Abolition of Bridge Tolls (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

– in the Scottish Parliament at 2:15 pm on 15th November 2007.

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Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None 2:15 pm, 15th November 2007

The next item of business is a debate on motion S3M-780, in the name of Stewart Stevenson, that the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Abolition of Bridge Tolls (Scotland) Bill.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party 2:56 pm, 15th November 2007

When I opened the debate on bridge tolls on 31 May, I said that I did so with some satisfaction. I hope that I will be allowed some satisfaction in opening the stage 1 debate on the Abolition of Bridge Tolls (Scotland) Bill, which was the first bill to be introduced by this Government.

We have been committed to ending bridge tolls for a very long time. During the previous parliamentary session, my colleagues Shona Robison and Tricia Marwick both led debates that sought to end bridge tolls, and Bruce Crawford has just reminded me that he proposed a member's bill on the subject. Many members have supported such calls in the past and I am happy once again to single out Helen Eadie in that regard. Her draft bill to abolish bridge tolls remains poised for introduction, if we look likely to backtrack on our manifesto commitment. I assure members that we will not backtrack. In May, members voted overwhelmingly to support the abolition of tolls. The bill will remove, with transparency and certainty, the right to demand tolls and, crucially, it will do so as soon as is practicable.

The bill is short and simple and aims to do just three things: remove the ability to charge and collect tolls on the Forth and Tay road bridges; remove a legislative deadline for the Tay Road Bridge Joint Board to repay all its debts by 2016; and repeal obsolete legislation relating to the Erskine bridge. If Parliament agrees to the bill, we will end an injustice to the people of Fife, Tayside and the Lothians, and to all who have had to pay tolls on the Forth and Tay road bridges when tolls have been removed elsewhere. That is the principle on which the bill is based, and it is the principle on which we will be voting today.

The Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee has published its stage 1 report on the bill, and I am pleased that the majority of the committee's members have endorsed the bill. I regret that Patrick Harvie has dissented from that view. He abstained on the motion that was debated in May, and I understand that he has continuing concerns about the potential environmental impacts of removing the tolls, such as congestion. Of course, I recognise and respect his long-held position. I share the view that we cannot encourage an unchecked rise in traffic on our roads, but it is not the aim of the Government to punish car users and it is certainly not its aim to punish Fife car users alone.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

Given that the suggestions for increases in road traffic vary from 10 to 21 per cent and that Transport Scotland's preferred option for a further Forth crossing is a unimodal rather than a multimodal bridge, will the minister reassure members and my constituents that the Government takes increased road traffic seriously and that it will do everything that it can to provide the necessary funding and support to put public transport options in place to deal with the traffic increases that will affect my constituents in west Edinburgh?

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

I will return to the subject of west Edinburgh and I am sure that the member will be comfortable with what I say.

I return to responding to Patrick Harvie. We believe that the carrot is more powerful than the stick and that we should persuade people by offering a wide range of public transport options. That is why the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth announced £3.3 million—I mean £3,300 million; I just cut the figure a thousandfold, but I reinstated it almost instantly—for rail and bus yesterday. That is also why park-and-ride facilities remain an important part of our strategy. More people can be persuaded on to trains and buses than can be bullied out of cars.

Let us remind ourselves that tolls on the two bridges were introduced so that bridge users contributed to the cost of construction. In a report on a public meeting in Bo'ness, The Scotsman said:

"The Government would stop the charging of tolls after the capital expenditure on the bridge had been cleared."

That argument is not new; it was made in February 1935. The chair at that public meeting of the Road Bridge Promotion Committee was Alexander Stewart Stevenson, my great-uncle.

Today's tolls were not introduced to restrain traffic and were not introduced for all eternity. Enough is enough.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

Perhaps I begin to understand the minister's convictions on the issue: they are a matter not of transport policy, but of family loyalty.

Does the minister accept that, at the time to which he referred and for many decades after that, the level of traffic and the weight of heavy goods vehicles that went over the Forth road bridge were not and were never expected to be what they are now? We face a genuinely new situation, which is why tolls—a demand-management mechanism—can serve a new purpose. Is that not the case?

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

It is interesting that the committee that my great-uncle chaired predicted that 6,000 vehicles per day would cross the bridge, as against the 66,000 per day that cross today. Pro rata, 6,000 was a bigger share of the overall traffic in 1935 than 66,000 is of the traffic today.

The Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee asked for information on several issues. I have written to the convener to address the points in detail, but I will touch on one or two issues that have been raised—particularly those that relate to the motion that the Parliament passed on the abolition of tolls in May.

The committee was concerned that we had not consulted on the bill, but very thorough discussion and consultation have taken place over a long period on the principle of abolishing bridge tolls. That consultation and the research study that followed it were unusually thorough. They involved MSPs and substantial numbers of individuals, companies and private and public sector organisations.

The committee acknowledged that the Government is committed to funding the removal of the tollbooths on the Tay road bridge and a new road layout at the Forth road bridge in place of the toll plaza there. The details are matters for the bridge boards as roads authorities, but my officials will help to ensure that safe traffic management arrangements are provided at both bridges when tolls are removed.

The committee has pressed me on the effects on bridge staff. I assure members that I take seriously the impact of our proposals on bridge staff. I have paid tribute to their expertise and understand that this has been a particularly difficult and uncertain time for some of them. I have had no wish to complicate the important and detailed work that has been going on to develop and agree staffing policies that respond to the new situation. Decisions on such issues are a matter for the employers—the Forth Estuary Transport Authority and the Tay Road Bridge Joint Board—but I understand that the Government has a role to play in explaining our thinking behind the bill and reassuring staff about their positions. With that in mind, my officials have contacted local representatives of bridge staff to offer a meeting at an early date if they would find such a meeting useful. In addition, I understand that discussions between employers and employees are reaching a conclusion, which is the right time for me to hear from those who have made such a substantial contribution to the safety and operation of the bridges as to how we may preserve the investment that they have made.

The amendment to the motion that we debated in May sought details on finance and costs. We want to remove the power to charge and collect tolls, and the Government has given an assurance to each of the bridge boards that we will replace the toll income with direct grants. We are discussing appropriate agreements with them. The current toll income of some £13 million will be replaced. We, rather than bridge users, will provide that money. A clear announcement in yesterday's spending review backed that up.

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat

A number of different figures appear in the financial memorandum to the bill and the letter that the minister has just sent to the committee. The net toll income for 2009-10 has been given as £13.167 million once the costs of collecting the tolls have been deducted, but there is a budget of only £10.7 million for 2010-11 for the bridge authorities. It does not strike me that the net toll income will be replaced if £3 million less will be provided. Will the minister clarify the figures, as they are a little confusing?

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

There is an overall provision of £87 million, which of course includes money for paying off the Tay Road Bridge Joint Board's debts and some of the effects of removing the tolls. The member should be assured that we have made the provision that we are required to make.

I turn to west Edinburgh. We have made major announcements on train services, including on a new station at Gogar, and we are working with all stakeholders to examine issues relating to the west Edinburgh planning framework area. Further detailed analysis of transport aspects will be reported next year.

Finally, I return to the principle that we are debating today. The bill is about equity and fairness. It will remove a barrier to travel, employment, education, leisure and trade. In doing so, it will help us to achieve our strategic objective of building a wealthier and fairer Scotland. The people who must cross the bridges for health or educational reasons or to visit their friends or families should not pay additional taxes for that privilege. They should be treated equitably. The committee's stage 1 report stated:

"The majority of the Committee is of the view that this is a persuasive argument and it therefore agrees that for this reason alone the continuation of tolls on the Forth Road Bridge and Tay Road Bridge is no longer justified."

I commend that conclusion to the Parliament.

I am happy to move, That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Abolition of Bridge Tolls (Scotland) Bill.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

I call Patrick Harvie to speak on behalf of the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green 3:08 pm, 15th November 2007

In opening for the committee, I first give my thanks and those of the committee to the committee's clerks and the Parliament's other officials who make our meetings and work possible. Thanking those people is traditional, but it is richly deserved. I also thank the other members of the committee and everybody who gave evidence at committee meetings or in writing. We took oral evidence from a range of organisations—from environmental and sustainable transport non-governmental organisations to local authorities, trade unions, business interests and others. We also received many pieces of written evidence. I am grateful to everyone who took part in the process.

It is worth restating for the record that we were disappointed and a little concerned that Transport Scotland initially declined to appear before the committee when it was invited to do so. We welcomed the clarification from the minister and Transport Scotland that that will not happen again, but I hope that no other parliamentary committee will seek evidence from a key part of Government on an issue that it is scrutinising and then find itself looking at a decline letter.

I thank the minister for his written response to the committee's report. I will talk about some of the specifics of that in a few moments.

As the minister makes clear, the bill is simple and short: it deals with the abolition of bridge tolls. However, the committee recognised early on that there are wider implications, and we felt that it was entirely right for us to address those in our scrutiny. I was, therefore, surprised by the references to a tight interpretation of what the bill is about in the minister's response. It is entirely right that we should address the bill's wider implications.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

I am not trying to be difficult, but I do not understand how the member can speak on behalf of the committee when, as the committee's convener, he distanced himself from the report and disagreed with its conclusion.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

I am sorry that the member finds it awkward. It is not entirely as I would wish it either, but it is entirely in order. We discussed with Cathy Peattie, the deputy convener, who supports the bill, whether she might stand in today; however, she is away on sick leave this week. If the member is interested in how I intend to manage this feat, I suggest that she simply watch and listen.

There are some difficulties in this scenario. I am a convener in a minority of one, but the vast bulk of the report was agreed unanimously. The majority of the recommendations in the report had the support of the entire committee, and I will spend the bulk of my speech reflecting the consensus view of the committee on the majority of the bill. After that—if I can be indulged just a few words at the end of my speech—I will talk about why complete consensus was impossible to achieve.

Our first task was to consider the toll impact study and to find out whether the Government accepted its findings. In one of our most significant early conclusions, we found a wide body of support for the toll impact study and a suggestion that it represents the best state of knowledge that we can have about the likely impacts of the bill. We found that the study is factually sound and that there is a general consensus that it presents a reliable account of the impact of the abolition of the tolls on the two bridges. In questioning the minister, it appeared—although he was sometimes less than 100 per cent explicit about this—that the Government accepted the findings of fact in the toll impact study.

After considering the impacts, we recommended that the Government should provide funding for any remedial or mitigating measures that might be identified as necessary to address negative environmental impacts. Although the Government has responded, that response consists mostly of commitments to "continue to monitor" and to "give consideration to", and other such open-ended commitments. It seems reasonable, given that the findings of fact of the toll impact study have been accepted—at least, it is implied that they are accepted by Government—that the Government should have something a bit more coherent and positive to say about what it intends to do, based on the expectation that the toll impact study's findings will come to pass.

We asked the Government to explain what it intends to do to ensure that it honours its commitment to keep road traffic across the Forth at 2006 levels and to decrease CO2 emissions, given the likely impact of an additional 9,000 tonnes of CO2 per annum. The minister answered that that is

"outwith the scope of the Bill."

However, the committee would not have agreed its conclusions on those matters if it did not regard them as being very much part of the context of the bill.

Of course, the commitment to long-term targets for CO2 emissions is welcome. The whole chamber will look forward to debating that. Nevertheless, it is a long-term target and we were looking for something about what the Government intends to do in the immediate future to ensure that its policy on emissions and traffic levels is achieved. There does not appear to be anything clear in the minister's response about what impact each of the measures will have. The minister mentioned buses, rail, travel planning, eco-driving—the phrase almost makes me gag but I have said it—green fleet reviews and active travel, but there seems to be no clear expectation of what impact those measures will have. If those measures are being planned, and if the minister has some confidence in the predictions about traffic levels and CO2 emissions, he should be able to tell the chamber what impact those measures will have on traffic levels and CO2 emissions.

We commented on the need to fund additional traffic management measures as a result of removing the tolls. We had a clear explanation of how the toll plaza currently manages traffic at busy times by merging multiple lanes of traffic so that it can pass safely across the bridge, and a clear indication that whatever traffic management system replaces the plaza will have some of the same physical consequences for traffic going on to the bridge.

We argued for further commitments on bus priority measures and sustainable transport initiatives. I am a little sorry that, although the minister mentioned bus priority measures in his response, he said nothing about sustainable transport. I particularly mention the evidence that the committee received from Spokes, the cycle campaign, which described the experience of getting across the bridge and into Edinburgh. The minister told the committee that there is a very nice cycle lane on the bridge, which would be fine if all one wanted to do was cycle back and forth across the bridge, but most people want go somewhere when they get off the bridge. The cycle route is described as:

"Completely inadequate cycleroute - too narrow, poor surfacing."

Another person said:

"this is one of the poorest parts of the route" and someone else stated:

"It is a national disgrace that it is allowed to continue."

It would be good if the minister said what the Government intends to do to achieve the shift towards sustainable transport for which we all hope.

Finally, equity is the basis on which the Government has made its argument. It is clear that the Government's current transport policy objectives are connectivity, public transport, reducing emissions and shortening journey times.

Those are the transport strategy's objectives and the Government says that it intends to honour them.

At one point, the committee agreed that equity should not in general be a transport policy objective. We heard very sound evidence that it would be difficult to build in such an objective. In this instance, the majority of the committee agreed that equity should be argued for and other members will no doubt explain that at length. We were not able to reach full consensus because, in my view, if equity was to be a serious transport objective for Government, we would be looking for the greatest equity, which is equity for public transport users who have been fleeced for decades, and many disabled passengers who are still physically locked out of much of the transport network. That is where the greatest inequity lies in the transport system. If the Government were genuinely proposing equity as a transport objective, that is where it would begin.

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour 3:18 pm, 15th November 2007

That was a rather strange speech on behalf of the committee, but I say to Tricia Marwick that Patrick Harvie is sitting in a Scottish National Party convenership, so the SNP must bear some responsibility for that.

I will set out Labour's position on the bill. We accept that there was a strong sense in Fife that it was unfair that tolls should continue to be imposed on the key routes in and out of Fife. Those views are shared by people on Tayside and those in the Lothians who are regular users of those two crossings. Their views have been forcefully conveyed by Labour's elected representatives in this Parliament, as the minister acknowledged in his opening speech, and by Labour councillors in the relevant local authorities. In the context of the removal of tolls from the Skye and Erskine bridges, it became unsustainable to continue charging tolls on the existing Forth and Tay crossings. For that reason, Labour members will vote in favour of the principles of the bill.

It is not wrong for politicians or political parties to embrace popular policies, but Governments have responsibilities in bringing forward legislation and the SNP has not faced up to those responsibilities. Those concerns were expressed in evidence to the committee.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

If the abolition of tolls on the Skye and Erskine bridges was so inequitable, why did it take the previous Executive so long even to recognise that inequity?

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

There are a number of issues that we now need to address, having taken that decision.

The Scottish Association for Public Transport stated:

"abolition of tolls on the Forth and Tay bridges is a populist promise that has been made without any regard for transport, fiscal or environmental strategy. This development can only increase bridge traffic and worsen road congestion".

We need to listen to that. Tellingly, the association goes on to point out:

"Free Forth crossings for cars at all times of day contrasts with a peak hour surcharge on rail fares."

We saw yesterday, from the figures in the transport budget, that allocations for road projects are being increased, while money for new rail projects next year is reduced to half of what it was in the budget set by Labour and the Liberal Democrats for this year. That imbalance in spending and the high fares being paid by rail passengers contribute to increased congestion and higher emissions—things that the Government is refusing to acknowledge. We believe that effective mitigating measures, such as park-and-ride schemes and re-examination of the fare structures, are vital to offset those likely consequences.

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

The budget made some big general promises. Perhaps the minister will make more specific ones.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

Does the member recognise that yesterday's statement provided £2.6 billion for rail projects, a figure substantially in advance of his party's commitments?

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

If he reads page 89 of his own budget document, Stewart Stevenson will find the figures for new strategic projects.

A sufficiently robust traffic management plan must be put in place for both the bridges and the road networks used by bridgebound traffic, otherwise traffic accidents or inclement weather will cause havoc. Increased traffic already causes havoc and that will get worse. As the bill progresses, and as the Government makes clear its transport plans, we want to see that things pan out in such a way that that does not happen.

There are shortcomings in the way in which the bill has been brought forward and there are inconsistencies in the approach adopted by the Government. As Patrick Harvie said, those shortcomings and inconsistencies are highlighted in the committee report, which castigates the Administration for failing to carry out a strategic environmental assessment. The previous Parliament agreed, in legislation that it approved, that an SEA should be undertaken where significant environmental impact arises out of projects, plans or programmes. Ministers have weaselled out of that requirement, claiming that the legislation says that changing the financial arrangements, which is what is being done, is not subject to strategic environmental assessment. The exception for budget changes was intended to facilitate the budget process, not to allow the Government to push through legislation without a formal assessment of its environmental impact. As we know, there is overwhelming evidence of adverse environmental impact in the form of an estimated 9,000 tonnes of extra carbon emissions.

The Government's ministers would prefer to ignore that evidence. They promised annual targets for reduced emissions in their manifesto, but they abandoned that commitment in May. Yesterday's budget document set no targets for reductions between now and 2011. In May, it was clear that the political will in this Parliament was in favour of the removal of tolls, but that did not mean that the minister should ignore the key findings of the toll impact study, to which officials—and, presumably, ministers—had access in May. The study was not made public until August, and we have yet to hear ministers provide answers to some of the difficult questions that it highlighted. Southbound traffic will increase by 15 per cent and northbound traffic by 20 per cent, and those increases could have adverse consequences.

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

If, as the study suggests, the monetised transport impact assessment demonstrates that the disbenefit of congestion considerably outweighs the benefit of removing the tolls, how will the Government ensure that the people of Fife, Lothian and Tayside are not faced with longer queues, longer delays and longer travel times?

The minister has said that he will meet the trade unions, and I welcome that. Why did he not do that before? Patrick Harvie has highlighted a number of suggestions to which ministers should respond, either in the course of the debate or by considering changes during the passage of the bill. In particular, they must address funding for remedial or mitigating measures, restraining road traffic across the Forth, reducing CO2 emissions across Scotland and considering additional traffic management measures that are a direct and quantifiable consequence of the removal of the tolls. Those are the things that should be done.

Let me just say—

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative 3:24 pm, 15th November 2007

This is a great day for the Scottish Parliament. We have spent so much time in recent days and weeks complaining about Governments that do not fulfil their manifesto commitments, but today a Government is genuinely fulfilling one. I say that with a degree of pride, because the commitment was also in our manifesto, which is why I will support the motion.

The stage 1 inquiry was interesting. The key issue of inadequate consultation was raised early in the process. I can understand why some people raised it, but, to be honest, given that if the bill had been printed in smaller type it could have fitted on a single sheet of paper, the fact that we produced a stage 1 report that is as thick as a telephone book shows that the committee was extremely thorough.

In the time available, it is not possible for me to go through all the issues related to the inquiry and the bill, but I will raise one or two key issues, so that we can better understand my concerns and how we want the bill to be implemented, with all the appropriate safeguards.

The first issue is what tolls are for. I do not think that anyone who came before the committee to give evidence or any committee member believed that tolls should be retained for the purpose for which they were originally imposed. I do not object to the idea that tolls should be imposed as a method of funding projects—who knows, tolls may once again be necessary to fund road development projects in Scotland—but I object to the idea that the tolls should be retained for reasons that were beyond the imagination of the people who originally put them in place. Therefore, one of the key issues that I raised during the inquiry was that people asked us to retain the tolls because of the provisions in part 3 of the Transport (Scotland) Act 2001, yet those provisions have been put to the political test repeatedly in elections, referenda and by-elections, and they have been rejected consistently by the people who would have to pay the charges.

David McLetchie will come back to the possibility of repealing elements of the 2001 act to ensure that no subsequent Government has the opportunity to use it to reimpose tolls on existing road infrastructure.

Photo of John Park John Park Labour

Why did the Conservative party not end tolls when the original tolling period came to an end in 1995, when it was in power?

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

That was a long time ago. If I had access to the people who were responsible for that decision, I might be able to answer the question. We must remember that, back then, people were paying tolls for the purpose for which they had been introduced. That is no longer the case, and that injustice is what we are dealing with today.

I am content that with the structure that it intends to put in place, the Government is willing to ensure that the resources that are currently gathered through tolls are properly replaced by some other means. However, I am concerned that the independence that has been afforded the bridge boards and, subsequently, the transport authorities—owing to the fact that they have their own independent income through the toll booths—could be undermined. I therefore seek assurances from the minister that the bill will not mark the start of a process that will lead to the removal of the bridge boards' powers to make decisions about the long-term well-being of the structures in their charge.

I am aware that an attempt has been made—I believe that it has been successful—to retain the power to borrow, but so far that power has been exercised against a steady income stream. Now that that stream will be replaced by a Government grant, I am worried that the confidence may not exist to allow the boards to borrow, should there be a crisis that requires to be dealt with.

One of the key parts of the process that led to the decision to abolish the tolls being taken was the toll impact study. It might have been the position of someone such as me to try to rubbish the toll impact study, but I have no intention of doing so: I believe that the toll impact study was sound. However, its conclusions are only marginal to the decision-making process that is before us. Dr Iain Docherty estimated that the extra traffic that removing the tolls would generate

"is probably only a few months' worth ... of background growth, which we would expect to see anyway."—[Official Report, Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee, 25 September 2007; c 146-147.]

I hold that view to be accurate.

The key issue for me has always been equity or, to use a word that the minister used in his opening remarks, injustice. The tolls have become a tax on Fifers. In the Parliament, I have seen valiant and eventually successful efforts to remove tolls on the Skye and Erskine bridges. It can be viewed only as an injustice that the only two tolled bridges in Scotland are those that lead into or out of Fife.

Injustice is the key issue on which the argument balances. As far as I am concerned, the argument is sound, so let us remove the tolls.

Photo of Alison McInnes Alison McInnes Liberal Democrat 3:31 pm, 15th November 2007

As we have heard, the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee report recommends that Parliament agree to the general principles of the bill, but it also makes several important recommendations. The report attacks the SNP's simplistic approach and advises that the bill's environmental impacts must be dealt with. The Liberal Democrats support the sensible removal of tolls as part of an overall plan, with careful consideration of the cost, the impact on demand management, the environmental issues and congestion. However, that is not what the SNP is doing.

So far, from evidence given to the committee and from the minister's written response to the committee this week, the indication is that the Government intends to pay no heed to the issues that the committee raised. The minister has insisted that the bill is purely a financial arrangement, and he commented to the committee that he was pursuing

"the simplest method of removing the bridge tolls".—[Official Report, Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee, 2 October 2007; c 179.]

However, the simplest and quickest solution is not necessarily the best one.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

The member will be aware that the legislation on strategic environmental assessment stems from European legislation, which specifically excludes financial provisions. The inclusion of such provisions was debated in the Scottish Parliament and considered impracticable. Will the member remind us how the Liberals voted on that?

Photo of Alison McInnes Alison McInnes Liberal Democrat

I was not a member of Parliament at the time. I do not dispute the report's conclusions on environmental assessment.

Perhaps it is because the SNP has been in opposition for so long that it does not understand that a Government carries responsibility for its decisions. The soundbite policies of which the SNP is so fond do not work in government—they just come back and bite the party. The SNP likes to blame others—problems are always someone else's fault, be it Westminster or the previous Administration—but the present problem is down to the SNP. If the SNP breenges ahead with the proposals without ensuring that compensating measures are put in place, the problems that arise will be of its own making.

I note Patrick Harvie's opposition to the committee's recommendation, but that will not hold much water if the Greens vote through the SNP budget. The Greens should think carefully about propping up a Government whose first bill will increase emissions and congestion and threaten existing successful public transport schemes.

The minister's written response to the committee's stage 1 report outlines his thinking. In response to recommendations 3a and 3b, on the environmental impact of the proposals, he writes:

"I note the Committee's recommendation and their concerns. The impacts that concern the Committee are all driven by changes in traffic volumes. The Government will continue to monitor traffic levels".

Monitoring the problem will not solve it. We have the evidence from the toll impact study and we know that changes in traffic volumes will occur, so why the prevarication? Why does the SNP not just get on and do it?

In response to the committee's recommendation 3c, which was that the minister should outline the steps that the Government will take to decrease emissions throughout Scotland, given the additional load that the bill will add, the minister stated:

"I note the Committee's recommendation but it is considered to be outwith the scope of this Bill."

The Government must take seriously the implications of the policy decision and introduce measures to mitigate the effects.

I turn to the evidence from Dundee City Council, the Confederation of Passenger Transport and the City of Edinburgh Council. Dundee City Council led evidence that the removal of tolls would have

"an immediate positive impact on congestion and air quality in Dundee's city centre."

I agree with the council on that, but there is an opportunity to provide a sustainable transport option through the provision of a park-and-ride facility at the southern access to the Tay bridge. I call on the Government to have enough foresight to make progress on that.

Photo of Alison McInnes Alison McInnes Liberal Democrat

Not at the moment, as I want to make some progress.

The Confederation of Passenger Transport argued against the removal of tolls as a retrograde step, but it made a plea for bus priority measures on the bridge's access roads if the bill proceeds. The CPT cited the success of the Ferrytoll park and ride, but expressed concerns about the threat that it might face due to increased congestion:

"Stagecoach buses ... shift 21,000 single-occupancy car journeys off the Forth road bridge every week ... Ferrytoll park and ride has had a 24 per cent increase year on year. For the service from Fife to Edinburgh airport, there was a 49 per cent increase in passengers last year. Where we provide a good service on quality vehicles, we will get the extra patronage. What will stop that investment is if we cannot keep those vehicles moving freely."—[Official Report, Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee, 25 September 2007; c 128-131.]

City of Edinburgh Council representatives gave evidence that the park and ride had been a huge success. However, they stated:

"We fear that changes will impact on public transport use by making it less attractive. If public transport has to experience the same congestion as general car traffic, people might stop using it. If it appears to be more expensive, more people will stop using it ... it will be affected by the change in the relative costs."—[Official Report, Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee, 18 September 2007; c 94.]

I know that bus priority measures have been discussed by the south east of Scotland transport partnership—SEStran—and FETA, but there is as yet no certainty on the matter. The Government must agree that such measures will be funded and ensure that they are delivered at the same time as the changes to the traffic management schemes on the bridges. When I put those matters to the Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change at the committee, I could not get a straight answer. I pressed him three times on whether bus priority measures would be part of the plaza redesign, but he wriggled around and passed the buck. He did so again today in his opening speech by saying that such matters are for the bridge board. It is irresponsible of him to wash his hands of such matters for something of this scale.

Removing the tolls will be cold comfort to the people of Fife and to transport hauliers throughout the country if the result is greater congestion, longer peak periods and more pollution. I urge the Government to pay heed to the committee's recommendations and to bring forward proper plans to deal with the impact of the removal of tolls.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

We move to the open debate. Speeches should be of six minutes.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party 3:37 pm, 15th November 2007

On 4 September 1964, the tolled Forth road bridge was opened. Exactly 43 years later, on 3 September 2007, the first ever Scottish National Party Government introduced the Abolition of Bridge Tolls (Scotland) Bill to the Parliament. To the people of Fife and Tayside, the bill is another promise made and kept by the SNP Government.

The road to get here has been long and tortuous. The journey has involved broken promise after broken promise by Labour to the people of Fife. Having carefully examined the stage 1 report of the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee, I must say—with all respect to the committee members—that the report is a bit po-faced. The report criticises the lack of public consultation, despite the fact that there is no requirement for public consultation. I say as kindly as I can to the committee that the bridge tolls have been subject to public consultation: it was called an election. Labour paid a heavy price for its broken promises to the people of Fife.

Those broken promises go back a long way. In 1964, the Labour Government said that the tolls would be removed when the capital costs of the Forth road bridge were paid off. In 1985, Gordon Brown informed the Forth Road Bridge Joint Board inquiry into proposed increases in bridge tolls:

"The unjust treatment of bridge users is exemplified by the fact that they effectively pay several times over for the facilities they use—as taxpayers, rate payers, road-tax payers and as toll payers."

Gordon Brown even went as far as to promise, by press release, a bill at Westminster to abolish the tolls. However, that promise went only as far as lodging a proposal in the House of Commons library; it was never translated into a bill that was considered. When Gordon Brown had time to do something about the matter in Government in 1997, he still did nothing.

In March 2006, when an SNP motion to scrap the tolls on the Tay was defeated by Labour and Liberal Democrats, I said:

"One thing is sure: the SNP will vote to scrap the tolls on the Tay bridge. If we are defeated, the campaign will continue. An SNP Government will scrap the tolls on the Tay and Forth bridges next year."—[Official Report, 30 March 2006; c 24570.]

And that is just what we are about to do.

I found it mildly amusing that, in a recent motion, Helen Eadie castigated the SNP for not setting a date for the abolition of the tolls—that from a member who voted to keep the tolls on the Tay when her party was in Government. Of course, the bill is subject to the Parliament's timetable, not the Government's. However, provided that the Liberals and Labour support the bill, it is reasonable to assume that the tolls will be removed from the Forth and Tay bridges by January next year.

I offer particular thanks to The Courier newspaper, which came in behind the campaign and was truly a voice for the people of Fife, Tayside and Perthshire on the issue. I also thank my friends Shona Robison and Bruce Crawford, who would have dearly loved to speak in the debate but cannot do so.

I turn again to the committee's stage 1 report. Paragraph 182 states:

"However the fact remains that in Scotland it is only those who live in, visit or work in Fife who are subjected to the requirement to pay bridge tolls."

However, in paragraph 183 the report states that the committee

"is of the view that equity is a subjective as opposed to a scientific argument and, as such, should not generally be considered as a transport policy objective."

Not surprisingly, I disagree profoundly with that statement. I know that I speak for the people of Fife when I say that I do not care what issues are used to support the abolition of the tolls or what arguments are used to retain them. There is, and has been since 1964, only one issue: fairness and equity. It is not a perception of unfairness for Fife to have two tolls when no other part of Scotland has any—it is unfairness.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party


I do not want to finish without referring to the toll plaza—the vanity project that was agreed by Tavish Scott and FETA and cost £5 million to build. It will now cost us millions more to dismantle the plaza and remodel the road network. I say to Alison McInnes that it is a pity that when the Liberal Democrat Tavish Scott was the Minister for Transport he did not put in the bus lanes that were necessary. When he ordered a review of the review in March 2006, FETA had already made plans for a new toll plaza, including electronic collection. I asked the minister to halt that work while the review of the review took place, but he refused. However, I am a generous soul. I assure Labour and Liberal Democrat members that at 5 pm tonight they can vote to redeem themselves. After all, if a repentant sinner can enter the kingdom of heaven, repentant politicians are welcome to enter the toll-free kingdom of Fife.

Photo of David Stewart David Stewart Labour 3:43 pm, 15th November 2007

As a member of the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee—and, perhaps, as a repentant sinner as well—I am grateful for the opportunity to make a few brief comments.

The committee did what was written on the tin—we scrutinised the bill. As we have heard, we did not all agree, but we came up with a first-class report. Today, I thank publicly not only the staff and members of the committee, as Patrick Harvie has done, but all the excellent witnesses who appeared before us. I include the minister in that, although I hope that my comments will not damage his future political career. As we have heard, all the witnesses were happy and willing volunteers, apart from one pressed man, representing Transport Scotland, who did not seem keen to appear before the committee, until he turned up screaming and kicking, handcuffed to John Swinney. Perhaps I overstate my case.

We know that this is a simple bill that takes away the tolls from the Forth and Tay road bridges and tidies up the legislation on the Erskine bridge. I thank publicly Helen Eadie for the excellent work that she has done on the issue, especially in her previous proposed member's bill.

I support the principle of the bill and will vote for it this evening, but I would like to make a couple of points; the minister may want to respond to them when he winds up. My points relate to consultation, environmental issues—about which we have already heard—modal shift, equity and staffing.

I am still confused about why the public were not formally consulted under the new Administration. I am not convinced—although I am happy to be convinced if the minister can come up with some arguments—that because the abolition of bridge tolls was a manifesto commitment there was no reason to consult. What is the legal precedent for such an approach? I understand that the Government will consult on local income tax, which was also a manifesto commitment, so there seems to be a contradiction. However, if the minister can show me the legal precedent for the approach, I will be happy to withdraw my comments.

On the environmental issues, the toll impact study was the key piece of information that was available to us. As we have heard, the study suggested that there would be increased congestion and extended peak periods on both bridges. Stuart Hay, from Friends of the Earth Scotland, said in evidence to the committee that toll removal would add 9,000 tonnes of CO2 to the environment, which he said was 16 times more CO2 than the Government's whole microrenewables programme currently displaces. The Scottish Government has a debit side on its carbon balance sheet, so where will the credits come from? Where is the evidence of modal shift—the transfer from car to bus, rail or bicycle? Where is the evidence for a transfer to park and ride, or at least to high-occupancy vehicle lanes? I am interested to hear more from the minister on that.

In fairness—I believe in being fair in this debate—I have no doubt that the minister is genuinely dedicated to trying to ensure that, in future, trains are more efficient and have greater capacity: he made that clear to the committee. However, in his letter to the committee, which is reproduced on page 165 of the report, he said:

"Transport Scotland has no plans to modify or upgrade any section of the trunk road network to minimise the impact of any increase in congestion caused specifically by the removal of tolls", and went on to say, in response to a suggestion by the City of Edinburgh Council:

"Transport Scotland has not considered any proposal to reduce Edinburgh-Fife rail fares".

City of Edinburgh Council was also concerned about CO2 emissions, and it thinks that in future there might be an argument for more air quality management areas in the city. In addition, it suggested bus priority measures on the A90, more park-and-ride facilities in Fife and clean bus-engine technology. I ask the minister to comment on those suggestions when he winds up. Does he share my view that it would have been helpful to complete a strategic environmental assessment, as other members have said?

I acknowledge the work that was carried out by the Fife and Tayside members who took part in the original consultation and who articulated well the sense of grievance that communities feel about the tolls on both bridges, particularly given that the Skye and Erskine bridges are now toll free.

I do not always sign up to the arguments of environmentalists, but some environmentalists have asked how fair our approach is for non-car users in Kirkcaldy or Wester Hailes. How can there be equity without an increase in public transport projects? It is important that we measure future transport initiatives against a national transport strategy.

It is important that there should be more direct intervention by the minister in relation to people who will lose their jobs, particularly on the Forth bridge. The minister has given assurances on that. The evidence on staffing that the committee took from trade unions was compelling.

My speech is designed to praise the bill, not to bury it. The Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee supported the principle behind the bill, although there are issues to do with staffing, environmental mitigation and future financing. I support the bill and I commend it to members.

Photo of Joe FitzPatrick Joe FitzPatrick Scottish National Party 3:48 pm, 15th November 2007

I am delighted to welcome the Scottish National Party Government's first bill, which addresses an issue of great importance to my constituents and the constituents of my colleague Shona Robison, on the other side of Dundee.

The fact that the first bill of the new Administration focuses on the abolition of tolls on the Forth and Tay bridges sends a strong message that the unfair tolls that the Labour and Liberal Democrat coalition kept in place have no place in a Scotland headed by an SNP

Government. The people and economies of Fife and Tayside have suffered as a result of the unfair tolls, but the Labour and Lib Dem Executive refused to remove the tolls, despite having numerous opportunities to do so during its eight long years in power. The Executive that removed tolls from the Skye bridge in 2003 and the Erskine bridge in 2006 left the people of Fife and Tayside as the only people who paid tolls.

This session of Parliament has seen a welcome—if somewhat half-hearted—U-turn by Labour and the Liberals, and I am glad that they are beginning to see the error of their ways. I welcome their support for the removal of tolls from the Forth and Tay bridges. However, it would be wrong of me not to acknowledge the role that the campaign by The Courier played in putting pressure on those parties to make that U-turn. It was incredible to see the U-turn spreading across the Labour and Lib Dem benches during the debate on 31 May—that was something to behold.

I will focus on the tolls on the Tay bridge, which are of most relevance to my constituents. No matter where people are trying to get to by car in Dundee, the congestion from the queues of traffic from the Tay bridge toll booths will affect them. Car and bus journeys are lengthened, and at peak times the town centre can come to a virtual standstill, with a knock-on effect on air quality. Anyone who has tried to get around Dundee in the early evening knows how bad the situation is. It is clear that the situation in Dundee is caused by cars idling in the city because they cannot reach the Tay bridge, or cannot traverse the city centre from east to west or west to east because they cannot get through the queues of traffic that are trying to get to the tolls, which often stretch right round the inner ring road.

I see that Patrick Harvie has gone, but—just to clarify—the tolls on the Tay bridge do not just slow down traffic that is crossing the bridge; they slow down traffic, including public transport, that is crossing the city. I appreciate the position of members in the Green party, but in the case of Dundee, speeding up the flow of traffic will reduce the amount of emissions that are caused by static traffic and will benefit bus users just as much as those who are travelling by car.

In 1991, when the two-way tolling was replaced by southbound-only tolling on the Tay bridge, the benefits were clear, as congestion was reduced on the south bank. On 28 March 2006, when the toll collectors were on strike, the congestion disappeared almost altogether, even in the evening. There is good evidence that congestion in Dundee is caused by tolls, and removing the tolls will alleviate that daily congestion. I assure members that the bill is warmly welcomed in my constituency, as the people anticipate an end to the unjust tolls and, more important, the queues of traffic that they have suffered for so many years.

I also welcome the proposal in the bill that provides for central Government funding for the running of the bridges and for taking on the Tay bridge capital debt. We should remember that central Government took over the £26 million Skye bridge debt, which is double the amount of the Tay bridge debt. Local councillors in Dundee, north-east Fife and Angus will also welcome the proposals to retain the Tay Road Bridge Joint Board as the body that is responsible for the day-to-day management of the bridge. There was some concern, particularly among staff, that when the tolls went the bridge board would go as well. I particularly welcome the fact that we will maintain the wealth of experience that has been built up over the years by board members, managers and—most important—members of staff.

I am pleased that the new arrangements that have been laid in place by the Tay bridge board will be arrived at with no compulsory redundancies. I hope that all members of the Parliament will welcome that, which is in stark contrast to the shoddy way in which workers were treated when the former Labour-Lib Dem Executive removed tolls from the Erskine bridge with no regard for the workers involved.

The effect on the economy was raised earlier, and it should not be underplayed. In order to benefit fully from inward investment, Dundee requires transport across the Tay bridge. North-east Fife is naturally geared towards Dundee, and we need to ensure that as much as possible of that business comes into the city centre. That will be important when the waterfront development is advanced, and we want Dundee to take maximum benefit from that—the people of north-east Fife are very welcome in our city. The removal of the burden of tolls is essential to ensure that businesses in Dundee compete on an equal footing with businesses elsewhere. The bill will remove the extra tax that the tolls add and give an extra boost to the economies of both Fife and Tayside.

We are not giving the people of Tayside and Fife anything more than what the rest of the country expects—and has, at present. There are almost 30 road crossings over tidal waters in Scotland, and tolls are charged only for the Tay and Forth bridges. There can be no argument in favour of keeping the unjust tolls, and I call on all members to support the bill.

Photo of Helen Eadie Helen Eadie Labour 3:54 pm, 15th November 2007

I welcome the bill and give the credit that is due to the Scottish Government. If we are to have credibility, it is important that we acknowledge when our political opponents do something that we would like to see done. I warmly welcome the position that we are in today. I have an issue with Patrick Harvie. The fact that he spoke in the way that he did today is an issue for his committee and for the Scottish Government. However, I will let that stick.

I was chair of the Forth Road Bridge Joint Board from 1996 to 1999, so I speak with some knowledge of the historical issues. I also want to mention the A8000—I hope that colleagues will allow me to do so. Some members will know that the approach roads to the bridge were paid for by the tolls. The Forth road bridge is the only road bridge in the United Kingdom whose approach roads were paid for by tolls. More recently, FETA paid for the A8000. Colleagues ought to give credit to the previous Labour-led coalition and the ministers who were involved in developing the A8000, which is one of the best pieces of the road network in central Scotland. I applaud the Labour and Liberal Democrat ministers who were involved in that decision, because the road has made a colossal difference to all travellers across Scotland.

I am delighted to hear that the SNP will not backtrack on the issue, although I have to say to the minister that that is in stark contrast to the SNP's approach to some of its other manifesto commitments. I hope that the SNP will learn from this example that when it keeps its manifesto commitments, we warmly welcome that and applaud it.

I hope that the minister will take on board the concern that I noted at the Subordinate Legislation Committee. The committee had a slightly unusual request from the Government for a delay to the commencement—

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

There will be no delay. The provision at the end of the bill is a standard one, which states that the minister may act by order. It will be done on the first day on which I can do it.

Photo of Helen Eadie Helen Eadie Labour

I am delighted to know that. I welcome the minister's comment, because that was certainly not the impression that I had at the committee.

Tricia Marwick cynically tried to rewrite history today. When the Parliament voted on the Tay bridge tolls, the motion mentioned only the Tay bridge. It did not mention the Forth bridge. Everyone knows that my position on the Forth bridge tolls has been absolutely consistent. I have never done a U-turn on the issue. My position was clear—I would not support the removal of tolls from the Tay bridge unless tolls were also removed from the Forth bridge. That is important.

I am pleased that the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee considered the wider socioeconomic issues. In the past, the focus largely ignored the interests of the wider community. I am especially pleased that the committee took evidence from a variety of key stakeholders in the business community, including officials from the Freight Transport Association, Scottish Chambers of Commerce and the Confederation of Passenger Transport UK.

I was especially pleased to read the evidence that was given by Alan Russell, representing both Scottish Chambers of Commerce and Fife Chamber of Commerce. He pinpointed one of the points that have been argued powerfully in Fife when he said that Fife businesses pay about an extra £3.4 million in additional taxation. That was shown by a survey that Fife Chamber of Commerce carried out. He went on to say that the additional costs have impinged dramatically on business development in Fife and cited an example of a company that failed to locate in Fife. That really is a matter of grave concern, as it was not the only example.

I am especially keen to highlight the fact that the Government does not seem to speak to local government—that seems to be a pattern for this Government. It is arguing for all kinds of measures to be taken, but in Fife we are seeing different effects. Today's Dunfermline Press and West of Fife Advertiser reports that Fife Council is to impose a £1 car parking fee at all railway stations in Fife. Just as we are trying to encourage people to take public transport, the SNP puts up another cost barrier. The SNP is taking the tolls off the bridge, but the SNP and Lib Dem-controlled council in Fife is adding an extra £1 a day to the cost of travel for people who want to go by train. It is perverse logic to put people in that position.

Finally, if we really wanted to get meaningful change in patterns of public transport use, we would be investing in the Edinburgh airport rail link.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative 4:02 pm, 15th November 2007

I welcome the bill to abolish tolls on the Tay and Forth bridges.

Although the new Government has been quick to take credit for that outcome, we should reflect on the fact that it is really a result of the confused and contradictory policies of the previous Labour and Liberal Democrat regime and of the naked, unprincipled opportunism that characterised so much of the Faustian bargain between the two parties.

The genesis was the abolition of the tolls on the Skye bridge, a Lib Dem demand that was enshrined in its first partnership agreement with Labour. Inevitably and inexorably, that led to demands from Labour MSPs for a tolls quid pro quo. Sure enough, only a few years later, the Executive came up with the abolition of the tolls on the Erskine bridge. As many members have pointed out, that left commuters to and from Fife as effectively the only toll payers in the country.

That was a fundamental inequity in treatment that no amount of argument in favour of tolls from Patrick Harvie or others could resolve, for the simple reason that the pass had been well and truly sold and Labour members in particular were placed in an untenable position—literally, of course, as two of them lost their seats.

The bill should not be regarded as the end of the matter or as signifying the final demise of tolls in Scotland. Lurking on the statute book, we have the Transport (Scotland) Act 2001, which empowers the Forth Estuary Transport Authority to introduce a road user charging scheme for traffic on the bridge.

Members will be aware of that power, because the Liberal Democrat Minister for Transport Nicol Stephen ordered FETA to exercise it when he instructed FETA to devise a variable tolling or road pricing scheme as a condition of funding for the A8000 upgrade. Then, as we all know, less than a year later it became the road user charging scheme that the Liberal Democrats disowned in the Dunfermline and West Fife by-election and which was subsequently rejected.

In one of the most two-faced, unscrupulous pieces of political chicanery ever seen in Scotland, the Liberal Democrats won a by-election by campaigning against the very tolls that their ministers had instructed FETA to introduce. Not surprisingly, that must have left a sour taste in many a Labour mouth, and the eventual demise of the loveless marriage in the Parliament between the two can perhaps be traced to that event.

Enough of the history, entertaining though it is to record—the fact is that the variable tolling power remains on the statute book, and it is open to all local authorities in Scotland and to FETA to introduce road user charging schemes. Accordingly, until that power is removed, tolls—or the prospect of tolls—will not be finally laid to rest.

The Conservatives raised the issue in the Parliament back in February this year, before the election, when we lodged an amendment that called for the repeal in its entirety of part 3 of the Transport (Scotland) Act 2001. Those are the road user or so-called congestion charging provisions, which were supported at the time by Labour, the Liberal Democrats and—I am afraid to say—the SNP. Only the Scottish Conservatives opposed them.

However, back in February, in a most welcome U-turn, the then SNP transport spokesman, Fergus Ewing, said unequivocally in Parliament that:

"The SNP is wholly opposed to additional taxation on the roads and to road tolls."

He added:

"We are not prepared to allow a piece of legislation to remain on the statute book that could be used to put a charge of £4 or £10 on the Forth road bridge by the back door".—[Official Report, 22 February; c 32352.]

Mr Ewing has since gone on to lesser things, but we have continued, since the new Government was appointed, to pursue the issue with Stewart Stevenson. That has been done both in correspondence between me and the minister and through meetings of the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee. The minister has undertaken to consider whether the Abolition of Bridge Tolls (Scotland) Bill could be amended to remove the power from FETA. I give notice that the Conservatives will lodge such an amendment at stage 2.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

Should such an amendment be lodged, we would be minded to accept it, if it were properly drafted.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

I welcome the Government's support, and I would welcome the support of other parties in the chamber—in particular the Liberal Democrats, who I am sure have now seen the error of their ways, despite the prominent positions that their former transport ministers still occupy in the party.

If we are successful in achieving that objective through the bill, we will seek support later this session for the repeal in its entirety of part 3 of the 2001 act—a proposal for which SNP members voted back in February. We shall seek that repeal so that the imposition of a tolling regime on any road or bridge in Scotland is no longer possible, and so that our motorists, who already pay the highest fuel prices and the highest fuel taxes in western Europe, will not have to pay any additional charges to drive on the very roads that their taxes have already paid for.

Bearing in mind the persistent threats from Labour at Westminster to promote national or local road pricing schemes, it is imperative that the Scottish Parliament says no to tolls in Scotland—in what is quite clearly a devolved responsibility—by cleaning up the statute book. On that wider issue, we would welcome all converts to our point of view. We look forward to the support of members across the chamber.

Photo of Jim Tolson Jim Tolson Liberal Democrat 4:07 pm, 15th November 2007

I welcome today's debate as an opportunity to move towards a fair tolling system for all of Scotland, but also as an opportunity to challenge the Government on its inconsistent approach to tolling.

Many of my constituents in Dunfermline West have regularly commuted to Edinburgh for decades. Overcrowded trains, congested roads and bridge tolls all added to their misery. Fortunately, the previous Executive—under the direction of my good friend Tavish Scott—extended platforms and improved the quality and capacity of the rolling stock. The previous Executive also helped to reduce congestion with the implementation of the very successful Inverkeithing park and ride. In this session of Parliament, we have supported the abolition of bridge tolls to ensure fairness across the whole country.

Photo of Jim Tolson Jim Tolson Liberal Democrat

I am sorry, but I have very little time.

The recent toll impact study suggests that the removal of the tolls will lead to a 20 per cent increase in traffic congestion, but the SNP claims that traffic will stabilise at 2006 levels. Given the well-known traffic growth figures, that seems another promise that the Government is destined to break.

The Government has used its very first legislative proposal to increase emissions and congestion. Its ambitious targets of reducing emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 are not consistent with its actions so far. It has delayed the introduction of the climate change bill, it is blocking renewable energy projects and it is undermining public transport projects. That is not a very good—or even consistent—start for the SNP Government.

The Government is due to announce soon—whenever "soon" is—its decision on a new Forth crossing. That project is vital not only to my constituency but to the economy of the whole of eastern Scotland. The existing bridge is operating way beyond its intended loads and capacities and a very real crisis is looming, in that it may have to close to traffic in whole or in part within the next decade. I sincerely hope that the Government makes the right decision for Scotland on a new crossing and that it selects a cable-stayed bridge on the grounds of urgency, cost and the environment.

Is the minister aware that a significant landowner along the route that a tunnel might take on the Fife side of the Forth claims to have decades of test bore data for his land, which he claims show pockets of underground water? That water, if struck as part of the route of a proposed tunnel, would significantly increase the time and cost of the tunnel option. The minister and the Government continue to come under sustained pressure from political colleagues to support the tunnel option, but to ignore the perils of a tunnel—or the benefits of a bridge—would let down the vast majority of the people of Scotland, not just a few of the SNP's supporters, who will vote for the SNP in 2011 come what may.

Despite my repeated requests for information from the Government, it refuses to rule out the use of tolls on what I hope will be the bridge for the third millennium across the Forth at Queensferry. Will the Government dare to give members and the public a clear statement today on whether it will include a tolling regime with a new Forth crossing? Many businesses in Fife already have great concerns about the uncertainty over the provision of a new crossing. In fact, some businesses are actively considering moving south of the Forth. Will the minister put their concerns at rest by confirming today that a replacement Forth crossing will be put in place in the shortest possible timescale, and that it will cost the taxpayer less and have the least environmental impact? The only option that meets those criteria is a cable-stayed bridge. Will he please put employers, employees and everyone in Fife out of their misery and back the cable-stayed bridge option?

The Liberal Democrats welcome today's debate and will support the Abolition of Bridge Tolls (Scotland) Bill. However, the Government must not forget the consequences and should build in environmental protection measures to offset an increase in emissions.

Thus far, the Government has refused to confirm that it will not impose tolls on a new Forth crossing. It has been inconsistent in its promises to the public, who will hold it to account on that issue. The Government says that it will not only reduce pollution but halt traffic growth—that sounds like the kind of hair-brained idea that we have come to expect from its Green bedfellows.

Removal of the Forth and Tay bridge tolls has been a long-term aspiration for businesses, commuters and visitors. I believe that today we will take a major step toward making that a real benefit for my constituents and everyone who lives or works in, or travels through, the great kingdom of Fife. [Interruption.]

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

Here we go again. Put your mobile phones and Blackberrys off—easy.

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party 4:12 pm, 15th November 2007

As a member of the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee, and as someone who was born and brought up in the kingdom of Fife, I am delighted that one of the SNP Government's first moves has been to abolish tolls on the Forth and Tay road bridges. The debate is about fairness. The tolls on the Forth and the Tay are a unique form of regressive taxation on the people of Fife and the east of Scotland.

Photo of Claire Baker Claire Baker Labour

I have listened to the debate over the principle of equity for Fife with interest. Does the member agree that it would be helpful if the minister confirmed today whether he is considering tolling as part of the funding package for a future, replacement Forth crossing?

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

I think that the minister has heard the member's intervention and will take it into account if he wants to.

The debate is about fairness. It has always been an anomaly that only a few stretches of road in Scotland are tolled. The successful campaigns against the tolls on the Skye and Erskine bridges rightly highlighted the negative impact those tolls had on the local economies and on local communities. To put it simply, if the tolls on the Skye bridge and the Erskine bridge were wrong, the tolls on the Forth and the Tay are wrong too.

One of the most striking reasons why the tolls should go is that the reason why they were put there in the first place has long gone. They were introduced specifically to pay off the capital costs of constructing the bridge. That milestone passed some time ago, yet the tolls have remained. If the original reason for tolling has passed, it is important to get to the real motivation of the people who want tolls to remain. As the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee took evidence on the bill, it became clear that the debate about tolls had grown into something quite different. Many of those people who supported the retention of tolls did so because they saw tolling as a means of having congestion charging on Scotland's roads.

Although I do not agree with Patrick Harvie, I respect the sincerity of his views and those of the Green party on the issue. Patrick and some of the witnesses who came before the committee put forward an impassioned case for congestion charging. They may believe that that is the right way forward for Scotland's road network—I do not—and they may want to see more rather than less tolling, but the fact that tolls were introduced decades ago to fund initial capital costs cannot mean that the people of Fife should be subject to Scotland's only congestion charge. They have the right to have the current discrimination ended—and soon.

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

Not at the moment.

Equity is not the only important issue in the debate. The abolition of tolls is also right for the economy of Fife. Both the Fife Chamber of Commerce and the Scottish Chambers of Commerce have argued strongly that tolls harm the Fife economy. During their evidence to the committee, they highlighted that tolls act as a drag on development and prosperity, and that their continued existence represents an additional financial and psychological impediment to growth.

Indeed, a recent survey by Fife Chamber of Commerce found that the direct cost of the tolls to businesses in Fife is £1.4 million. If we add on to that the £2 million in indirect costs to which they are also subject, the total additional tax bill that they face reaches nearly £3.5 million. That is a heavy burden, the removal of which will be welcomed by small businesses, in particular.

Some of the evidence that the committee received made much of the forecast increase in carbon emissions that will result from the abolition of the tolls; much has been made of those predictions again today. However, we should bear in mind the scale of the numbers involved. We are talking about an increase of less than 0.1 per cent in the emissions caused on Scotland's roads, which represents an increase of less than 0.02 per cent of the total CO2 emissions for Scotland.

I appreciate that that increase, albeit small, is concerning to environmental groups, but it does not take into account the evidence from Dundee City Council, which clearly believes that the abolition of the tolls will lead to a reduction—rather than, as the toll impact study forecasts, an increase—in congestion and emissions.

Most significantly, even if the forecast increase is true, it must be seen in the context of the Government's wider pledge to introduce a climate change bill and its commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050, which we should remember is a much stronger target than the one that has been set by the Government at Westminster. In particular, it must be seen in the context of the budget that was published yesterday, which committed the Scottish Government to record amounts of expenditure on public transport. Over the next three years, £2.65 billion will be spent on railways and £740 million will be spent on increasing bus travel. In addition, there will be an increase of 40 per cent in funding for sustainable and active travel. That is good news for Scotland's commuters, especially those in Fife, and for the environment. I welcome the Government's commitment to tackling our country's contribution to climate change.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

Yes, you are in your final minute.

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

As part of our work on the bill, the committee undertook a visit to the Forth road bridge, which left us in no doubt about the hard work and dedication of the people who work behind the scenes on that impressive structure. It is important that, as we make our decisions in Parliament, we pay special attention to the direct impact that those decisions will have on the people who currently work on both bridges. I end by paying tribute to the staff and management who work on the Forth and Tay bridges and acknowledge their considerable experience. It is important that their vital skills are retained and I welcome the minister's agreement to meet staff to discuss their concerns.

Photo of Marilyn Livingstone Marilyn Livingstone Labour 4:18 pm, 15th November 2007

I thank the Presiding Officer for giving me the opportunity to participate in the debate. It will come as no surprise to the Parliament that I will speak in support of the removal of tolls from the Forth and Tay road bridges.

There is no doubt that both bridges are essential to the social and economic well-being of Fife, including my Kirkcaldy constituency. They are crucial in providing access to jobs and markets for local businesses and residents, who must be allowed such access on an equal basis with the rest of Scotland. The removal of the tolls will do just that, which is why I warmly welcome the bill.

In my submission to my colleague Helen Eadie's consultation as part of her draft proposal to remove tolls from the Forth and Tay bridges, I made the point that the removal of tolls would allow Fife to compete equally with other areas of Scotland and would have an extremely positive social impact. As others have mentioned, that view is supported by Fife Chamber of Commerce and the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, which said in evidence that the tolls on Fife's bridges are

"a barrier to economic growth, particularly in Fife. There is no evidence to support the idea that tolls benefit the economy; if anything, they have the opposite effect. We could produce a range of evidence to prove that the tolls are detrimental to tourism, which is one of the major industries in Scotland and Fife."—[Official Report, Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee, 25 September 2007; c 129.]

The toll impact study suggests that about 1,000 additional jobs will be created in Fife following the abolition of the tolls. Businesses will benefit from a reduction in their transportation costs. However, as has been said, the committee noted that increased congestion, particularly on the Forth road bridge, is likely to bring economic disadvantage and have an environmental impact. We must pay heed to that.

Fife Council was concerned that, in its early phase, the toll impact study did not properly reflect the measures that the council introduced to mitigate the effect of increases in road traffic. A council representative said that the tolled bridges review phase 1 to phase 3 reports show the projected increase in traffic movements reducing from 40 per cent to 10 per cent and asked whether, if there were a phase 4 report that took other matters into account, that would further reduce the increased volume of traffic using the bridge. That question is important and I would like the minister to answer it, if possible.

My constituents and the wider east of Scotland region have experienced major improvements because the A8000 has been upgraded, as Helen Eadie mentioned. That has removed one of the major barriers that caused increasing traffic congestion. I congratulate all who were involved in that major project.

Members who represent Fife must take economic disadvantage seriously. Fife Chamber of Commerce members have raised with Fife MSPs the economic disadvantage of congestion. What action will the Scottish Government take on the committee's recommendations that the Government should provide appropriate funding for any remedial or mitigating measures and that it should fund any additional traffic management measures that may be considered necessary?

I ask the minister to answer the following specific questions about support for appropriate modal shift measures. Does he agree that a new crossing is crucial to the economy of Fife and Scotland? Will he support a multimodal option for a new crossing, to give the people of my constituency and the wider Fife community a public transport option? Will he say how soon work will commence? Will he support increased park-and-ride opportunities, especially for people in mid-Fife, who find it difficult to reach Inverkeithing park and ride?

What plans does the Scottish Government have for further development of sustainable transport initiatives, such as bus priority and rail travel measures, including the continued expansion of parking facilities at railway stations throughout Fife? The lack of parking is still a major barrier. Also, what support will be given to cycle use?

Will the Government support the initiatives for ferry or hovercraft services from my constituency to Edinburgh? How will the minister mitigate the negative impact that the Government's rejection of the Edinburgh airport rail link has had on my constituents? That link would have not only given the people of Fife a direct route to Edinburgh airport but opened up the rail network to them. The failure to support the link has dramatically reduced their access to public transport options.

When the minister considers transport spending initiatives, I ask him to take on board the issues that have been raised today. I ask the Parliament to support the bill to ensure equity for the people of my constituency and the wider Fife community.

Photo of John Park John Park Labour 4:24 pm, 15th November 2007

We have heard speeches from many MSPs who have been involved in the campaign for a while, so I was going to start by paying tribute to Helen Eadie and Tricia Marwick. However, there was a little bit of tit for tat earlier, so I say gently to Tricia Marwick that perhaps she should show a wee bit more humility in such situations. As she said, we are reaching the end of a long campaign. Neither member is a Johnny-come-lately to the issue and they should both be pleased about the outcome that will be in place early next year.

I have no doubt that the majority of people in Fife will warmly welcome the removal of tolls on both crossings. I have lived in the area that I now call "the bridgehead area"—I have called it that only since I became a politician; before I was elected to the Parliament, I called it "Dunfermline and Rosyth"—and, in my undoubted understanding of the west Fife psyche, public opinion on the matter has shifted very quickly over the past two or three years. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that some people who live in the bridgehead area and elsewhere in Fife have legitimate concerns about the negative impact that increased congestion could have on their communities. I have received correspondence highlighting those concerns and have tried my best to put people's minds at rest. I am sure that the minister agrees that appropriate measures will have to be introduced—indeed, he mentioned that. I am pleased that finances will be available to introduce further measures.

People who regularly travel over the Forth road bridge will have seen improvements in recent months. The new toll plaza and the associated traffic management to the north of the toll plaza have led to far fewer queues on the northbound road at peak times, and the M9 spur has led to less congestion on the southbound road at peak times. More important, that spur has reduced the load on the bridge, as heavy goods vehicles no longer end up nose to tail on it waiting to go up the ramp towards the A8000. That will make a huge difference to the condition of the bridge's cables, the study on which will be completed in the next couple of years.

I was a little bit worried by the minister's semantics when we initially asked him about the workforce. The Transport and General Workers Union and I wrote to him about meeting the workforce, but he replied that he was unable to meet its representatives at that time. In response to a question that I asked in the chamber, he said:

"I will be happy to meet anyone who wishes to discuss the continued safe operation of the bridges, which is in all our interests."—[Official Report, 6 September 2007; c 1515.]

He told the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee:

"I am happy to meet the unions ... once the terms between the employers and the unions have been signed off."—[Official Report, Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee, 2 October 2007; c 184.]

Removing tolls from the Forth road bridge raises two particular issues. The first is industrial relations—I recognise that the minister has tried to separate out issues relating to redundancy pay, terms and outplacements. However, the second issue is wider: the operation of the bridge in the future. I raise that issue because the SNP Government has made a big play of social partnerships and engaging with trade unions. I welcome what it has said, but we must ensure that there is early dialogue and that organised workers are involved in the process. There should not be only warm words.

Photo of John Park John Park Labour

I am sorry, but I still have a lot to say.

Industrial relations and workers' legitimate concerns cannot be separated. That is what social partnership is about. It is about engaging with people as early as possible and discussing decisions that matter to them. People might think that having a national conversation is laudable, but there must be much earlier engagement and meaningful conversation, particularly with organised workers. I am pleased that the minister has made a commitment on that, but I would like him to provide details in summing up. He said that he has made contact with representatives of bridge staff, but I have received no notice of that, although I have spoken to the unions. Perhaps he can confirm when correspondence was sent to them or when contact about a meeting was made. Feedback about such meetings to the chamber or the committee would be useful.

In debating the removal of tolls from the Forth road bridge, another massive factor that we cannot lose sight of is the current condition of that crossing. I am particularly concerned about the potential for HGVs to be banned from it in 2013 or 2014. That would lead to a nightmare in the Rosyth area. Many lorries would end up travelling nose to tail through a heavily populated area. From a business perspective, hauliers would have to take a detour of at least 40 miles over the Kincardine bridge, which would have an impact on communities in west Fife.

I tried to start on a positive note, and will finish on one. There are many transport priorities that will have implications for communities in the east of Scotland and for the Fife economy. The Government has very big decisions to take in the next few months, none of which is bigger than the decision on a new Forth crossing. If the SNP delivers on the promise of a new Forth crossing, it will get support from this side of the chamber for getting its plans in place and moving them forward. That is what the people of Fife expect, and it is what I hope they will get.

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat 4:30 pm, 15th November 2007

I am delighted to wind up the debate on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. Despite Tricia Marwick's speech, it would be churlish not to congratulate the SNP Government on producing the bill to abolish the bridge tolls so quickly. However, I have concerns about the bill, which I will come to later.

As the MSP for North East Fife, I warmly welcome the fact that my constituents will no longer be faced with tolls at both ends of our fine kingdom. The abolition of the tolls on the Tay road bridge is especially welcome to my constituents. The residents of North East Fife are the main users of the Tay road bridge and, as such, have contributed the bulk of the toll revenue on the bridge over the past 41 years. I firmly believe that we have paid for that bridge over and over again and that there is no case for continuing the tolls.

I began campaigning for the abolition of the Tay road bridge tolls about 30 years ago.

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat

No, I am not taking an intervention at the moment. Sit down, the pair of you.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

We have never heard this before.

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat

I can show you a picture of me campaigning against the tolls.

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat

That is not true. I readily accept that the Liberal Democrats did not include the abolition of the Tay road bridge tolls in their manifestos for the Scottish Parliament elections in 1999 and 2003—no party in the Parliament did. The SNP did not, the Conservative party did not, the Labour Party did not and the Green party certainly did not. No party supported the abolition of the tolls in its manifesto in 2003. However, I did not vote to keep the tolls; I voted to have a proper study conducted into the environmental and other impacts of the tolls. I did not vote to keep the tolls. Members should read what I voted for in the chamber.

It is time for Tricia Marwick and the SNP to stop their churlish behaviour on the matter, accept that we have moved on in the debate and acknowledge that there are important issues around the abolition of tolls that need to be addressed. It is important that we move on to those issues instead of going on about the past in the rather pathetic and negative way that Tricia Marwick always tends to do.

I am pleased that I got the Liberal Democrats to put the abolition of the Tay road bridge tolls in our 2007 manifesto. I included it as one of my five personal priorities in the election for North East Fife, and I am delighted to support the general principles of the bill today.

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat

Not at the moment. I am running out of time because of all the asides.

However, there are serious questions about the approach that the Government is taking in the bill, which I hope the minister will address in summing up. To paraphrase an old adage, if we legislate in haste, we repent at leisure. Legislating simply to remove the powers of the Tay Road Bridge Joint Board and the Forth Estuary Transport Authority to raise tolls, rather than addressing the statutory basis of those bodies, is a major weakness. I am surprised that there was little consideration of that issue during the committee's consideration of the bill. The Government has made much of its pledge to axe a quarter of our quangos, but the bill proposes the retention of two quangos whose primary function will be removed by the bill.

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat

I do not have time. There have been too many asides.

The Tay and Forth road bridges are part of Scotland's major road network and should be operated and maintained in the same way as all the other bridges on that network. Although we need to retain the engineering expertise, why should that not be transferred into Transport Scotland? Surely the assets and liabilities of the bridges should be transferred to Scottish ministers instead of being left, de facto, with the local authorities that make up the joint boards.

There is an issue about ensuring the long-term funding—both revenue and capital maintenance—which should be the responsibility of Scottish ministers. Frankly, transport infrastructure of the importance of the Forth and Tay road bridges deserves more security than an announcement that ministers intend to replace lost toll revenue as "a policy decision". As we have seen in the budget documents, the Government is not even going to replace all the lost toll revenue. The Finance Committee's report raises concerns about whether the likely long-term investment in the maintenance of bridges—especially the Forth road bridge—is adequately reflected in the financial memorandum. FETA has identified £107 million of expenditure in its 15-year capital plan, which is around £7 million a year. However, the financial memorandum and additional information that has been provided by Government officials give a maximum figure of £4 million. Therefore, there is a serious shortfall that must be of concern.

There must also be a concern that no other source of revenue is available to cover any funding shortfall. Would such a shortfall have to be made up by the constituent local authorities of the joint boards, to the detriment of their other transport commitments? Will the minister explain why he has chosen to leave the responsibility for bridge maintenance with the Tay Road Bridge Joint Board and FETA rather than taking direct responsibility for them, as ministers always had with the Erskine bridge, and as they had with the Skye bridge after the tolls were scrapped there.

Given the importance of the bridges to the transport strategy in the east of Scotland, I cannot see the logic in retaining the boards as separate roads authorities. The south-east of Scotland transport partnership and Tayside and central Scotland transport partnership are supposed to be the strategic transport authorities for the Forth and Tay estuaries. Would it not make more sense for the traffic management functions of FETA and the Tay Road Bridge Joint Board to be transferred to SEStran and tactran respectively, where they can be fully integrated into the wider regional transport strategies, including public transport strategies in particular? Surely the importance of the estuarial crossings to regional transport in the east of Scotland means that it should be the regional transport authorities that manage the transport strategies for the crossings, not the boards, which are primarily responsible for the maintenance of the bridges.

I am not wholly convinced by some of the claims that have been made about increased congestion. If there is going to be a 20 per cent increase in traffic going across the Forth, why is there not 20 per cent more going south at the moment when no tolls are being paid? The crossings must be seen in the context of the wider public transport strategy, particularly the need to get more people on to public transport. The scrapping of the Edinburgh airport rail link by this unambitious SNP Government will do nothing to encourage more people from Fife to go by train. Although EARL would have increased rail capacity, the SNP's alternative glorified tram stop will reduce it because it creates extra stops on the line, which means that fewer trains can use the train path. That is a simple fact of rail engineering; a train cannot get past a train that is stopped.

We need the bridges to be managed by the transport authorities because they have a wider vision, not one that is based on managing the road crossings, and I hope that the minister will reflect on the wisdom of the management of the bridges remaining with FETA and the Tay Road Bridge Joint Board.

Photo of Ted Brocklebank Ted Brocklebank Conservative 4:37 pm, 15th November 2007

The bottom line to this stage 1 debate is that we are finally righting a palpable wrong. I understand why Iain Smith does not want to dwell on the past, but there is an Inuit proverb that says, in effect, that to know where we are going, we first have to know where we have come from.

Members will forgive me if I reiterate some of the arguments. As a Fifer, I can modestly claim to have been among the first to campaign for the removal of tolls from the kingdom's bridges, although I accept that there is an argument that payment by individual motorists can be an acceptable solution to financing specific motorways, tunnels or bridges where payments are charged for a specific amount of time until the capital cost of the project is recovered. That is an economic argument.

However, what has happened in respect of removal of the Fife bridge tolls has had nothing to do with economics and everything to do with politics. As David McLetchie reminded us, it is all about political opportunism, initially by the Lib Dems, who used their clout in the coalition to have the Skye bridge tolls removed. Not to be outdone, the Labour group insisted on a pay-off from their partners through abolition of the tolls on the Erskine bridge. A political innocent could have seen the hole that the coalition was digging for itself, but apparently not the Lib Dem transport ministerial duo of Nicol Stephen and Tavish Scott, who are notably absent from the chamber today.

With the removal of all other bridge tolls in Scotland, it became a simple matter of when, rather than if, the Fife bridge tolls would be removed. When Fife became the only part of Scotland where a direct tax was being charged on motorists coming into the kingdom across both firths, the economic argument was lost. Quite rightly, it then all became about fairness.

Where is it written that it has to be fair? That seemed to be the Executive's argument in the dog days of the previous Administration. As Alex Johnstone reminded us, we and the SNP were able to point to our manifestos and say, "That is where it is written in cold print that it has to be fair". Of course, at the 11th hour—surprise, surprise—the Executive partners underwent a Damascene manifesto conversion to abolishing the Tay bridge tolls and ending the Forth bridge tolls for cars with more than one occupant.

The voters were not fooled. As Tricia Marwick pointed out, in the May elections coalition members—particularly Labour—lost seats in Fife and thereby reaped the whirlwind of their own intransigence. Of course, I except Helen Eadie's honourable record on this issue. Although I take on board John Park's reminder that we abolitionists should show some humility, it must have been especially galling for Labour's Scott Barrie—who tried to distance himself from his party's doomed policy—to find himself unseated by a member of a party that, despite Iain Smith's recollections, had campaigned so vigorously to retain the tolls until a few short weeks before the election.

Patrick Harvie claimed again today that congestion over the Forth bridge might increase as a result of de-tolling. Well, I guess that that will depend partly on how the existing bridge will dovetail with the proposed new crossing. What cannot be allowed to happen is for the economy of the whole east of Scotland to be put in jeopardy while Patrick Harvie wrings his hands and the SNP Administration tries to get its act together on the new crossing.

On congestion, Tavish Scott, in a last desperate throe as Minister for Transport, commissioned traffic flow figures for the roads approaching the Tay bridge from the Dundee side. Of course, as Joe FitzPatrick reminded us, anyone who uses the bridge at rush hour could have told him that the only days on which the traffic flows freely in and out of Dundee across the bridge are days on which tolls are suspended for one reason or another. As Alison McInnes accepted, surveys by Dundee City Council predicted that there would be little increase in traffic levels as a result of abolishing the tolls.

Iain Docherty of the University of Glasgow reported that removal of tolls from the Forth bridge would

"not make a huge impact on the ... level of congestion or on carbon emissions".—[Official Report, Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee, 25 September 2007; c 147.]

As David McLetchie eloquently pointed out, all that remains is for Stewart Stevenson to assure us that a future Government will not be able to introduce a road user charging scheme on the bridge, as was previously proposed by FETA and by the then Minister for Transport, Nicol Stephen. I was glad to hear that the current minister is exploring how such an amendment of part 3 of the Transport (Scotland) Act 2001 might be achieved.

Ultimately, as all Fifers are aware, the toll issue is of secondary importance to the need for a new crossing over the Forth. We Conservatives believe that too much time has already been wasted because of successive Lib-Lab, and now SNP, ministers dragging their feet. We must ensure that the unthinkable does not happen—that the current bridge is forced to close before a new crossing is ready. I agree with John Park that there are serious considerations in relation to heavy goods vehicles crossing the bridge, and we really have to get that right.

The day when Fifers can look forward to driving across toll-free bridges all the way from Edinburgh to Dundee cannot come soon enough—ideally by Christmas, but certainly by Burns night. I ask all members to support the bill.

Photo of Charlie Gordon Charlie Gordon Labour 4:42 pm, 15th November 2007

What an unusual debate this has been in some respects. It started with Stewart Stevenson telling us how very satisfied he is. There was nothing unusual about that, but he then reminded us that the bill is the first to have come before Parliament from a Government that has been in power for six months, which is highly unusual.

Stewart Stevenson also said that there would be no backtracking on the bill, which is also unusual, given the pledges that were ditched in the budget yesterday—the pledges on student debt and classroom sizes, to perm two from quite a few. However, given Labour's support for the bill, I have to mark the minister's card and say that, if there is any sign of backtracking from de-tolling the two bridges, I will personally send for the "equivalent" polis.

Also unusual was the fact that the convener of the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee—I am a member of that committee, of course—spoke on behalf of the committee but said virtually nothing about the committee's voluminous report and told members virtually nothing about the committee's recommendations. He chose instead to take the opportunity to pursue a mainly personal agenda.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

We will both have to check the Official Report , but I certainly made an effort to address the majority of my comments to the serious concerns that the entire committee signed up to on various aspects of the bill. The fact that the entire committee agreed on those serious concerns—even though not all members share my view on the final recommendations and conclusions—reinforces them. I reserved only the last few seconds of my remarks for my personal viewpoint.

Photo of Charlie Gordon Charlie Gordon Labour

No. I think that if the Deputy Presiding Officer checks the Official Report —I had the summary of the committee's report before me—she will find that the convener rather let the committee down in his speech, which was supposed to be on behalf of the committee. He has his own agenda, as we saw last week when he briefed against completion of the M74—a vital component of Scotland's bid—on the front page of a national newspaper 48 hours before the vital decision on the Commonwealth games was taken in Sri Lanka. It was serendipity that that did not do major damage to the interests of the country.

In an unusual revelation, Stewart Stevenson said that his satisfaction today derives from redeeming the pledges of his great-uncle in days of yore. Some commentators have said that Stewart Stevenson became the minister for transport because he drove Alex Salmond's car during the May election campaign. I do not accept that—in my view Stewart Stevenson is a fine parliamentarian. As an aside, I have sometimes ruminated on whether Mr Richard Lochhead owes his current position to having washed Alex Salmond's car during the election, but that is entirely by the way, as they say in Castlemilk. Now that Stewart Stevenson has got the nod—my money was on Fergus Ewing, but I presume that he did not get the post because the Greens do not like him—I find myself wondering whether he is the Government's transport minister because the post has been made hereditary to the Stevenson family.

As a rule, our approach to transport policies and projects should be strategic and should involve public consultation, an environmental assessment and, generally speaking, an objective approach. Equity arguments can be problematic in transport evaluation, given the cross-subsidies that often lie beneath the surface of cross-boundary transport networks.

Today, Parliament is uniting and heeding the voice of the people. Success has many parents—most parties in Parliament have claimed credit for the stage that we have reached with this bill. I could be statesmanlike and say that Labour will not descend to that level of politicking but, seeing Trish Godman in the chair as Deputy Presiding Officer, I am reminded that the success of her campaign—along with Des McNulty—on de-tolling the Erskine bridge, could be said to have set the example to the politicians who have followed.

Labour will vote for the bill. I am grateful to Alison McInnes and to my colleague, Dave Stewart, for telling Parliament—and, indeed, the press and public—about the recommendations in the committee's report. It is not necessary to reiterate them. We will vote for the bill, which I would, in my rather down-to-earth way, call a quick and dirty wee bill, in order to realign the whole Parliament with the opinion of the many users of the Forth and Tay bridges.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party 4:49 pm, 15th November 2007

That was a model example, from my dear friend Charlie Gordon, of how to sook up to the Presiding Officer. I hope that all members take note of his example and, whoever may be in the chair, copy it.

When I opened the debate, I said that the Abolition of Bridge Tolls (Scotland) Bill was based on equity. The dictionary definition of equity is

"the spirit of justice which enables us to interpret laws rightly".

The bill will provide justice for the people of Fife, in particular, and for all other users of the Forth and Tay road bridges by giving them free access to Scotland's road network, the same as everyone else on every other road in Scotland. I am delighted that all but one of the members who spoke in the debate clearly support that principle. In doing so, they reflect the views of a great many travellers, bridge users and businesses in the east of Scotland.

I understand that concerns exist about the impacts that the removal of tolls might have; I commented on some of them in my opening remarks and I will make further comments on them in closing. However, I repeat that we are debating the principle of what Charlie Gordon described as a dirty little bill, but what I describe as a simple bill with simple ends, which are to remove the bridge tolls as soon as practicable; to remove an artificial deadline for the repayment of the Tay bridge loans; and to remove redundant Erskine bridge legislation from the statute books.

Patrick Harvie referred to the results of the model that was used in the toll impact study as findings of fact. We should be slightly cautious about that, because the model is not intrinsically a matter of fact; it is an assessment that is based on a wide range of assumptions, any one of which if changed could lead to different outcomes. The model is the best available assessment, but it probably is not fact, so we must be careful in interpreting it.

Patrick Harvie's attempt to remove equity from Scotland's political life will have puzzled many members. If equity is removed from the political debate on transport or on a wide range of other policy matters, frankly, we are left with little but the mechanistic assessment of what we should do. I do not support that.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

To reinforce my point, I was certainly not arguing that equity should not exist in public policy making, but that, at present, the Government's strategic transport objectives do not include it and that if we included equity as a transport objective, we would look for the greatest inequity and we would not find car drivers.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

Continuing with other members, Iain Smith must read the budget document more carefully. The £10.7 million in 2010-11 to which he referred is of course capital provision, not revenue provision—that provision amounts to £13 million each year for tolls and appears elsewhere in the budget. He will find an extremely generous provision for the boards, which in the immediate year ahead is mainly for dehumidification and replacement of joints on the Forth bridge and for bearings on the Tay bridge.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

I am sorry, but I am running out of time.

One surprising point that Liberal members raised—Alison McInnes and Iain Smith mentioned it—was on their desire to remove local input to the management of the bridges by abolishing the boards for the Tay and Forth road bridges.

Iain Smith seemed to suggest that putting the Gogar station, rather than an Edinburgh airport station, on the railway line from Fife would somehow have a negative effect. The reality is that we can deliver the Gogar station sooner, more quickly and more cheaply and, because it will not be below ground, the stopping time at the station will be less than it would have been under the proposals for the Edinburgh airport rail link. We are increasing capacity as well. That is a positive approach.

Alex Johnstone took a different view on the bridge boards and asked whether their independence will be maintained. We are doing nothing that will affect the boards' independence. I have given that assurance to the boards' members. They make a valuable contribution and I want them to continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Alison McInnes commented that, somehow, the bill will threaten successful public transport schemes. She gave no examples, so I am not entirely sure what she was referring to, although later she talked about Ferrytoll park and ride. We support the Ferrytoll park and ride, which will be expanded, as a vital part of multimodality in transport infrastructure north of the bridge. Indeed, when we came to office, we discovered a substantial number of proposals for park-and-ride schemes around central Scotland on which no progress appeared to have been made. One of the challenges for me—I will rise to it and seek to engage with it—is to make more park and rides work. We will do so, of course, through local interests. Peak-time congestion on the bridge will be unchanged, so there will be no difference for buses or for anything else.

Joe FitzPatrick made some interesting comments. As he highlighted, it is proper to say that much of the groundwork on which the bill is founded was started by the previous Administration. We welcome that. That groundwork has accelerated the pace at which we were able to introduce the bill.

Helen Eadie was gracious in her remarks. Once again, I congratulate her on her persistence on the issue. She said that she will always welcome the SNP keeping a manifesto commitment. I very much look forward to her voting for the referendum bill and supporting a local income tax—both of which are key commitments on which we seek to move forward.

To Jim Tolson, I say that the climate change bill is moving forward at a tremendous pace. We are also working with the UK Government on its bill.

Marilyn Livingstone hinted at increased rail costs. It is worth saying to her that we inherited the current pattern of rail costs, but we are looking at how things might be in the future. On ferry and hovercraft support, we have yet to receive a proposal. We will assess any such proposal when we get it.

John Park again—quite properly—returned to the issue of the bridge staff. Of course I see a role for organised labour. Early in my period in office, I spoke to the Highland and Islands conference of the Scottish Trades Union Congress and I will continue to engage with representatives of organised labour. The approach—

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

Order. There is too much background noise.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

In relation to the bridge staff, the approach that we have made has been via the bridge boards. I hope that we will get a response shortly and I stand ready to speak to the staff.

I want to repeat something in case, in my enthusiasm earlier, I miscued it. The amount of money that we announced for bus and rail is two threes followed by eight zeros—£3,300,000,000—so I hope that I have made that point absolutely clear.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

I am sorry, but I am coming to the end of my speech.

The benefits of the bill are clear and others share that clarity. David Chalmers, of the Federation of Small Businesses in Fife, has said that it is nice to see that we are reaching a point at which we can say that the tolls are definitely coming off. Businesses across Scotland will benefit from having no tolls. Alan Russell, of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, stated:

"The tolls are a restraint on trade."—[Official Report, Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee, 25 September 2007; c 129.]

I offer my thanks, in addition to those that others have given, to members for contributing to the debate on the first bill that the SNP Government has introduced to the Parliament. In particular, I am grateful to the members of the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee. I hope that I have answered many of their questions and I look forward to continuing the dialogue.

Finally, I publicly thank the members and officials of both FETA and the Tay Road Bridge Joint Board. I have met representatives of the boards and my officials continue to work with them. Charlie suggested that my post had perhaps been made hereditary—

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

Charlie who, minister? We are not on first-name terms in the chamber.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

I beg your pardon, Presiding Officer.

The member on the benches opposite referred to my post as possibly being hereditary. I wonder what my late great-uncle, Alexander Stewart Stevenson, would think of our deliberations today. As the person who chaired the Road Bridge Promotion Committee in the 1930s, I suspect that he would join many people in eastern Scotland in quiet satisfaction.

Following today's debate, I am hopeful that the bill can proceed quickly and safely. I thank members for their contributions.