Transport Scotland, in close partnership with the Highlands and Islands strategic transport partnership and the north-east Scotland transport partnership, is working on a jointly funded multimodal study to examine the needs of the transport corridor between Aberdeen and Inverness. The study will identify a range of options for consideration in the strategic transport projects review, which will report next year.
Does the minister recognise that people in Moray and elsewhere in the Highlands think that the area's economic prosperity depends on the upgrading of its transport infrastructure, particularly the dualling of the A96? If so, he will appreciate their concern about the letter that John Ewing, the head of the transport group, sent last month to Howard Brindley of HITRANS. John Ewing indicated that money may not be available for major projects in the region, including the A96. With reference to the A96 he said:
"we anticipate that partial dual carriageway is the most appropriate intervention".
Does the minister understand that that will be viewed as a big blow to Moray and its local economy, as well as to the economy of the rest of the Highlands? Was the civil servant speaking for the minister? Does the minister agree that that should not be the position, given the need for
I absolutely agree that we need ambitious proposals for the transport infrastructure for all modes of transport in the Highlands and Islands, but I do not accept the premise of the question—that there will be no investment. One of Mr Lochhead's colleagues, who is sitting behind him, has been saying in the local papers that there will be and has been no investment in roads in the Highlands and Islands. That is not the case; what the member said is an absolute misrepresentation of the facts. Mr Lochhead may shake his head, but £40 million is currently programmed to be spent on the A96. That shows the beginnings of a real programme to improve a road that needs to be improved.
I absolutely recognise the wider point of the importance of the link between Aberdeen and Inverness, and I hope that the SNP recognises the importance of doing a proper study on the matter. That work is being done by NESTRANS and HITRANS and is the right way forward.
As I have said repeatedly in the chamber to Mr Lochhead and other members, the strategic transport projects review is the right way in which to make the final decisions. Any Government, even one that Mr Lochhead would aspire to be part of, would have to carry out such a review. What a Government cannot do is promise £4.5 billion of commitments—that is the SNP's current total—and go on to say, "This is what will happen." Let us be real about spending on public priorities.
Although the Conservatives support the upgrading of the A96 and the A9, does the minister agree that the current apology for a trunk road—the A82 Tarbert to Crianlarich route to the Highlands and Islands—must be upgraded well ahead of the proposed programme? If not, it is in grave danger of disappearing—
The minister continues to reject the case for a Nairn bypass, about which the Liberal Democrats locally are very enthusiastic. If we see a greater growth in population in the A96 corridor between Inverness and Nairn than in any other part of Scotland, should not that, of itself, dictate that the A96 be upgraded in the long term to proper dual carriageway status?
I have never rejected the case for a Nairn bypass. I hope that Mr Ewing will not misrepresent my position on that issue, as he always misrepresents my position on roads policy
Mr Petrie made a legitimate point about the A82. The trouble is that ultimately choices must be made about the trunk road network in the Highlands and Islands and throughout Scotland. SNP members want it all. If Mr Petrie is saying that the A82 is the Conservatives' priority, I accept that at least there is a fair degree of prioritisation in Conservative policy.