Rural Transport

– in the Scottish Parliament at 2:30 pm on 26th April 2001.

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Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament 2:30 pm, 26th April 2001

We now come to the debate on motion S1M-1868, in the name of Sarah Boyack, on rural transport, and two amendments to the motion. A lot of members wish to speak in the debate, so I am anxious to get started. I invite Sarah Boyack to speak to and to move the motion in her name. [Interruption.] We ought to begin.

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour 3:33 pm, 26th April 2001

It is important that we debate this issue in Parliament this afternoon. For too long, transport was at the bottom of the previous Government's priorities and rural transport was starved of investment. With the election of a Labour Government in May 1997, we saw new impetus, new investment and new determination to improve rural transport.

The early creation by Labour of the rural transport fund brought new investment of more than £14 million, creating 380 new rural services—mainly bus services, but including some ferry services and support for air services—and supporting 100 new rural community transport projects.

There is a new focus on lifeline services, with investment in new airport terminals at Kirkwall and Stornoway and two new vessels for Caledonian MacBrayne services to the small isles and on the Uig to Tarbert and Lochmaddy service. That investment is all part of our record support for lifeline services, with a record investment of £19 million this year.

Our Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition built on that investment in the spending review by allocating an extra £60 million to enhance transport in the Highlands and Islands. The rural transport fund—which has already backed many crucial initiatives for isolated communities—will expand by £4.5 million over the same period, to £18 million. That is a 33 per cent rise.

Those figures are important, but the real difference is on the impact on individuals and communities throughout rural Scotland. The coalition recognises the importance of vital links to remote and rural communities. That is why we are prioritising those links and providing record levels of support for Highlands and Islands Airport Ltd and Caledonian MacBrayne. The new contract for northern isles services will bring three new vessels, timetable improvements and lower fares.

The new investment in airport terminals at Kirkwall and Stornoway will improve the travelling experience for all who use those vital airports. The investment will particularly benefit passengers with accessibility problems. Accessibility needs to be improved in the new facilities.

The new instrument landing system at Kirkwall will improve the reliability of flights in and out of Orkney. Record assistance to HIAL—£16.2 million in 2001-02—keeps costs down for users of the company's 10 airports. Without subsidy, 782,500 passengers last year would have had to pay much higher fares and many would not have been able to travel.

The new rural transport fund, which was launched in 1998, aimed at tackling underinvestment in rural transport by improving scheduled services, providing massive support to rural community transport and supporting rural petrol stations that are most vulnerable to closure. The fund is targeted at those who need it most and shows our commitment to social justice, with its emphasis on funding allocations to remoter areas with the most widely dispersed populations. Local authorities with a rural population benefit. The only parts of Scotland without direct benefit are the four city authorities. That testifies to our delivery of social justice.

Rural community transport investment is targeted at those who cannot use conventional public transport or where conventional public transport is uneconomical.

The rural petrol stations grant scheme helps small petrol stations in particular to carry out capital works that they could not otherwise afford. The scheme maintains a network of vital rural petrol stations. Its emphasis has now changed to ensure that we can help to promote the supply of liquefied petroleum gas in rural areas.

More than 350 new and improved bus services are running as a direct result of Executive grants to local authorities. Those are backed up by new powers in the Transport (Scotland) Act 2001. I want to give some sense of the qualitative change that we are beginning to deliver. Recent evaluation shows that a high proportion of the users of those services had no access to a car and that one third would not have been able to travel without them. In the remoter areas, the impact is even more dramatic. Half of all journeys on those services would simply not have been made without our investment. That is clear proof that we are enabling people to move about in rural areas.

Rural community transport initiatives have supported 100 projects throughout rural Scotland. They target remote areas in particular. They also target assistance for people who are not able to use traditional public transport services or for whom scheduled services are not the most efficient way of delivering transport.

The kinds of projects that we have been able to assist have included group hire schemes in Annandale and Ellon, dial-a-bus schemes in Buchan and on Lewis, social car schemes in Badenoch and Strathspey and in Perthshire, the community ferry between Kilchoan and Tobermory, and development officers who help to empower communities to devise and deliver their own solutions to their transport needs.

For rural community transport, our evaluation shows that 75 per cent of journeys would not have been made without the schemes that we support. We are getting people out of their homes, getting them moving and getting them involved and included in the community life that most people just take for granted.

I am keen that we build on the work that has been done so far and I pay tribute to the vital role of the Community Transport Association in actively supporting local groups. I can announce today that I am awarding another £300,000 over the next three years to the CTA to expand its work in rural Scotland. The CTA has proven its worth. We want it to do more. The new money will allow it to employ a second rural worker and support even more groups.

I will give a practical example—the Wigtownshire community transport project. It shows the power of the rural community transport initiative and is a good example of joined-up government. Just over two years ago, I gave a grant to establish the project in Wigtownshire to co-ordinate the considerable resources that were already available in the area and to involve a range of agencies, such as social work services, community health services and voluntary organisations. The project also includes work on a range of initiatives to support people with disabilities, to raise awareness of transport issues for people with disabilities and to identify opportunities for new ways to deliver transport.

Part of the project was a study into the requirements for a car scheme in the Wigtownshire area. It identified the problem of people becoming increasingly isolated and socially excluded because of their inability to obtain transport. The study highlighted the need for a more demand-responsive transport service—different from the approach that we have traditionally taken. As a result of the study, the co-ordination project applied for a further grant to purchase a small multipurpose vehicle to address the more individual needs of the community. Last month, I was delighted to be able to give the go-ahead for a further grant of £26,000 for the purchase and operation of a purpose-built vehicle. The small projects are as critical as some of the big projects.

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative

I welcome the project the minister refers to, but is she aware that Stagecoach is withdrawing ordinary public bus services in the Wigtownshire area and considering the closure of the bus depots in Whithorn and Stranraer? That will have a serious effect on bus services in the area. Although the project that the minister refers to is welcome, it must be seen against a backdrop of ordinary public services being withdrawn.

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour

I am aware of the problem that David Mundell identifies. That is why I have had discussions with Russell Brown. I know that Elaine Murray is also very interested in the subject. Russell Brown, the MP for the area, has a meeting arranged with Stagecoach. The issue is Stagecoach's services in that part of the world. David Mundell, as a list MSP, will know that the problems go wider than small individual areas. We have the problem of the deregulated bus market across Scotland. Through our community transport initiatives and our rural transport investment, we are trying to build on the services.

Does Mr Crawford want to correct me on something?

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

Order. If you are making an intervention, Mr Crawford, on your feet please.

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

I just wonder what powers and responsibilities Russell Brown has, as an MP, regarding rural transport. Is that not the responsibility of Alasdair Morgan? Is what the minister is talking about not really all to do with Labour presentations before the general election?

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour

Absolutely not. I regularly receive representations from MPs and MSPs. Regardless of their party, I listen to what people tell me about what is happening in rural areas. It is important that such information is fed through, because it is the Scottish Parliament that has the powers to improve rural services and put new investment into them. I thought that Mr Crawford was going to correct me because I had got somebody's name wrong.

The other key area in which we are investing new resources through our grant scheme is rural petrol stations. So far, 19 petrol stations have been assisted with the installation of new tanks or pumps. That has helped to provide four new LPG outlets in the Highlands and Islands. There have been particular benefits in Ardnamurchan and Coll. In Ardnamurchan, two petrol stations closed before the introduction of the scheme, leaving only three to serve the area. All three were very vulnerable and needed major investment to bring them up to European environmental standards.

Where there was not a prospect of a return on that investment for the operator, the rural petrol stations grant scheme has provided the catalyst for partnership with the local enterprise company and the local authority, and for European funding, to allow the operator to replace tanks—one of which was 60 years old—and pumps. That has kept the petrol stations open as a vital resource for locals and tourists alike. Everyone in those communities is very keen on such projects. They regard their rural petrol stations as giving vital local access.

On Coll, the community owns the petrol. We supported it in renewing tanks and pumps. The next nearest petrol station to islanders on Coll is four hours away by boat, in Oban. Our grant scheme has made a real difference in keeping that community viable.

Rural Scotland has benefited not only from the specific support that we have provided through our rural grants: rural areas have also gained from national programmes such as the public transport fund, investment in trunk roads and freight facilities grants to railways. Public transport fund investment has supported projects across Scotland. Benefiting rural Scotland are the Eriskay causeway project, the Sound of Barra integrated transport project in the Western Isles and a new vessel for the Corran ferry in the Highland Council area. Eriskay is one of the most peripheral areas of the UK and the causeway will reduce the isolation of islanders, increase access to employment opportunities, health care and leisure facilities, and reduce travel time and costs.

The causeway to South Uist is expected to be complete in the autumn and improvements to ferry services across the Sound of Barra will be completed next year.

The new Corran ferry will increase capacity for all traffic, particularly coaches and commercial traffic. It will provide improved links with Ardnamurchan, Morvern and Mull and will reduce traffic on fragile local roads. That new vessel is just coming into service.

We have also invested in our trunk roads network. In March, I announced a £680 million investment package over the next three years. It sets out a programme of smart, targeted improvements across Scotland that will make a real difference to local people. Of the 63 schemes that have been announced, a significant number will help to improve strategic road links in rural areas. There are 12 schemes in south-west Scotland, on the A75, A76 and A77. There are major improvements to the A1 and A68 in and around the Scottish Borders. There are seven schemes in the north-east and junction improvements on the A9 at North Kessock and Bankfoot. Further targeted schemes in rural areas include the upgrading of the A830 between Arisaig and Kinsadel, and the replacement of the main deck of the A87 on the Shiel bridge. The total cost of those schemes amounts to more than £92 million in the next three years alone.

I am looking at bringing forward further schemes later in the year. In particular, we are considering the completion of the A830 route to Mallaig. Tenders have been received for that £11 million project and we are considering what more could be done. We are currently examining options prepared by consultants for a series of improvement works to the A9 north of Helmsdale and will look hard at progressing our top priorities.

Our freight facilities grant is opening up opportunities across rural Scotland. It is particularly worth highlighting the new rail freight opportunities from the central belt to Inverness, Wick and beyond.

We have delivered an awful lot, but there is much more still to do. We cannot turn around the previous lack of priority and underinvestment in one go. However, the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition is making a real difference to people's lives in rural areas and to rural communities.

I find the suggestion in the SNP amendment that we are complacent outrageous. If my Executive colleagues would give me more money, I would spend it. Government is about tough choices—not just in my portfolio, but across the Executive. I could spend more money in every area of rural transport. Over the next three years, our programme will allow us to do just that. I call on the SNP to acknowledge that we have made progress and that, at least, we have made rural transport a high priority and are keen to do more.

In respect of the Conservative amendment, I am very keen to take forward route action plans across our rural areas. We have yet to present our conclusions on the Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Committee report, but we will do so in due course. It is a constructive and helpful report. In suggesting that I am not keen to accept the Conservative amendment, I would point out that that is not because we do not want to see action on both those issues in the future, but that we need to consider them properly.

We have done a lot, but there is a lot more to do. Our increased funding will deliver more over the next three years. We have a lot of which to be proud.

I move,

That the Parliament welcomes the Executive's commitment to improving transport in rural Scotland, notes the progress that has been made by investing in lifeline air and ferry services, rail and bus services, community transport, petrol stations and roads that serve remote and rural communities, and recognises the vital role that these record levels of investment play in improving people's lives in rural Scotland.

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

I call Bruce Crawford. I will be quite relaxed about time, Mr Crawford.

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party 3:48 pm, 26th April 2001

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

We welcome the opportunity to debate rural transport in Scotland. That said, I was very disappointed to read the Executive's motion. The Executive says that it is committed, making progress and investing at record levels, but the motion does not give even a hint of a recognition that huge problems still exist with rural transport in Scotland. We heard only a tiny bit from the minister, at the very end of her speech, about some of the problems. If she wants more money in her budget, she could find it from the Barnett squeeze. The levels of expenditure in Scotland on transport over the next three years are due to grow by only 16.1 per cent compared with 23.1 per cent in England—that is a gap of £180 million. She should go see the chancellor.

As far as complacency is concerned, either the Executive does not have a clue about the challenges faced by rural communities or it is beginning to believe its own spin. In the past couple of weeks, I have travelled throughout Scotland to gain first-hand experience of the type of problems that local people face. Let us begin in the north-east, with the town of Elgin, which is a good example of a rural town that could benefit hugely from greater integration and targeted investment.

Elgin sits on the main rail line between Inverness and Aberdeen—a rail line between two of Scotland's cities that serves many rural communities along its route. For a minor level of investment in the Orton loop, improvements at two platforms and some expenditure on modernising signalling, an hourly service could be achieved between Aberdeen and Inverness, taking 25 minutes off the journey, which could transform the service. That would have the benefit of taking the pressure off the A96, which the locals are screaming requires upgrading.

The A96 is bad enough, but the journey south on the A95 to link with the A9 at Aviemore is horrendous. The A95 is in no shape to handle the large number of trucks that travel up it each day. For example, the three major supermarkets in Elgin alone generate 30 trips per day on the route. Elgin also boasts many other national chains and superstores. All their trucks are trundling up and down the A95. Added to that mix is the volume of traffic generated by the whisky industry, which transports billions of pounds-worth of product on the route.

One notable malt distillery has more than £2.5 billion-worth of product on its site alone. Incredibly, on the outskirts of Elgin town centre there is a redundant rail goods yard that is still in the ownership of Railtrack. Here is a prime example of where we could get goods moving on to rail from an A-class road. Here is an example of where a modal shift could be achieved for real and commitment to rural Scotland demonstrated.

Photo of Lewis Macdonald Lewis Macdonald Labour

I take the point that Mr Crawford is making. Does he accept that the A95 and A96 were included in the list of investments that were announced only a few weeks ago and that the Orton loop, which he describes as an important rail improvement, is one of the projects that is under consideration in the incremental output statement?

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

It is time to stop considering, and time to do, because communities are looking forward to growth and movement.

When the Executive delivers the sort of step change that Elgin requires, it will deserve to be congratulated and I will be there to congratulate it. The problem in Elgin is the sort of problem that is being faced by rural towns throughout Scotland. From Wick to Stranraer, from Jedburgh to Portree, rural towns throughout Scotland are full of ambition and opportunity but are being held back from achieving their potential by decades of underinvestment in their transport infrastructure.

Scotland is richer now than at any time in her history, but many parts of rural Scotland are underachieving because successive Governments have failed to invest at the required level, or have erected barriers to progress. Surely no community in Scotland has seen so many barriers to achieving its potential erected as that on the Isle of Skye. Not only did it lose its airport in 1987, incredibly it was saddled with prohibitive costs to cross a private bridge. Furthermore, it costs £22, even off peak, for two people and a car to travel by CalMac ferry to Mallaig—only to be met with only three trains per day into Glasgow, and one bus. The Executive parties promised to remove the tolls, but failed, and have left Skye with damaging additional costs. When the SNP says it will remove the tolls, it will. We will not let those people down.

And so on to the south-west and the scandalous lack of expenditure on the Euroroute, the A75—a Euroroute on which one can travel from Scotland to Italy and go through only three villages, all of which are in Scotland. Stranraer is the second-busiest port in the UK. Not only is it important to the south-west of Scotland, it is central to Scotland's economic wellbeing, yet it is starved of resources while the A5/A55 route from Holyhead gets countless millions. When will the Executive put up the £75 million to bring the A75 up to an appropriate standard? Surely the foot-and-mouth crisis affecting Dumfries and Galloway is enough to make the Executive cough up the required amount. It is time to match the ambition of the people of Dumfries and Galloway. It is time to match the ambition of the ferry companies. Indeed, it is time to match the ambition of the Irish, who are investing heavily in their side of the route. When will the Executive get the job done?

In "Rural Scotland: A New Approach", the Executive says that it

"recognises the concerns of many about inadequate or non-existent public transport; unreliable and expensive lifeline links; and high motoring fuel prices."

The Executive will be judged not on its concerns but on the solutions it finds to help rural communities build on their economic and social structures. A year ago, in "Rural Scotland: A New Approach", there was enough humility to recognise that problems exist. Nothing much has changed for the people of Scotland in that year, but the Executive's motion would have us believe that all is well. The people of rural Scotland want the Executive to recognise the reality of the situation rather than self-congratulatory pap. I have news for the Executive—neither we nor the people of rural Scotland are fooled. The Executive is living in a fantasy land of complacency, whereas we are prepared to face the hard realities.

I move amendment S1M-1868.1, to leave out from "welcomes" to end and insert:

"recognises the crucial role an integrated and modern transport infrastructure can play in improving economic performance and quality of life in rural areas; expresses deep concern that increases in expenditure on Scotland's transport infrastructure will rise at only half the level planned for England; calls upon the Executive to improve the strategic overview and infrastructure/funding delivery mechanisms, and regrets the complacency demonstrated by the Executive in failing to deliver the solutions needed to meet the very real problems being faced in rural Scotland as a result of inadequate transport provision."

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative 3:56 pm, 26th April 2001

I will be grateful if the clock for timing speeches is returned to zero when I reach the fifth minute of my speech.

I say to Bruce Crawford that we knew that the SNP was in considerable difficulty in Inverness, Perth and Galloway. From his early comments about Elgin, it is most gratifying to realise that we are doing rather better in that constituency than we had realised.

It is informative that Bruce Crawford considers people in terms of fantasies. That is the only conceivable explanation for his suggesting that it is harder and dearer to reach Skye today than ever in its history. People can cross the bridge in seconds, for quite a little bit less than the ferry used to cost. Whether or not people like the Skye bridge, Bruce Crawford's point was absurd—and was perhaps his best.

As members know, I like to be positive when I can be. In framing an amendment to the motion, I saw no reason to belittle Sarah Boyack's efforts to try to improve rural transport. I felt a little less charitable when I realised that she had invented the subsidy to CalMac and HIAL and the concept of spending on transport in rural areas, but I realise that she too must have her initial rhetorical flourish. I acknowledge the good that can be done by freight facilities, grant, the public transport fund and many of the initiatives in the Transport (Scotland) Act 2001. I counsel some caution against supposing that, because of that, all problems are transformed.

Mr Mundell talked about bus services in Galloway. I was most gratified by the mature way in which Sarah Boyack announced that she was discussing the bus problems in Galloway with the member of Parliament for Dumfries. I take it that that means that at last Labour will no longer criticise MSPs dealing in issues for Westminster members—as the obverse is acceptable—or list members dealing with matters in constituency members' areas. If we hear that again, we will tell the minister about Russell Brown and Galloway.

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour

May I make a brief intervention to put information on the record?

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

Yes. We like what is on the record.

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour

Mr Brown was passing on representations from his constituents. I responded to Mr Mundell's points about transport problems in south-west Scotland. I understood that he was making points as a regional list member. I hope that that is a helpful clarification.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

I am most grateful for that. I take it that whenever we make representations about points that our constituents have raised, there will be no more precious territoriality in the responses that we receive from ministers or from some Labour back benchers. We have established an important milestone today. We have achieved a level playing field. It is a tribute to the fairness and generosity of Sarah Boyack that she is the one minister who has given that clear signal.

We will oppose Sarah Boyack's motion not because of what it contains, but because of what it omits. David Mundell referred to the difficulties in Galloway. In one of the local newspapers for the Borders, I read about the withdrawal of a series of post bus services, because people are not using them. I say that out of sorrow for those who will lose the services and to make the point that one of the principal reasons why rural bus and train services do not always work is that people prefer to use cars. Cars remain an essential ingredient of any answer to our rural transport strategy. That fact is not included with any conviction in the Executive motion today.

I rather thought that the Executive might accept my amendment. My positive intention in lodging it was to redress the balance between car use and public transport. The fact is that, when the road construction budget is at record levels, that is not the case for road construction. Construction expenditure on roads is very significantly less than it was in the middle and early 1990s.

In an answer that the minister gave me this week on trunk roads expenditure it is clear that, in the middle years of this decade, the major road commitments that she has made—supported by all parties around the chamber—are likely to squeeze out expenditure on rural road priorities, unless there is a very significant further increase in her budget. At this point, I have to say that my support for the minister sometimes knows no bounds. I want to see her with more resources in her budget and I am delighted to hear that she is campaigning for just that.

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

Does Murray Tosh accept that when his colleague Lord James Douglas-Hamilton and the Conservative Government were spending large amounts of money on road construction in the early and mid-1990s, a large proportion was spent not on rural roads, but on ring roads around the Edinburgh area?

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

Sometimes Lord James Douglas-Hamilton begins to qualify as the wisest fool in Christendom. He would have been looking after his own constituency and regional interests. However, when he was minister with responsibility for roads, he spent money right across Scotland.

If I can return to the Borders, I can think of little that has been done in the Borders area that compares to the expenditure of the last government in taking traffic out of places such as Kelso, Melrose and Newton St Boswells. The central Borders area was given an internal roads network that was second to none. Similar progress was made in Ayrshire. The problems are the links outside—in the middle of the Borders there is not really a severe difficulty. The same is true in many other parts of Scotland. The Conservative Government left a programme of work and there is work still to be done. The minister says that she wishes work to be done, but she will not get it done without a commitment to an increased budget.

The minister is fond of talking about tools in the toolbox, but the one tool that she does not have in her ministerial toolbox is a mechanism to allow local authorities to deal with their local road priorities. Once their priorities reach about £1 million or £2 million, they go beyond the limits of what is practical within their capital consents. If she is able to redress the council roads programme and the rural trunk roads programme, and if she can do something to fulfil the broad commitment on rural fuel prices that she gave in her speech, she will deserve greater support today at 5 o'clock than she will receive. Although I will vote against her, I wish her well in realising those long-term objectives.

I move amendment 1868.1, to insert at end:

"also recognises the significance of car transport in rural areas, and urges the Executive to pursue the options outlined in the Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Committee's 4th Report 2001, Report on the Inquiry into Fuel Prices in Remoter Rural Areas, to acknowledge the reduction in expenditure on trunk roads construction since the mid-1990s and to ensure that greater resources are made available in coming years for spending on route action plan schemes in rural areas and local authority roads."

Photo of John Farquhar Munro John Farquhar Munro Liberal Democrat 4:03 pm, 26th April 2001

I am delighted to take part in today's debate and to support the Executive's position. The Scottish Executive has developed and promoted a wide range of policies to address the problems and issues that are associated with rural transport. That has been evident over the past two years. Many of the initiatives have to be welcomed as there is ample evidence to confirm that the funding schemes make a real and significant contribution to many of the transport problems in our rural communities.

It is accepted that dispersed populations and low densities make the effective provision of viable public transport services more problematic. For instance, distances to services are longer and less direct, which, in turn, increases travel times and costs. That creates barriers to employment and employment training and imposes a degree of social exclusion that is quite unacceptable as we progress from the beginning of the 21st century.

In many circumstances, the public transport facilities that are available do not operate to a timetable that is convenient and appropriate to the needs of the travelling public. In many instances, the public transport services seem to disregard the need to establish and adhere to an integrated and co-ordinated transport timetable, which would be an advantage to all concerned.

The Rural Development Committee, which recently inquired into the impact of changing employment patterns in rural Scotland, found that, of all the issues mentioned at its public meetings and in the consultation responses, transport was the most common. The committee concluded that

"the need for access to transport, and the inadequacy of public transport/the absolute necessity of holding a driving licence" were some of the biggest barriers to employment in rural areas. The committee recommended that the Executive should tackle the issue as a matter of urgency. I repeat its plea.

The rural transport fund, which was established in 1988 to assist local authorities to support rural transport services and related facilities, has been well received. It is a special fund that can be utilised to support air, rail, bus or ferry services. I am pleased to say that, in the first year, that additional funding allowed Highland Council to approve 40 new transport contracts and 10 enhanced services. Similar schemes were undertaken in Grampian, Argyll and its offshore islands, and the northern isles of Orkney and Shetland. The budget for the rural transport fund is £5.5 million in this financial year.

Rural councils can also benefit from another closely related funding source, the public transport fund, which is accessed on a competitive basis. This year, it will have some £40 million to support transport infrastructure. I mention a few of the developments that have been supported to date, to show members that it is spread around the country: the Ellon park-and-ride, which received £600,000; Alloa transport interchange, which received £300,000; Corran ferry replacement, which received £265,000; the Perth bus and cycle priority route, which received £423,000; and—surprise, surprise—the Eriskay causeway, which came out top of the league with £4.1 million. A lot of good work has been done.

Smaller community transport projects secure funding through the rural transport grant scheme, which assists voluntary groups and organisations to meet the transport needs of the elderly and disabled, youth groups and others with a justifiable social need. However, one of the major support packages is accessed through the freight facilities grant, which we have heard about today. We hope that the grant, which is intended to encourage the transfer of freight from road to rail, will help to reduce the high volume of commercial vehicles on our congested road network. If there is one criticism, it is that applicants to that source of funding are concerned at the delay in approving applications. I understand that that currently extends to something like six months. I ask the Executive to review the process with some urgency.

As I said at the outset, I fully support the Executive in its attempts to improve all aspects of rural transport and welcome the finance that has been put in place. As those initiatives begin to improve road transport in rural Scotland it will demonstrate to everybody that we should not lose sight of the concept of an integrated transport system, not only for the Highlands and Islands but for our whole transport system.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour 4:09 pm, 26th April 2001

I welcome Sarah Boyack's statement, especially the announcement that there will be increased resources to enable the Community Transport Association to have a further development worker to ensure that rural community transport projects are supported. I will return to that issue later.

It is important to remember that all the work that the Executive has done on rural transport has been in the wider context of ensuring that social inclusion is at the heart of the agenda in rural development. As the constituency member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley, which takes in a significant rural area, I came to the Parliament with high expectations that things would be delivered that would improve the quality of life for people in my constituency. Two years into the Parliament, I can certainly say that, contrary to Bruce Crawford's claim that nothing has been delivered and that a Parliament or a minister will be judged on what has been delivered, the constituents in my area know that the Executive has delivered and will continue to deliver in future.

Money from the public transport fund has gone into supporting some of the rural bus services. There have been improvements to facilities such as bus stations and to the village gateways and traffic-calming measures in some of the villages on the A77. We have seen a significant input into trying to take some of the heavy coal and timber freight, which has been a problem for some time, off the roads and put it on to rail.

One of the most significant developments has been the amount of money that has been put into a rural community transport scheme in the East Ayrshire coalfield social inclusion partnership area. That scheme will break new ground in bringing together the people in the local community who are going to run and manage the scheme. There is funding from the Scottish Executive and support from Scottish Enterprise Ayrshire. There is also support from the health authorities and from the local authority through the SIP scheme.

Those people are producing a community transport scheme that intends to run two buses and a number of people-carriers, which will be specially adapted for people with disabilities. It will provide services in those rural areas that have so far not had access to a fully integrated public transport network. The scheme will also meet the specific needs of people in the area, including some of the young folk in the Doon Valley who want to avail themselves of facilities such as youth projects in the Cumnock area. Until now, people who suffer from disabilities have had opportunities through dial-a-bus and other schemes. They will now find it much easier to get access to resources that will allow them to carry out their business.

It is also important to note that there is still work to be done. The minister would be surprised if I did not make some reference to further improvements that I would like in the constituency in due course. I particularly hope that she will give some consideration to further work on the A77. I can see Murray Tosh mouthing the name Maybole—that is certainly one place that I was going to mention. I would also like the minister to consider some of the problems that are being experienced because of the increased traffic on the A70, which is not a trunk road at the moment, although I think that a strong case could be made for it to become one. I am sure that the minister will give some consideration to those points.

I do not want to seem ungrateful for what has been received. There is no doubt that the minister has delivered a huge amount in terms of rural transport, not just in my constituency but, as we have heard from John Farquhar Munro and will no doubt hear from others, right across Scotland. That is the important thing. We must have a strategy that looks at all the communities in Scotland. Yes, I want to represent my constituents and ensure that they get the best out of the situation, but I recognise that there are other areas that require that input. I am prepared to continue to work with the minister and the Executive to ensure that that is delivered.

Photo of Irene McGugan Irene McGugan Scottish National Party 4:13 pm, 26th April 2001

I want to highlight some difficulties experienced by residents in rural Aberdeenshire. On 29 February this year, Stagecoach Bluebird made a number of service changes. Translated, that means that, with minimal notice, it withdrew buses from dozens of routes. It was readily conceded by the company that that move was driven predominantly by financial necessity. In the company's own words, it was

"unable to absorb solely through the pricing mechanism, significant increases to key areas of cost, e.g. fuel".

I do not want to rehearse the arguments put forward in the chamber this morning, but the implications of high fuel prices in rural areas have to be acknowledged and addressed by the Executive.

Just three days before the revised timetable was imposed, Aberdeenshire Council stepped in to reinstate 25 per cent of the withdrawn services, initially for three months. That represents about 350 journeys out of almost 1,400 threatened routes. I requested a meeting with the minister, in my capacity as a regional list MSP for the North-East of Scotland, to discuss those sudden and drastic cuts in bus services in Aberdeenshire. In her response, several weeks later, she said that she did not think that a meeting would be productive, but advised that the rural transport fund had provided £14.6 million in new investment over three years, and that £10.7 million had been paid to local authorities for new services. That is very welcome, but it is not an awful lot when divided among 32 local authorities over three years, because the costs are substantial.

Aberdeenshire Council is very clear that sustaining commercial bus services, which were scheduled for withdrawal, has placed an additional financial burden of nearly £300,000 per annum; that is £5,000 a week. The council's available budget for supporting socially necessary bus services is already stretched as a result of previous cuts in the commercial bus network. It is not possible to accommodate the sheer volume of the further cuts within the finite budget that is available to the council for supporting local bus services. Those are their words, not mine.

The council's infrastructure services committee agreed that a comprehensive review of all supported bus services should be undertaken, with a view to containing expenditure within available budgets during the coming year. The council has advised me that the costs involved make it inevitable that some rationalisation of supported bus services will be required to keep costs within budgets. We are all too well aware that rationalisation is invariably a euphemism for cuts.

Through its local transport strategy the council is also seeking to increase the role and usage of public transport; it aims to increase public transport's share of the total travel market by 10 per cent within 10 years, which is in line with the Government's target. It is very difficult to persuade people to switch to public transport if there is no public transport to use and when from 1987 to 1999 the cost of bus and coach fares rose by 47 per cent in real terms, as the 2000 "Scottish Transport Statistics" confirm.

Residents of many households without access to a car, such as the disabled, elderly and young people, depend on public transport to improve their accessibility to essential services and facilities, such as jobs, shops, further education and medical services. The end result is that bus passengers in rural Aberdeenshire face an uncertain and probably bleak future, and the hardship of living in a rural area with inadequate or non-existent bus services. The Executive's policies need to address and resolve problems such as those.

Photo of Maureen Macmillan Maureen Macmillan Labour 4:17 pm, 26th April 2001

I am grateful to the Executive for instigating this debate, as it has given members an opportunity to reflect on what is being done to improve rural transport services. I say that unashamedly, because I believe that the Executive has a good-news story to tell on this issue. Of course, there will be many examples of improvement still being needed, given that local transport was almost wiped out during the Tory years, but improvement is certainly being made in public transport provision in rural areas, thanks to increased investment by the Scottish Executive.

The figures are not insignificant. The rural transport fund will expand to £18 million, of which £14 million is for local authorities to promote rural public transport services, and there has also been a substantial increase in funding for the rural community transport scheme.

I welcome especially the minister's announcement today of £300,000 for the CTA to improve local initiatives. The Executive is empowering remote rural communities to make transport decisions for themselves. For example, the Sutherland Partnership runs a dial-a-bus scheme in Strathspey, from Aviemore and Grantown to Elgin. A network of community cars brings people to services that they would otherwise be unable to access. On 26 March, the Minister for Transport and Planning announced that 31 rural community transport projects would benefit from additional funding, including a total of 18 in the Highlands and Islands area.

Local transport is important in rural areas; so is long-distance transport, whether for passengers or freight. Great challenges lie ahead in maximising the benefits to rural communities of rail, ferry and air services, which I know the Executive is already addressing.

One issue has arisen in the past week that I want to mention today. The Invergordon to Kirkwall freight ferry, the Contender, has been withdrawn as a result of the decision by Streamline Shipping to concentrate on its Orkney to Aberdeen service. The crew of 18, mostly from Orkney, received redundancy notices on Monday and found out yesterday, through the media, that the service will cease today. The loss of the service would have an impact, especially on the economy of Easter Ross, and I am anxious that the Executive give the issue urgent attention. The Deputy First Minister has met the operating company, but Streamline Shipping has now withdrawn from the talks.

I would be grateful if the Executive could continue to explore any options that would sustain the service for the future. The crew have given a first-class service to livestock farmers in Orkney, especially during the foot-and-mouth crisis, and they have asked questions about recent events. For example, they wish to know why SERAD gave a livestock licence to P&O at this point in the crisis when the Contender, with its dedicated livestock hold, was being supported by the department for that task. Furthermore, they believe that P&O, which receives a subsidy for passenger traffic, is carrying out a predatory freight pricing policy that has led to unfair competition. Finally, the crew have raised concerns with me about safety aspects of the Baltic Champ, which Streamline will use to run Orkney cargo to Aberdeen, not to Invergordon.

Many believe that the Invergordon service would be viable if it were properly promoted and marketed by a company that was committed to it, and I urge the Executive to help us find such a company.

Photo of Duncan Hamilton Duncan Hamilton Scottish National Party 4:21 pm, 26th April 2001

It will come as no surprise to any member—or to the Minister for Transport and Planning—that I wish to concentrate on Caledonian MacBrayne, about which I have pestered the minister so much that she must think she has a stalker.

I want to emphasise three points, the second of which is so serious that I hope the minister will return to it in his summing-up. First, the CalMac routes have been put out to tender, which has caused much debate inside and outside the chamber. Although we should praise the fact that the routes will now be tendered as one whole network, we should bear in mind that a number of aspects of the CalMac operation are not of a sufficiently high standard. In particular, I refer to public accountability and the way that CalMac engages—or does not engage—with local communities on issues such as timetabling or service provision.

I am particularly concerned about two aspects of the tender process, the first of which is the issue of the operator of last resort. I have been advised in this regard by Professor Neil Kay of Strathclyde University and Captain Sandy Ferguson, who was CalMac's last marine superintendent. The point of concern that they have raised—and to which I can find no answer—is that the nature of a tender process means that CalMac might lose; no matter whether the routes are tendered as one network or as several networks, the prospect remains that a private operator might take over the running of those routes from CalMac. If that happens and if a service is subsequently stopped, or if the private contractor is found to be in breach of contract—if a service is interrupted for any reason—there must be an operator of last resort. Until now, the Executive has told us—and the minister has made it clear—that that operator would be VesCo, the vessel holding company that will be set up.

We must be crystal clear about why any such operator of last resort should be properly run. Most important, if there is a breakdown, communities—particularly the island communities—need to know that they will not simply be cut adrift and that there will be a safety net to allow them to continue their daily lives. An operator of last resort is necessary for the simple reason that any private contractor running those routes would be more able to abuse its contractual position. Furthermore, any third party that was considering coming in could demand a lot more if it knew that there was no such operator. The importance of an operator of last resort in the public sector is accepted right across the industry.

Professor Kay and Captain Ferguson have been advised that VesCo would not have the capacity to step in and, indeed, would not receive the Maritime and Coastguard Agency certification that will be required if it is to become an operator of last resort. If that is true, it is massively worrying; unlike the situation with the Strategic Rail Authority, the water industry and the gas industry, the fact that there is no operator of last resort on these routes could hurt communities badly. I ask the minister to be clear in his summing-up about VesCo's precise position, whether it would be an operator of last resort and—crucially—whether it would receive MCA certification.

There has been some cross-party unity about fares. John Farquhar Munro, who spoke earlier, has been campaigning for opening up the ferry fare review to include the prospect of a pilot project on road-equivalent tariffs, but the Executive has ruled that out. The constraints of the recent sea fares review made it clear that revenue neutrality had to be preserved and the minister said that RETs could not be considered. I ask the minister to reconsider that decision, as Highland Council, Western Isles Council, Argyll and Bute Council, the Scottish National Party and members of the Liberal Democrats—people in the Executive's coalition—are asking for the pilot project. Such a project would not need to be an absolute commitment to introducing RETs on every route; it would be a commitment to consider where RETs could be beneficial. If they were found to be beneficial, and if they gave Scottish islanders a degree of equality that they do not have at present in the context of a debate on rural transport, that would be a significant step forward.

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative 4:26 pm, 26th April 2001

I am pleased to learn that my local MP takes such an interest in me as a bus passenger, although I have not seen him on the bus often—perhaps because I sit up at the back, in the seats that are reserved for list members.

Unlike my colleague, Murray Tosh, I do not want to detract from what has been achieved. I acknowledge that things have been achieved. However, the point that I raised earlier about Dumfries and Galloway reflects the reality. In such an area—especially in the Machars and Wigtownshire, one of the remotest parts of Scotland—public bus services are being withdrawn. Bus services between Dumfries and Galloway and the major cities in the central belt are being withdrawn. There are difficulties that need to be acknowledged and addressed.

Another significant issue that affects the roads network in rural areas—Dumfries and Galloway is just one such area—is the level of maintenance that has been afforded to minor roads. I have raised that issue with the minister and I know that it is a matter for the local authorities. However, we should reflect on the arrangement in England and Wales whereby, in effect, there is an inspectorate to monitor minor roads and to acknowledge that, in certain instances, those roads have reached a state beyond which they are no longer acceptable and that work must be carried out. Many roads in Dumfries and Galloway have reached that stage—especially, as the minister knows, because of the forestry there.

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

Does Mr Mundell agree that, in view of the fact that there is a backlog of £1,500 million-worth of road repairs to be done in Scotland, it is not enough for the Executive to provide local authorities with an insignificant additional £70 million to deal with road problems?

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative

Yes.

I am a convert to bus travel, although I admit that that was not initially at my own behest. However, the bus service that is available in rural areas is much better than people usually think it is. There is generally an excellent service throughout Dumfries and Galloway and I am able to travel from Moffat to Edinburgh for £3.75, which is an excellent deal. The difficulty with that bus service is that it goes not only through Dumfries and Galloway, but through South Lanarkshire, Midlothian, the Borders and the city of Edinburgh, and there are still difficulties in getting councils to co-ordinate the provision of such a service. In relation to the work that was done on the Transport (Scotland) Act 2001, the minister must consider the importance of such co-ordination. There is still the problem that one can arrive by train at Lockerbie station at 3.40 pm only to find that the bus to Moffat has left five minutes earlier. Integration and co-ordination are just not being addressed in the network.

I offer to give up my personal copy of the Annandale and Eskdale bus timetable to the minister for her perusal. However, Des McNulty is speaking next, which will amount to pretty much the same thing. The timetable shows that timings are erratic. People can understand buses coming at three minutes past the hour every hour and following a given route, but, unfortunately, the system does not seem to be able to deliver that. Rural bus services have an enormous amount to offer and we should all use them more.

An initiative that I applaud is the cycle way that runs through Dumfries and Galloway. It was good that the capital was received to set up that cycle way, but it is a pity that no money is available to maintain it.

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour 4:30 pm, 26th April 2001

I thought that David Mundell was reading out the bus timetable for Moffat, but perhaps he was saying something more profound.

I welcome the emphasis on transport inclusiveness and sustainability in the policy's underlying thrust. As a member who does not represent a rural area, there is a risk that I may be seen as intervening in a private party as members highlight the various requirements of the parts of Scotland that they represent. However, it is important that we focus on inclusion and ensuring that people can get around Scotland and that we consider the contribution that transport infrastructure can play in ensuring the social and economic sustainability of rural areas. In that context, it is essential that we are clear about the criteria for decision making on capital and resource investment in all kinds of transport provision. Maureen Macmillan's point about the requirement for local involvement is important.

Everyone realises that unlimited resources are not available to be spent on rural transport. We must ensure that the resources that are available are spent in the best possible way. I listened with interest to Irene McGugan's speech and I have much sympathy with what she said about the requirement for access to public transport in Aberdeenshire. However, I have heard Mr MacAskill and Mr Crawford talking endlessly about the great emphasis that the SNP places on road building and on investing in roads, as distinct from other forms of transport investment. If the SNP wants a balance between investment in roads and other forms of transport investment, it must say where that balance will be. The SNP cannot simply keep presenting an ever-lengthening shopping list.

Photo of Fiona McLeod Fiona McLeod Scottish National Party

Mr McNulty talks about achieving balance, but does he realise that the much-vaunted £18 million investment, which represents a rise of 33 per cent for the rural transport fund, brings that fund to less than 1 per cent of the total transport budget?

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

There is a requirement for expenditure on rural transport. That is being addressed positively, as John Farquhar Munro pointed out. The issue is how we can get the best return for that investment and what criteria we will propose. That is especially the case when subsidies are being provided, as is the case with Caledonian MacBrayne. Will the solution to the situation with the ferries deliver economic effectiveness and inclusiveness, which it needs to do?

Photo of Duncan Hamilton Duncan Hamilton Scottish National Party

Is Des McNulty aware of the Scottish Office research that found that, if fares on Caledonian MacBrayne routes were reduced, a greater profit would be made on the routes and that there would be economic spin-offs in the places where the ferries landed and left?

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

I am also aware that the nationalists, when arguing for a reduction in ferry fares, are considering calling for the introduction of road-equivalent tariffs that could be introduced on a cost-neutral basis. I do not see the logic of that position. The SNP, as far as I understand, has made no commitment to the retention of Caledonian MacBrayne in public ownership. Perhaps that is different.

It is important to ensure that the investment that has been made in rural transport provides the economic sustainability and transport inclusiveness that those who live in rural areas require. It is equally important, particularly in the context of the issues currently affecting tourism, for rural Scotland to be adequately accessible to people from other parts of Scotland and from around the world. Transport is a vital element in the economic development of rural areas and it is important for us to be spending the money on it that we are.

Photo of Andrew Welsh Andrew Welsh Scottish National Party 4:35 pm, 26th April 2001

Des McNulty mentioned local involvement and making the best use of scarce resources. We all know what has to be done; the real problem is getting it done.

Rural areas dominate the geography of Scotland, and this debate should be all about meeting their needs on a long-term, sustainable basis. The long-standing problems of rural transport are clear: a low population, geographical isolation and passenger journeys in rural areas involving more miles and more time than in urban areas—along with lower vehicle and staff utilisation rates.

Without a social subsidy system, higher rural journey costs would simply be passed on in higher passenger fares, and services would cease to exist. The end product of current policy has been a spiral of decline, as rural dwellers either reduce their travel or use private cars, which further reduces the economic base of rural transport.

Conventional approaches to rural transport are not viable. We must therefore search for more innovative solutions that are tailor-made for Scotland's rural areas and which properly address the problems on a sustainable, long-term basis.

There are alternatives, and I recommend to the Government the European Union research project entitled "Rural access to transport services", otherwise known as the VIRGIL project, which examines practical solutions to be found throughout Europe. The report points to the development of demand-responsive services, which aim to adapt itineraries and timetables to suit particular transport demands. It proposes integration of goods and passenger transport, where vehicles are suitable for that, which would make services that were initially conceived for goods vehicles available to regular passengers, and vice versa.

The report recommends the integration of special services across agencies, which would allow services that were owned or hired by sector-specific agencies—health, social welfare or corporate transport, for example—to transport regular passengers or passengers from other agencies.

Scotland would be well placed for the use of telematics, which is also highlighted in the report. It uses information technology to let travellers access transport services, directly or indirectly, and to obtain information and apply technology effectively to run the operations themselves, perhaps using special operating software.

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour

That is precisely what we are trying to achieve through the rural transport fund and the community transport fund. The evaluation that I discussed threw up many of the issues to which Mr Welsh has referred. That is the precisely the type of agenda that we aim to follow. Furthermore, with our new public transport information, which will apply across Scotland, we are keen to do more in that regard.

Photo of Andrew Welsh Andrew Welsh Scottish National Party

I am trying to be positive. I am saying that such proposals should form part of a proper, comprehensive system, instead of a bitty approach.

I commend the example of Finland to the minister. It has already introduced a number of such schemes in its rural areas. In the municipality of Siilinjärvi, in eastern Finland, a single accessible minibus, which is reserved for day centre use for four hours a day, is then used for a dial-a-ride service for public users. The dial-a-ride facility serves different areas on different days of the week. Three of the areas concerned are served by minibus, and two areas, with minor demand, are served by taxis. Bookings are made by telephoning the travel dispatch centre, which amalgamates the bookings to produce routes and timetables. The vehicle drivers are informed via a vehicle data terminal, which is provided through a mobile phone connected to a small computer terminal.

Photo of Andrew Welsh Andrew Welsh Scottish National Party

Forgive me—I am short of time.

Those are all easily accessible technologies, which have been harnessed to solve specifically rural problems. I would like to be able to report the same use of technology on a wide scale in rural Scotland.

By providing a demand-responsive service and maximising the use of telematics, the scheme's introduction has resulted in a considerable increase in the public transport service in the municipality. In two areas, the service has expanded from a three-month service to a round-the-year service, and has spread into parts of the municipality that had never previously been covered by such a service. I should love to be able to report a similar situation in Scotland, and there are examples from elsewhere from which we can learn.

The greatest users of the scheme are elderly people and disabled people, who should be a policy priority for Scotland. There is clear evidence that a real difference can be made to improving rural transport. As a new democracy, Scotland should be leading the way in providing cutting-edge solutions that are specific to the needs of our rural communities. Not only must Scotland learn from best practice elsewhere; we should seek out specifically Scottish solutions to Scottish situations.

The Executive has the opportunity not only to replicate the measures that are working in other European countries, but to pioneer pilot projects providing low-cost, accessible and efficient transport systems that serve the whole nation and deliver for our rural areas. Imagination, innovation, practicality and urgency have to be at the heart of any long-term solution. If the Executive does not do it, we will.

Photo of Nora Radcliffe Nora Radcliffe Liberal Democrat 4:40 pm, 26th April 2001

Many members have made detailed comments about matters in their own areas. I will do a general round-up of how I see the issue. We are at the end of decades of erosion of the share of the budget going to transport and transport infrastructure. There is no point in apportioning blame or cavilling about that—it is a fact of life and we have to face up to it. Our ability to invest in the infrastructure is inhibited by the long erosion of maintenance over decades, which will soak up much of the money for capital projects that we might have liked to begin.

However, I think that we have turned a corner. We have bottomed out on the theft of resources from what is, after all, a means to an end—without a transport infrastructure there is no point in providing jobs, leisure opportunities or services that people cannot access. Transport services and infrastructure are essential for the economy and economic development. I think that we have realised that we cannot go on for ever eroding the share of the budget that we give to transport. It will take a long time to redress the balance, particularly as that will require money to be clawed back from competing priorities that do not want to relax their hold on that money.

We can be proud of what the Scottish Parliament has achieved in the two years for which it has existed. The funds that have been mentioned—the rural transport fund, the public transport fund and community transport grants—have provided a good way of using limited resources in a flexible and targeted way and finding local solutions to local problems. The success of that approach is demonstrated by the range of projects that have been mentioned, such as a causeway for more than £4 million and support for a volunteer car scheme.

There is an awful lot to do. We have turned a corner and are moving in the right direction. We can take pride in what has been done, but what has come out of the debate is how much more there is still to do. We are moving in the right direction and should continue to do so.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative 4:43 pm, 26th April 2001

It is difficult to respond to a debate that has ranged so widely. The closing speakers can reflect on a debate in which most participants raised issues that were important to their own regions or constituencies and in which there was surprisingly little dialogue and debate across the chamber. Frankly, I was surprised that neither minister attempted to intervene in Duncan Hamilton's speech on CalMac, as I thought that he raised points that should have received a response by intervention. I hope that the deputy minister will give some hints of the Executive's views on those points.

I will make one further local point—it is local to Lord James Douglas-Hamilton rather than to me. I understand that the city of Edinburgh bypass was a local authority road and that the project was led by the City of Edinburgh Council, which asked the Government for grant aid and was given it to the extent of 30 per cent. That proves how generous Lord James was in supporting a call for money from a Labour-controlled authority and, generally, in empowering councils to promote capital projects that are now entirely outwith their scope and resources.

In my opening speech, I referred to spending on local roads, which came up once or twice during the debate. I had intended to say during my speech that I recognised that there had been an increase of around £70 million in this year's budget, although the minister rather spoiled that increase some months later by saying that councils could use that money to offset the cost to them of maintaining their roads in a less economic fashion than had hitherto been possible. However, a little progress has been made.

The point that the Conservatives want to make today, which David Mundell raised during his speech, is that if members of the Scottish Parliament are genuine about trying to move the agenda on and to do something substantive with the resources that we have been given, we must examine areas of life and of administration that have not featured in the past. One such area is the maintenance of the local authority road network, which Bruce Crawford mentioned and where there is a substantial backlog.

I know from the way in which the Executive handles its own budgeting that it is considering both its resource bases and the maintenance of its asset base, which is important. However, the Executive must empower local authorities to do precisely the same with their asset bases as part of the same strategy.

Many local authority roads function as trunk roads. Cathy Jamieson mentioned the A70, and it appears to me that that road ought to be a trunk road; there are many similar roads. There are also roads of only local importance in urban and rural areas that must be maintained and which have only so much life left.

We all know that that issue is ticking away and must be addressed. Ministers have not acknowledged any responsibility for those roads. I do not expect them to turn round and give the councils £1,500 million next year, as I know that resources are constrained. However, we must start to think about how councils will deal with maintaining those roads in 10, 20 or 30 years, or the eventual costs will be much greater than they look as if they will be at this stage.

Photo of Helen Eadie Helen Eadie Labour

Is not there a slight sense of shame in the Conservative party ranks when they think back to the 20 years of Tory rule? When they inherited responsibility for road maintenance, local authorities could depend upon being able to maintain their roads and to renew them once every 60 years. At the end of the previous Tory Administration, we reached the point where local authorities could renew their roads once every 120 years.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

Presiding Officer, I had intended returning to you some of the time that I stole in my opening speech, but because of Helen Eadie's intervention, which I should not have taken, I will be unable to, for which I apologise.

Local authorities are spending less now than at the end of the previous Conservative Government. Fewer people are travelling by bus than at the end of the previous Conservative Government. The Labour party criticised Conservatives for privatising the railways during the previous Conservative Government, but that policy has not been reversed—in fact, it has become Labour party policy. While there is a lot of cant about what happened before and what is happening now, there is also a huge amount of continuity, and I should like spending on roads to be restored at least to the level of only four or five years ago. That would be progress.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

To be honest, I should like to move on to address the issues that the Parliament is here to address. However, I will wind up now, Presiding Officer.

It is clear that the major area of capital expenditure that the Executive is funding, although it is not directly promoting that expenditure, is the Scottish Parliament building, which is taking a huge chunk out of its resources. We understand that that expenditure is due to come to an end after 2003. I hope that when we reach 2003, we will be able to switch capital expenditure and to invest it in tackling some of the transport issues that we must address.

Photo of Fiona McLeod Fiona McLeod Scottish National Party 4:49 pm, 26th April 2001

This has been an interesting debate, although it has also been relatively quiet, which surprises me, after this morning's debate on fuel tax.

I would like to examine the facts behind some of the words that we have heard today. We have been criticised for referring to the Executive's motion as complacent, but that is the only word that can sum up the motion. In "Rural Scotland: A New Approach", the Government said:

"We are committed to delivering transport policies that reflect the diverse transport needs of people living in rural areas".

Those are wonderful words, but what is behind them?

During my intervention in Des McNulty's speech, I mentioned that we hear the wonderful words that the rural transport fund has risen by 33 per cent to £18 million. The reality is that the rural transport fund is still less than 1 per cent of the Scottish Executive's transport budget. That is not a commitment to Scotland's rural transport needs.

Photo of Fiona McLeod Fiona McLeod Scottish National Party

No, thank you. I will not take an intervention from Des McNulty because he started his speech by saying that he did not want to intrude as a non-rural member—he should not have because he does not know the facts.

I want to talk about the road network that serves Scotland's remote and rural communities. The minister talked about roads this morning and this afternoon. The minister is proud of the trunk road construction programme, but only a quarter of the £120 million is to be spent outwith the central belt. That is not a commitment to serve Scotland's remote and rural communities. Of the 33 projects with a completion date, to be funded from the public transport fund, only around eight are in rural areas.

I want to highlight one of those. The south-east Scotland travel ticket is a great idea. I am in favour of integrated transport, but there will be no train ticket as part of that travel ticket.

When will the Borders rail link be built and paid for by the Government?

The minister mentioned that rural petrol stations will be assisted. Page 167 of "The Scottish Budget" says that, between now and 2004, 15 rural petrol stations will be assisted.

Those are the facts behind the words. Those are the reasons why the SNP says that the motion is a complacent motion from a complacent Government.

Look at some of the other facts from the Scottish Executive's budget. Of the hugely expanded budget that the minister talked about, £1,593 million is for capital charges. That £1,593 will not provide a single new road, rail line or bus route. That is not a commitment to Scotland's rural communities.

What is the debate about? What is the Government about? The minister raised it herself this morning: it is about whether we are dealing with Westminster or standing up for Scotland. When the minister deals with Westminster, how does she say to the Chancellor of the Exchequer that she wants £180.3 million? That £180.3 million would pay to buy the Skye bridge back for the public of Scotland. It would pay to extend the concessionary fares scheme in Scotland to all 16 and 17-year-olds and to all carers of disabled people.

I say to the minister that that is what the debate is about. It is about reality, not rhetoric. It is about standing up for Scotland. It is not about spinning for Westminster, nor is it about—I say this after what we heard this afternoon about Russell Brown—spinning for Westminster MPs with Scottish constituencies on devolved, not reserved, matters.

Photo of Lewis Macdonald Lewis Macdonald Labour 4:53 pm, 26th April 2001

It is a pleasure to respond to the debate. I begin by noting that rural transport in Scotland is bouncing back from past neglect. Investment by the Executive is beginning to make a real difference to individuals and communities throughout rural Scotland. We are getting people moving.

The debate has been an important demonstration of the value of the Scottish Parliament and of the Scottish Executive's strategy of providing, as I think was cited by Mr Welsh, Scottish solutions to Scottish problems and an opportunity for our transport policies to make a difference. The debate has also been notable for allowing many members to raise issues of local or regional importance. I am sorry that Murray Tosh felt that there was a deficit in interventions in the debate, but in fact that deficit allowed many concerns to be aired.

If anyone is in any doubt about the difference that the Executive's policies are making, they should remember that, for example, support for lifeline air and ferry services is at record levels. Without that support, the charges for air services to HIAL's 10 airports would treble. Without that support, CalMac's ferries would be running without passengers. Without that support, whole communities would wither and die.

It is worth while reminding members that one quarter of the users of rural community transport schemes for individuals would be housebound without those schemes; that Ardnamurchan might not have a single petrol station without the rural petrol stations grant scheme—a scheme that matters a great deal to all the communities in which the money is spent; and that more than 350 new and improved bus services would simply not be running without the rural transport fund.

We have invested in rural transport across Scotland. The public transport fund is improving transport interchanges—for example, at Inverness and at Aviemore on the A95—to improve access to surrounding communities and to integrate bus and rail services. The PTF is also assisting Scottish Borders Council with development costs so that it can do the work that it needs to do to achieve, or to make the case for, the reinstatement of a rail link between Edinburgh and the central Borders. A great deal has been done.

Photo of Fiona McLeod Fiona McLeod Scottish National Party

The Executive has given a loan of £1.9 million to the Scottish Borders Council; but it is a railway that the Borders need, not a loan to the council.

Photo of Lewis Macdonald Lewis Macdonald Labour

What the Borders need—as does every other area in Scotland—is a partnership to achieve the kind of transport developments that we want for the 21 st century.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

Does the minister agree that the Borders would be much better served by Executive investment in building a new railway than by Executive investment in buying a road bridge to Skye that already exists?

Photo of Lewis Macdonald Lewis Macdonald Labour

I wondered whether Fiona McLeod was right that buying the road bridge to Skye was her party's top priority, or whether her party intended to appropriate it without further delay.

John Farquhar Munro raised the issue of the freight facilities grant. It is important to note the point that he makes. We have doubled expenditure on that grant, and have secured some notable successes in a modal shift from road to rail. Yes, there are delays in processing the applications, but this is a complex business, because of the need to avoid falling foul of state aid guidelines. It is important to recognise that. All applications are being processed as fast as is possible. We will consider any constructive suggestions for changes to the scheme that would help to speed things up.

A number of members—Irene McGugan and David Mundell among them—talked about the importance of the loss of scheduled bus services in rural areas. It is important to recognise that the Transport (Scotland) Act 2001 has given ministers new powers to amend the grounds for offering public funding support to operators of rural bus services. Ministers intend to use those powers. We are spending £50 million a year on bus fuel duty rebates across Scotland for that type of service.

Irene McGugan mentioned Aberdeenshire Council. That council is reviewing the services that are supported by tender. It will use the new flexibility in the rural transport fund to provide the money that Irene talked about to support some of those services. Aberdeenshire Council is one of the councils that have received significant upratings in its bus grants from central Government. We recognise that issues exist that go beyond the commercial interests of operating companies. I do not think that the Executive will make a commitment—as I think Irene was implying that we should—to bail out every single commercial operation and every single service.

Andrew Welsh raised some interesting European examples of flexible and responsive transport schemes. We would certainly support such examples. Andrew commented that, if we did not do it, his party would. I am pleased to tell him that his party will not have to, because we are already considering whether the regulatory requirements that limit the ability to provide responsive services in rural areas can be amended.

Cathy Jamieson highlighted the importance of Community Transport Association funding, which is very much part of the overall picture. Extra grant support of £300,000 for that has been announced today. We are taking important steps in making transport responsive.

I will move on to discuss CalMac—as I suspect Duncan Hamilton would like me to. He spoke about accountability and openness in that company. His point is recognised by ministers. As Duncan Hamilton and other members will know, the company has recently undertaken a thorough review of its fares policy. It has done so at the request of ministers, in order to establish the degree to which the general public and its customers are aware of the basis of the fares structure. There are some issues connected with that fares structure that the company has taken on board as a result of consultation. That consultation is a step in the right direction, in terms of accountability.

The status of VesCo was mentioned. Let me make it clear that VesCo would act as a procurer of last resort—that is the distinction which needs to be made. In those unlikely circumstances, VesCo would be in a position to use its specialist expertise as the owner of the vessels to bring in an established operator to provide the services.

Photo of Duncan Hamilton Duncan Hamilton Scottish National Party

The minister's comments have taken forward the information in the public domain. Perhaps he will reflect on the fact that if VesCo is to be a procurer of services, any third party would be acutely aware of the fact that, as the provider of last resort, it would be in an advantageous position to negotiate a very favourable contract for itself. Why would it not be better to have VesCo, or at least a public agency, responsible—as in every other industry—as an area of last resort? [Interruption.]

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

Order. I ask members to refrain from conversation while the debate is concluded.

Photo of Lewis Macdonald Lewis Macdonald Labour

VesCo is a public agency and would operate on that basis. It is important to address the other issue that Duncan Hamilton raised—road equivalent tariff. RET is part of the on-going consultation on the fares basis. The first findings from that consultation clearly demonstrate that RET is not compatible with a revenue-neutral outcome, as we described. In fact, the deficit grant that the Executive provides to CalMac is running at a record level of £19 million.

Photo of Lewis Macdonald Lewis Macdonald Labour

I will have to move on. I am sure that Mr Hamilton will have an opportunity to raise those matters again.

Maureen Macmillan raised the important matter of today's announcement about the Kirkwall to Invergordon sea freight route. She will know that some days ago, Ross Finnie and Sarah Boyack met Orkney Islands Council to discuss the potential closure of Streamline. It is important to recognise that the service that the company provides will be continued because of support from the Scottish Executive. I know that that does not take on board all the issues that Maureen Macmillan raised today, but I can confirm the Scottish Executive's continued support through the tariff rebate subsidy scheme. It may be that even with an alternative operator or route, the required services will be resumed on the Invergordon route in due course.

Over the past four years, we have seen a fundamental change in the importance attached to rural Scotland. In the Scottish Parliament, a much greater number of members represent rural areas than could be the case in Westminster. It is not about promoting rural areas at the expense of urban areas—as Fiona McLeod seemed to imply—but about recognising that the future success of the whole of Scotland depends on the success of all its parts.

The Executive is taking the lead in turning that fundamental change in attitude into a fundamental change in policy to support rural areas—transport is playing its full part in that change. We are supporting communities and individuals through investment in our lifeline air and ferry services, bus services, community transport and infrastructure. Working together, we can continue to make a difference and promote sustainable rural communities across Scotland.

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

I would like to take the opportunity to say a word about question time. This afternoon, during question time, I received an exceptionally large number of billets doux from members asking to be called for supplementary questions. I am always willing to consider such requests before question time, but it is impossible for me to read the billets doux, look at the names on the screen and listen to the questions and answers all at the same time. If members have a special pressing case for asking a question, I ask them to let my office know before question time and not during it.