modern standards.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party

That is the challenge that we face and to which the Executive must rise, to secure the future of our ferry ports for crossings to Ireland and to strengthen Scotland's links with Ireland for the mutual benefit of our sister nations.

Photo of Elaine Murray Elaine Murray Labour 11:50 am, 18th January 2001

I agree with many of the sentiments in the Conservative motion and with much of the content of previous speeches, but I am not happy that this matter has been debated in this way. First, the debate is premature because the results of the economic impact survey have not yet been published. Secondly, I would have preferred not to debate this issue on a Conservative motion in Opposition time. We should have debated it on a cross-party motion, which would have reflected the genuine level of cross-party support at all levels of government and representation.

Photo of Elaine Murray Elaine Murray Labour

I am sorry, but I have no time to take interventions.

All credit must be given to Dumfries and Galloway Council and its partners in the north channel partnership for their campaign for the upgrading of the A75. I believe that that campaign has already claimed some success, as the Executive amendment demonstrates. In particular, I acknowledge the hard work of the council leader, John Forteath, who is a Labour member, and the council convener, Andrew Campbell, who is an independent member. For both of them, no effort to promote this route has been too great and no journey has been too far. At the end of last year, they travelled to Brussels to promote the A75 in Europe. The A75 is unique in Scotland in having the status of being part of the trans-European network. Accompanied by the chief executive of the council, the director for infrastructure and the director for finance, they travelled to Edinburgh on 13 December to discuss with the First Minister the A75 and the Crichton campus development. The council representatives were most encouraged by Henry McLeish's response, as he was very keen to read a copy of the economic impact survey when it was available and suggested that we should investigate whether some of the £30 million that was already in the route action plan for the A75 could be brought forward.

Some play has been made of the council's concern, but I have it on the authority of councillors and council officers that the council welcomed the fact that £30 million of work has been identified. However, it believes that the case can be made for considerable additional expenditure. The economic impact survey was commissioned to provide ammunition for that case. I put it on record that I, too, believe that the case can be made. That is why I arranged the meeting between the council and the First Minister and why I have lobbied the Minister for Transport and her colleagues in enterprise and lifelong learning and in rural development. I will continue to try my best to convince the Executive of the case, but I admit that there will be fierce competition from other route action plans, including those for the A7 and the A76 in my constituency.

I ask the minister to repeat her commitment to meet Dumfries and Galloway Council to discuss two issues once the economic impact survey is available: first, the funding and the timetable; and, secondly, the question, which Murray Tosh asked, of which projects should be prioritised, as there is disagreement between her officials and the council on that. If she will do that, I am content—for the time being—to support the Executive amendment, but I will be back.

Photo of Donald Gorrie Donald Gorrie Liberal Democrat 11:53 am, 18th January 2001

As the Liberal Democrat local government spokesman over the past four years, I have had many contacts with Dumfries and Galloway Council and the excellent Liberal Democrat councillors, such as Joan Mitchell, who are involved in leading it. I am aware of the problems that face the south-west of Scotland. As a member of the Scottish Parliament, I have become aware that for various historical and other reasons the south-west and Ayrshire have not had a fair share of attention from the British Government compared with that given to other parts of Scotland. We have to put that right.

On a visit to Scotland to study transport matters, some members of the Dáil told us that they were worried that a meeting with Scottish Executive officials had left them with the impression—which may have been picked up wrongly—that the Executive is not committed to Stranraer and is considering alternatives, to get Irish traffic to go further north. It is very important that the Executive give a strong commitment to the Stranraer ferry service, which is a vital part of European connections. I understand that at last we are going to do something about a ferry from Rosyth on the Forth to the continent, which has been discussed for 20 years or more. Attracting Irish traffic would be a major boost for the viability of such a ferry.

While the A75 is important for local employment considerations, which can be advanced for the south-west but also for other areas, it is particularly important at a strategic level. The road is vital. The minister must give a commitment to work with the local council and local members of all parties and to ensure, when cash is available, that there is a viable road connecting Stranraer with the Scottish motorway system. That would give an enormous boost to the south-west, make friends with the Irish and bring prosperity to other parts of Scotland. We need a stronger commitment from the minister than we have heard hitherto.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat 11:56 am, 18th January 2001

I welcome Murray Tosh's motion, which gives us a chance to discuss trunk roads. I agree with my colleague Donald Gorrie that the upgrading of the A75 is a vital project for the south-west, but I would like to draw parallels between the south-west and my constituency. All the points that have been made about the economic importance of the A75 to Stranraer and Northern Ireland are true of the A83 in my constituency and the link with Northern Ireland that no longer exists.

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

I take George Lyon back to what we are talking about today. The amendment says that the short-term work on the A75 has been completed. Is he happy that that is a factually incorrect statement, because the short-term work to realign the Palnure section of the road has not even started?

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

I think that the minister answered that point in her speech.

I return to drawing a parallel between my constituency and the south-west. The A83 is a vital artery into Kintyre. It is vital for the future economic development of Kintyre that a connection is made between Campbeltown and Northern Ireland.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

We have already had one Liberal Democrat talking about the road to the isles; we are now into Kintyre. Does this have anything to do with the motion or the amendment? Is George Lyon's speech in order?

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

It does not have a great deal to do with the motion. Please speak to the point, if possible, Mr Lyon.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

The minister, speaking in response to Murray Tosh, invited the rest of us to highlight some of the competing claims. Clearly, that is what I am doing.

The linkage between Northern Ireland and the Kintyre peninsula is vital for the long-term economic development of that area, as is the upgrading of the A83. There have been 11 deaths on the A83 as a result of serious road accidents. There are questions about safety. There have also been no fewer than four landslips in the past two years.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I use the roads to which Mr Lyon refers and I, too, am concerned about them. We have an hour for this debate. Mr John Farquhar Munro, who is a very close friend of mine, almost sang us "The Road to the Isles" and we now have landslips in Argyll. Could we debate the subject that is on the business list?

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

Yes. We are up the highways and byways. You have another 45 seconds, Mr Lyon; let us see whether we can reach the end of the road.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

I am marching slowly to the end of the road, if my colleagues will allow me to proceed. The point that I am trying to make forcibly is that there are indeed competing claims for the additional £500 million in Sarah Boyack's budget. There are serious issues relating to roads such as the A83 that require immediate action.

I recognise that the Executive has taken action to address some of the concerns that are raised in the motion, but other parts of the country have competing claims. There are valid cases for investing in upgrading trunk roads, such as the A83, to make them safer, more accessible and more usable, so that they can cope with the increase in traffic that will come about in my part of the world.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party 12:00 pm, 18th January 2001

I shall talk about the A75 and the motion. I am sure that the Liberals will find that surprising.

I commend the Tories for securing this debate; today we see the more enlightened face of Scottish Conservatism. I also commend the administration of Dumfries and Galloway Council for the work that it has done in encouraging all parties to be involved in this issue—the council has met and briefed all parties. As Murray Tosh said, we should also commend the commercial sector for the real interest that it is showing in an issue that is vital to it. The only party that cannot be commended today is the Labour party. I am sorry that the minister made a misguided speech about competing priorities; I am also sorry that Elaine Murray was so defensive. Today we have an opportunity to debate an important issue. It does not matter who brings it to the chamber; what is important is that we get some agreement on it.

The minister spoke about competing priorities and said that each of us could take up one of them. The Liberals took that literally, but it was a red herring. In reality, special circumstances dictate that we take some action now on the A75. There are safety reasons for that and, as my friend Mr Morgan indicated, there is the community requirement. There are reasons to do with the designation of the road as a European route of major importance. There are interests from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. There is the crucial fact that a large number of jobs depend on the route. The council's unpublished economic study indicates that the route directly affects something like 1,160 jobs in the community and 2,500 in Scotland as a whole. There is also a strong indication that a large number of other jobs in the Stranraer and Wigtown area are dependent on the route.

Stranraer is the busiest port in the United Kingdom after Dover and is clearly a major asset to the Scottish economy. The sea crossing to Northern Ireland is the shortest that exists from Scotland: indeed, it is possible to see Northern Ireland from Galloway. The route has been much used, but there is a danger that it will decay and that the link, and jobs, will disappear. Those jobs are unlikely to move elsewhere in Scotland, despite the development in Troon. They are much more likely to move south, where transport links, such as the improved A55 link, are vital.

The message from this debate is clear. This is not an opportunity for the minister simply to say that there are lots of claims and that the Executive will do things. It is not an opportunity for her to evade reality, as her amendment does. It is an opportunity to recognise that there is all-party commitment to this unique case, which requires urgent action. For the minister simply to roll schemes forward year after year, for her officials to assure the council that action is being taken and then for nothing to happen is the best guarantee of job losses in Stranraer and of the decay and disappearance of the crossing. The matter requires urgent action, not complacency or civil service evasion. That is being said not just by the SNP, not just by the Tories, not just by the Liberals—although they have not said it today—and not even just by Labour: all parties are saying it. All communities in the south-west, and many people outside the south-west, are also saying that the route is a priority for Scotland.

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour 12:03 pm, 18th January 2001

I made it extremely clear, both in my opening speech and in the amendment, that the Executive recognises the strategic nature of the A75 for the south-west of Scotland and further afield. However, given some comments today, I feel that I have to restate that.

Many negative comments have been made about route action plans. I say to members that those plans are an important way of assessing priorities and of identifying future investment. We do not need one-off schemes for our trunk roads; we need sustained investment over the years. The purpose of the route action plans is to allow the Executive to judge how to prioritise schemes in considering our future roads programmes.

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour

No. I must answer other members' questions.

Several members have mentioned the European nature of the route. We have successfully accessed European funding for the A75 in the past—for example, the Glen project received European support. We applied for TENs support for our route action plan, but did not get it. Let me emphasise to members that, although TENs money is helpful, it amounts to only 10 per cent of the cost of the scheme—we still have to come up with the other 90 per cent. We have tried to get money out of Europe, which has identified the route as strategically important. However, we have not been successful in securing that money. We will consider that again in the future. That is the current position.

Let me take up the point made by John Farquhar Munro about the strategic roads review. The review was an inherited list of schemes—it was not an analysis of priorities throughout Scotland, but merely a list of the outstanding roads programmes left by the Tories, which had not been financially prioritised. Out of that list, we took action on the A75. We considered the A75 and the Creagan bridge to be top priorities. In November 1999, we also gave the go-ahead to the A830—a matter in which John Farquhar Munro has a great interest—the A96, the A78, the A1 and the A77. Last September, I also gave the go-ahead—as part of the £500 million of new money—for additional funding for roads and bridges to be made available for local authorities to spend. That is new money for local authorities.

We need sustained investment in the A75. John Farquhar Munro said that local authorities should have greater say in trunk roads decisions. I am happy to listen to local authorities and to consider their views. However, I must make decisions relating to the whole of Scotland. I am keen to ensure that there are discussions and dialogue across borders. There is no ambivalence in our priorities. Adam Ingram suggested that there had been little investment. There has been nearly £117 million over 20 years—£7 million in the past two years, £5 million in the next two years and more to come with the route action plan. That is the sustained investment that we need.

Alasdair Morgan made a thoughtful speech and acknowledged that we have made progress over the years, although not as much progress as he would like. However, I note that no member has suggested an alternative approach to our route action plans—members simply listed other roads and other schemes. We need to prioritise.

Elaine Murray asked for commitments on two issues: that I would talk to Dumfries and Galloway Council about funding and timetabling and that I would address the issues on which we disagree. I am happy to do so in the future. She said that she was content for the time being and that that was as much as I could expect from her—I am very grateful for that.

Donald Gorrie said that the inter-parliamentary delegation had suggested that the Executive intended to downgrade Stranraer. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have already answered a parliamentary question on the matter and I have ensured that the local press is kept informed on the issue. It is fair to say that that parliamentary delegation did not have as firm a grasp of priorities in Scotland as members of the Scottish Parliament would have. One of the comments that was made to me was that we had invested too much money in the A9 over the past few years. I cannot think of many members who would agree with that comment—certainly not John Farquhar Munro. Dialogue is important, but we should not expect every delegation from outwith Scotland to know better than members of the Scottish Parliament.

I did not invite members to list every rural road. George Lyon took things a little too far. I merely made the point that all members have a wish list for their constituencies. I have to wrestle with priorities.

Mike Russell mentioned safety. There have been safety improvements on the A75 and those form part of the route action plan.

It is important that we do not talk down Stranraer and the south-west of Scotland. We may not all agree on the future priorities, but it is important to put on record the fact that there has been sustained investment and that there will be future investment. I am happy to talk to the local council about the matter. In asking me for more money, members should not make the mistake of downgrading the whole area by talking it down. There is a real debate with important issues for people living in the area. We must also acknowledge that private investment is going into the area. I welcome that. I want to ensure that jobs are secure for the future. Let us ensure that the debate helps rather than hinders that process.

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

I call Alex Fergusson to wind up for the Conservatives. If you could finish as close to 12.15 pm as possible, I would be grateful.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson Conservative 12:10 pm, 18th January 2001

I will do my best.

If one were to take a map of Scotland, draw a line from Ayr to Carlisle, and cut off the section that lies to the south and west of that line, one would have an understanding of how people and agencies who live and work in that part of Scotland feel. As has been said, there is a feeling of being cut off, remote and somewhat neglected by Government at both the UK and the Scottish level. Feeling cut off and neglected is one thing, but feeling cut off and neglected when one lives and works within touching distance of the rather grandly named trans-European road network is another thing altogether.

In April 1998, Henry McLeish, our First Minister, said:

"The A75 performs a vital role in the economy of South West Scotland and is also a key artery of the trans-European Road Network to Ireland."

Sadly, that 100-mile section of the thousands of miles that make up the trans-European network is the blockage in the arterial system. When one has a blocked artery, one requires surgery.

This has been a good debate and I welcome its tone, but it has also been a necessary debate. In answer to Elaine Murray, I cannot think of a more timely opportunity to have such a debate, given that the Minister for Transport is considering further funding. The debate is necessary because the subject is of national importance. As Mike Russell pointed out, the route serves Britain's second-busiest port. That fact alone makes it all the more unsustainable that the convoys of freight vehicles—I use the word "convoys" advisedly—face a two-hour journey to the east on the A75 or a one-hour journey to the north on the A77 before they can access a road that is truly worthy of serving the second-busiest port in the nation. Therein lie some of the difficulties facing south-west Scotland: there is a geographic disadvantage, which in turn creates an economic disadvantage.

In his members' business debate last week, Euan Robson drew attention to the labour shortage in the Borders, which is exacerbated by the proximity of that part of Scotland to Edinburgh and the central belt. The south-west does not have that advantage. The nearest city to Stranraer is Belfast, not Glasgow, which brings problems of its own. I learned only yesterday, to my horror, that Stranraer has an annual turnover of social workers of 85 per cent. It is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit doctors, nurses, teachers and others on whom any community depends. The reason is simple: the transport infrastructure is, for all the reasons that we have heard in this excellent debate, inadequate and unacceptable.

If these unique problems—the word "unique" is relevant, because there is a uniqueness about that part of Scotland and that road—are to be overcome, the transport infrastructure must be looked at considerably more robustly than is currently envisaged in the Executive's route action plan. Quite simply, that plan is not good enough, which is why the motion calls for it to be revisited, reworked and refunded.

This debate is necessary not simply for local reasons, vital though they are, which is why our motion also stresses the importance of the international links of which this route is such an integral part. As Alasdair Morgan mentioned, those links have an important part to play in the economic regeneration of Northern Ireland and in the economic miracle that is the Republic of Ireland. Surely it is right that Scotland should play its full part in the international economic expansion that surrounds us. That is why the motion applauds the efforts of Dumfries and Galloway Council and the north channel partnership to highlight the strategic importance of the route; without due recognition of that strategic importance, Scotland will not fulfil her proper role in the international marketplace.

That situation was recognised by the Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions of Europe, which recently urged the Scottish Executive to stop stalling and to complete the high-priority upgrade of the Euro-route from Gretna to Stranraer. This debate has made it crystal clear that, without a firm commitment to such an upgrade, Scotland's role in international trade will be severely diminished and those of us who live and work in that beautiful part of our country will feel increasingly cut off from the rest of it. The Executive's amendment encapsulates the complacency that this debate has shown to be completely unacceptable. I commend the motion to the chamber.