Transport (North-east Scotland)

– in the Scottish Parliament at 5:00 pm on 21st February 2007.

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Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour 5:00 pm, 21st February 2007

The final item of business is a members' business debate on motion S2M-5523, in the name of Nora Radcliffe, on making our transport fit for purpose. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament, recognising that transport is integral to the economic, environmental and social well-being of communities, commends the joint initiative of the Aberdeenshire Environmental Forum and the City of Aberdeen Environmental Forum in organising a public meeting on "Making our Transport System Fit for Purpose" on 1 February 2007 in Aberdeen, to inform and facilitate the debate on the future of transport in the north east; notes that the meeting is being held during the current Nestrans consultation on its proposed regional transport strategy, and, in light of the Stern and Eddington reports, believes it is important that the people of the north east think carefully about making the transport system that serves them fit for purpose in a world in which the threat of climate change has become a factor.

Photo of Nora Radcliffe Nora Radcliffe Liberal Democrat 5:07 pm, 21st February 2007

I thank the members who signed the motion and members who have remained in the chamber for the debate, and I repeat my commendation of the Aberdeenshire environmental forum and the city of Aberdeen environmental forum for their facilitation of a thorough discussion of the proposed north-east regional transport strategy. There is much cynicism about consultation, but the more people take the trouble to get involved, the more effective and real consultation becomes.

Transport opens up opportunities for work, leisure activities and socialising. Lack of transport or access to transport—whether physical or to do with cost—denies people some or all of those opportunities. Transport is important in our response to climate change, because it contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. Exhaust emissions also have an effect on human health. Therefore, it is evident that in considering transport strategy a wide range of factors, some of which are conflicting, must be balanced against each other.

I represent a constituency in an area that makes a disproportionately large contribution to the economy but which is logistically quite remote from markets, so I am acutely aware of the economic imperative for the fast, effective movement of goods and people in and out of the area. The recent gauge enhancement of the railway from Elgin to Mossend, to accommodate modern freight wagons, will take goods off the roads and is very welcome.

However, two recent developments are of concern to my constituents. First, Great North Eastern Railway's record in maintaining a service along the entire length of the east coast main line has been less than perfect. GNER had a tendency to dump Aberdeen passengers in Edinburgh when the service was held up on its way north. When the east coast main line franchise is relet, it must be made clear that the east coast main line runs from London to Aberdeen, and if necessary that should be underlined by swingeing penalties if service obligations are not met.

Secondly, my constituents are concerned about the dogma-driven way in which the Competition Commission is dealing with the joint venture between Megabus and Scottish Citylink Coaches to supply what I and my constituents think is a good, reasonably priced, reliable and frequent service between Scottish cities and the south.

That reasonably priced and well-used service would be better guaranteed through undertakings, rather than through divestiture and an attempt to promote a guarantee of reasonably priced services through what I perceive to be non-existent competition. There is no way in which there could be competition on the routes, which is why undertakings would be a far better way to deliver the services. To be perfectly honest, the Competition Commission should butt out.

I have two local issues on which I ask the minister to prompt action, both of which involve railway bridges. I thank the minister for visiting Gordon to see the issues for himself. The first is Inveramsay bridge, which interrupts the main trunk road between Scotland's third and fifth cities. It is ludicrous to have a traffic-light-controlled single carriageway on a main trunk road. The issue is a long-running one that we wish to be resolved. The main trunk road in question is the A96. I reiterate my long-term ambition to have that road dualled along its length, with bypasses of towns such as Keith. I request an assurance that nothing will be done as part of works along the length of the road that will in any way obstruct the achievement of that in the long run.

That brings me to an issue that was raised at the public meeting in Aberdeen to which my motion refers. There was a plea that the weighting that is given to the carbon cost of transport projects in the Scottish transport appraisal guidance mechanism, which the Scottish Executive uses to weigh transport schemes, should be considered. I simply put that issue into the equation.

The second railway bridge that concerns me and which creates a bottleneck is the one at Souterford Road in Inverurie. The minister has seen for himself how that constriction creates backed-up congestion in the centre of the town. Aberdeenshire Council has developed an integrated transport plan for Inverurie that would incorporate a bus and rail exchange, but which requires the bridge to be dealt with. I would appreciate any assistance that the minister can give in bringing Network Rail to the table to discuss the development.

As I represent a largely rural constituency, I am acutely aware of the limitations of poor or expensive transport connections and the dependence of many rural dwellers, whatever their income, on the private car. Road-user charging, if properly applied, can temper the wind to the shorn lamb. If we lift the one-size-fits-all taxation on the private motorist and shift the tax burden on to motorists in accordance with how much they contribute to congestion, that would benefit the rural car user and would be an excellent way forward.

Photo of Brian Adam Brian Adam Scottish National Party 5:13 pm, 21st February 2007

I endorse Nora Radcliffe's points about the Competition Commission's actions in relation to the bus services that link Scotland's cities and the south and her heartfelt plea about ensuring that whichever company runs the east coast main line franchise following the retendering exercise that is under way does not slide out of its responsibilities. I also endorse what she said about the long-term ambition to dual the A96, including the completion of the bypasses that have long been sought along the route, at Keith, Fochabers and Elgin.

However, I was a little disappointed that some of the more contentious issues relating to transport in the north-east were not covered. The minister might like to comment on some of the problems in my constituency at the Haudagain roundabout. Perhaps he can clarify his statement last week that improvements to the Haudagain roundabout might well be on their way after the next stage of the Scottish transport appraisal guidance exercise. Will improvements to the Haudagain roundabout depend on the regeneration of Middlefield? Are the two inextricably linked? If so, will Executive money be available for the regeneration of Middlefield, thus allowing improvements to the Haudagain roundabout? Can the minister guarantee today that the Haudagain roundabout will be addressed by the Executive before detrunking takes place as a result of orders relating to the Aberdeen western peripheral route?

What progress is being made on a number of other important issues relating to the modern transport proposals that were jointly agreed by the councils? We hoped that the proposed improvements in infrastructure would go ahead.

Photo of Brian Adam Brian Adam Scottish National Party

I would like to develop my point.

Four years ago, the First Minister came to Aberdeen and announced the Aberdeen western peripheral route; nothing has appeared. Members on all sides of the chamber have talked about crossrail for Aberdeen; nothing has appeared. We are long on consultations and long on consultants' reports but very short on delivery. If we are to have the modal shift that many of us would like, we have to start to see things happening on the ground.

There is a very successful park and ride in Ellon, in Nora Radcliffe's constituency, but a less successful one in Bridge of Don and a much poorer one in Kingswells. However, there is no sign of the long-proposed park and ride on the A96, which will be key to delivering improvements in public transport to the north-west of the city. As far as I am aware, there are no proposals for anything to the south or west of the city. We cannot expect people to accept modal shift if we are not providing alternatives.

I would particularly appreciate an answer from the minister about the Haudagain roundabout.

Photo of Shiona Baird Shiona Baird Green 5:18 pm, 21st February 2007

Nora Radcliffe's motion is very interesting. It is fair to say that transport is the Achilles' heel of climate change. Politicians talk a good game on progress in addressing climate change in other sectors, but there seems to be no acceptance of the inconvenient truth that building more roads and new runways increases traffic and pollution.

Transport—and particularly aviation—is the fastest growing source of damaging pollution. The greatest challenge will be in helping people to make the change from private to public transport. The absolute priority has to be massive investment in public transport.

The NESTRANS strategy has some useful aspirations but in no way can it be classed as

"a transport system which enables a more economically competitive, sustainable, and socially inclusive society."

With the AWPR and air route expansion as its priorities, NESTRANS is failing on a basic understanding of the three strands of sustainability. The first is the economy. Congestion costs UK businesses £20 billion a year, but congestion in Aberdeen will be cut by a mere 2.5 per cent. Any relief on outer roads will be short lived, as traffic is predicted to rise by more than 20 per cent. The statement in its strategy that land use policies need to "lock in" the benefits of the AWPR is nothing short of open permission to developers to move in, which will greatly increase congestion.

Photo of Shiona Baird Shiona Baird Green

I am sorry, but I have quite a bit to get through. On the environment—the second strand—NESTRANS does at least acknowledge climate change, but only in the context of air quality in Aberdeen, which has an impact on health. That is true, but it also has a lot more of an impact. What planet is NESTRANS living on?

The third element is the social strand. The statement that the AWPR is trying to be inclusive is nonsensical, given that more than 30 per cent of the population do not have access to a car and the road will split communities, creating barriers where none existed before.

Nora Radcliffe referred rightly to Nicholas Stern's review, which was explicit in saying that doing nothing is not an option. However, I doubt whether Nicholas Stern ever considered that we might be stupid enough to plan to build more roads and runways in the light of so much evidence of the impact that climate change will have on the economy and on every aspect of our lives.

Sir Rod Eddington was also clear on road building. He acknowledged that large-scale road building is not the answer to our transport problems. He stated clearly that the transport sector, including aviation, should meet its full environmental costs. He said:

"all transport users should meet all their external, economic, social or environmental costs."

Photo of Shiona Baird Shiona Baird Green

No. I need to keep going, or I will not get my speech finished in time.

What message are we MSPs prepared to send out? The motion asks that

"the people of the north east think carefully about making the transport system that serves them fit for purpose in a world in which the threat of climate change has become a factor."

I agree, but I urge MSPs who, of all people, should be setting the right example, understanding the future and showing the vision to take action, to show leadership, scrap the plans for the AWPR and invest that money in long-term sustainable travel options. Leadership implies going forward in the light of all the evidence that we now have. It is not about going backwards to solutions that are outdated and have proved to be ineffective.

Nora Radcliffe and her north-east colleagues must recognise the contradictions in her motion.

NESTRANS is not providing the north-east with the right strategy for the 21st century, with its road and air expansion priorities. The inconvenient truth is that we have to accept the implications of the second part of her motion—that is where the evidence lies. I do not want my grandchildren to wonder why we ignored the evidence and continued to trash the planet.

Photo of David Davidson David Davidson Conservative 5:22 pm, 21st February 2007

I congratulate Nora Radcliffe on securing the debate. I say to the Green party representative that I do my bit for the environment. I use the train, when it is on time—to pick up Brian Adam's point.

Given that Nora Radcliffe said that the debate is about a transport system that is fit for purpose, I think that there are a number of issues on which boxes need to be ticked. The first is access to an adequate transport system. What about the disabled? What about the situation in which two young mums with pushchairs cannot travel together on a bus because only one of them can take a pushchair on? What about two people in wheelchairs who occasionally travel together but cannot both get on a bus? Those issues are about the demands that are placed on the transport system. Nora Radcliffe mentioned service agreements. People are worried about such things. The public transport system should be accessible, so that people do not have to take their car.

We welcome concessionary fares, but there are large parts of Scotland in which the buses do not run. We need to do more. The Minister for Transport has a responsibility to ensure that there are community transport systems that are flexible—they would not necessarily serve the same route every day of the week but would build flexibility into the system.

We have had debates on this before, but we need to talk about the safety of school transport, which is a major issue. Another issue is what we do with luggage on certain vehicles. Little things such as through-ticketing are major aspects of usability.

Nora Radcliffe made a couple of points about the Competition Commission. There are areas where there cannot be competition and we need to look at models for getting over that, particularly where there is a subsidy from the public purse.

I agree whole-heartedly with Nora Radcliffe about the dualling of the A96 and the nonsense of having traffic grind to a halt because we have a single-lane bridge with a traffic light on a main arterial route. However, we might disagree tomorrow morning in the debate about road user charging. It was interesting to hear her comments about that, which I am sure will be rehearsed by the minister tomorrow.

On infrastructure, I cannot believe the comments that Shiona Baird has made tonight. If she wants to build the economy, she has to find ways by which we can improve the transportation systems as well as meeting the environmental targets.

Photo of David Davidson David Davidson Conservative

Not at the moment.

We are not in an either/or situation. It is a practical fact that if the north-east had fewer foreign trips by air, it would do less business. That is how the economy of the north-east works. By all means, remove the need for people to have to fly via London and let us have direct flights. That is the cheapest and most environmentally friendly way to fly from the area. On top of that, we should put some money into better rail connections with faster through trains. That would take people off the roads. However, we still have to get people to stations. With regard to the opening of Laurencekirk station, I am actively working with local bus companies to provide feeder routes so that people do not bring their cars to the station.

We must also consider the issue of road safety. In that regard, we must examine the slip roads on the A90, all the way from Dundee to Peterhead and beyond.

We cannot run Scotland on a bike. By banning transport and infrastructure development, we would hold Scotland back. It is a known fact that a static diesel engine—stopping and starting constantly—will use at least 10 times as much fuel as one that is travelling correctly along a highway at 45mph or 50mph.

We hear some real drivel in this chamber but, now and again, I would like the Green party to come up with some solutions to the problems that it points out. Rather than simply being negative, it should say what practical options we can take.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour 5:27 pm, 21st February 2007

I congratulate Nora Radcliffe on securing the debate. Her motion recognises the great importance of the transport debate in Aberdeenshire and Aberdeen. I know that the minister is keenly aware of some of the key issues.

I disagree with Shiona Baird. I think that, in NESTRANS, the north-east is fortunate to have such an effective partnership, which is able to highlight the key issues for the development of transport links in the region and ensure that progress is made on those issues. Tonight is a good moment to acknowledge the work of Peter Cockhead, who has promoted those issues as the co-ordinator of NESTRANS.

The motion is right to acknowledge the need for an integrated transport network in Aberdeenshire. We have a great opportunity to work towards that goal as a great deal is being invested in our local transport infrastructure, which will be important for future transport delivery. We have the investment in our roads network, particularly in our western peripheral route, which is a vital project. Addressing congestion in the city is an issue of concern not only to residents of Aberdeen but to the residents of the shire who travel into the city.

We want further developments to complement the western peripheral route.

Photo of Shiona Baird Shiona Baird Green

Would Richard Baker accept that the evidence shows that the western peripheral route will reduce the congestion in the centre of Aberdeen by only 2.5 per cent?

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

The minister is considering a number of proposals that will address congestion in addition to the western peripheral route. Obviously, we have the plans for the Haudagain roundabout, which I hope moves to its construction phase as soon as possible.

Of course, there is investment not only in the roads network but in the rail network as well. We look forward to having a new station at Laurencekirk and I am particularly keen for us to move from analysing the scheme for Aberdeen crossrail to making that vital project a reality. I am not as pessimistic about that as Mr Adam seems to be. I think that such plans have to be scrutinised properly, but I believe that the case will be overwhelming. Accordingly, I have made submissions as part of the local and national consultation processes that are being run on the transport strategy to make the case for crossrail, which I believe to be a comparatively cheap way of making a huge impact on congestion.

The motion refers to the Stern report. Of course, it is incumbent on us to invest in promoting sustainable forms of transport, which means that we must continue to invest in excellent schemes such as the community bus schemes and local bus links, bolstered by our agenda for free travel for older people and cheaper travel for younger people on public transport and on new rail schemes, such as crossrail. NESTRANS has made progress on such issues by encouraging, for example, local businesses to urge their employees to take part in lift-sharing schemes. Work such as that must continue and be built on.

The Executive is investing record amounts in transport, of which the Aberdeen peripheral route is very much a part. In the next phase of investment, the issues that the motion highlights should be prioritised. I would argue that schemes such as Aberdeen crossrail deserve their place, alongside proposals for major rail investment in some parts of the country, such as the airport rail links in Edinburgh and Glasgow. I welcome once more this opportunity to raise those issues and look forward to the minister's response.

Photo of Tavish Scott Tavish Scott Liberal Democrat 5:30 pm, 21st February 2007

I am delighted to respond to the debate, which has been secured by Nora Radcliffe, on transport in the north-east. Participants in transport debates tend to be divided into those of us who believe that there is much that we can do that is positive and those who believe that we are all doomed. That has been rather graphically illustrated tonight, although far be it from me to say who was in the doomed category, and which of us genuinely care about the future of our country and our economy and how we will move forward in the world.

I agree with all who argued that transport is integral to the economic, environmental and social well-being of the north-east, as well as to those of the rest of the country. I join Nora Radcliffe in commending the joint initiative of the Aberdeenshire environmental forum and the Aberdeen city environmental forum in their work on the transport strategy for the north-east. Transport is vital to us all, which is why the Executive published the national transport strategy in December 2006, to map out the long-term future for transport in Scotland.

Although I do not agree with Shiona Baird's conclusions, there is one point on which I might agree with her. We do—and will—take seriously the compelling evidence on climate change, which is why this will be the first Government to introduce a carbon balance sheet on transport emissions. It is why we have made emissions reduction one of the three strategic outcomes for transport policy over the next 20 years. That recognition of the role that transport plays in emissions shows a significant move forward.

I cannot accept Shiona Baird's criticisms of NESTRANS. Most members here—certainly members who represent constituencies in the north-east—would pay tribute to its work and its positive engagement with communities. Nora Radcliffe made a good point about the importance of ensuring that consultation means something; NESTRANS has done that. I agree with those who have argued positively in favour of its work in considering issues such as congestion and air quality in Aberdeen and the surrounding areas.

On roads, I answered Richard Baker's point about the Haudagain roundabout very fully during question time last week. Hardly a week goes by without that roundabout being mentioned. I am sure that Mr Adam may wish to refer to the detailed reply that I gave Richard Baker last week.

Photo of Tavish Scott Tavish Scott Liberal Democrat

I have dealt with the matter. I want to deal with many points tonight.

Photo of Tavish Scott Tavish Scott Liberal Democrat

The member may not like it, but I dealt with it, and I dealt with Mr Baker's question last week.

On David Davidson's very fair point about road safety, one of the drivers—that is probably the wrong word—or focuses of what we have done with Aberdeenshire, Aberdeen City and Moray Councils on the pass plus scheme has been the representations that many members from the north-east have made in relation to the worrying number of accidents involving young people. That is why we have taken forward that initiative, which I strongly hope will pay dividends.

On the specific issues that have arisen from the debate, we will continue with NESTRANS to support quality bus services in the north-east, including the important interchanges in Inverurie and Peterhead, and the new park-and-ride facilities to the south of Aberdeen at Banchory. I accept members' points about the importance of moving forward with demand-responsive transport—or, in other words, public services that meet localised needs—and finding ways to develop that. We have got to make a real step change on that in the future and I am strongly committed to that.

On local rail, I strongly support the feasibility study on Aberdeen crossrail. I am pleased about the reopening of Laurencekirk station. It is important to recognise that some of the train services in Inverurie with which Nora Radcliffe is familiar arguably begin that process of crossrail. I absolutely accept the argument from some members for more of that process, but I believe that we are beginning to see development, which is a tribute to those who are involved, including local agencies and the franchise operator, First ScotRail.

I remain a supporter of the efforts to improve the quality of intercity rail services to Aberdeen. On the Department for Transport's retendering exercise for the east-coast mainline franchise, I am very much aware of Nora Radcliffe's representations on continuation of the uninterrupted service from London to Aberdeen. I spoke on Monday to Tom Harris, the United Kingdom minister who has responsibility for rail, and I can give Nora Radcliffe an assurance about the specification for the tendering: I know that the continuation of uninterrupted services to and from Aberdeen is included as far as four companies are concerned. That applies to Inverness, too, so I hope that members from the Highlands will acknowledge that. It is important that the Aberdeen service, which is important to the north-east, continues to ensure connections between main business centres on each side of the border. Those connections should be enhanced, and the shift from road to rail should be encouraged through improved journey times and connections.

We must be realistic. As most members—although not all—have rightly argued, we cannot simply do away with road transport. If we are to avoid stifling of economic growth, it is important that we take traffic out of city centres, where necessary, and that we deal with pinch points in the network. That is why we support the Aberdeen western peripheral road, as well as upgrades to the trunk roads in the region.

When I was up in Nora Radcliffe's constituency the other day, I took the opportunity to open the £5.5 million straightening of the Hatton bends, in Stewart Stevenson's constituency. I was pleased to meet Mr Stevenson on that occasion on the A90 between Aberdeen and Peterhead. I hope that that will give the lie to the suggestion that nothing ever happens outside the central belt. That was an important investment for the area.

I accept Nora Radcliffe's point about the Souterford bridge in Inverurie. She was able to show me the situation there the other day. I have asked Network Rail to engage with Councillor Alison McInnes, the chair of NESTRANS, and Aberdeenshire Council on the matter. I want to ensure that a meeting on that happens urgently. I also take Nora Radcliffe's point about the Inveramsay bridge. We will, through the strategic transport projects review, look closely at the possibility of removing the traffic lights there. I know that Nora Radcliffe and others have made correct observations about the concerns that have been expressed over local roads being impacted upon by traffic that should be on the trunk road. We need to deal with that.

I take the points that were made by Nora Radcliffe and others about Megabus and Citylink. In our representations, we have very much followed the principle that the focus should be on the passenger, not simply on the perfect market solution. We hope that those representations will be heard.

It is important that we have a balanced and integrated transport strategy. I commend NESTRANS and the other agencies on their work, and we will do all that we reasonably can to make their intentions a reality.

Meeting closed at 17:38.