Elgin Bypass

– in the Scottish Parliament at 5:00 pm on 27th March 2008.

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Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour 5:00 pm, 27th March 2008

The final item of business is a members' business debate on motion S3M-1529, in the name of Mary Scanlon, on an Elgin bypass. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament supports the need for a bypass for the city of Elgin; recognises the efforts of Moray Council, Elgin Community Council, the Elgin Bypass Steering Group and many other individuals and groups who have campaigned for this bypass for many years; notes that 26,000 vehicles pass through Elgin on a daily basis; further notes that four successive ministers with responsibility for transport have visited Elgin since the formation of the Parliament, all of whom have been supportive of the proposal; notes that Moray is the base of many world-renowned companies that distribute their produce globally but feel restricted in Elgin where traffic slows considerably; also notes that the Moray 2020 strategy recognised that local transport links needed to be transformed in order to enhance the area and to attract inward investment, government dispersals and growing businesses, and notes the need for bypasses for other towns along the A96 corridor.

Photo of Mary Scanlon Mary Scanlon Conservative 5:05 pm, 27th March 2008

I thank all the members who supported my motion and those who have stayed behind to speak in the debate. I welcome the councillors from Moray Council who are in the public gallery. I know that several more campaigners who were unable to attend are watching the debate on the webcast. I acknowledge the work that was done in the two previous sessions of the Parliament to support an Elgin bypass, particularly by Margaret Ewing in the first session of Parliament and Maureen Macmillan in the second session, both of whom secured members' business debates on the subject. I hope that this debate will be third time lucky for Elgin.

Given the recent visit to Elgin by the Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change and that the findings of the strategic transport projects review will be announced in the next few months, the debate is likely to be one of the last chances for members to show their support for an Elgin bypass. Moray Council and the Northern Scot have provided excellent briefings that have been passed to most members. Moray Council has been proactive in the campaign for a bypass. For successive administrations, the issue has been a top priority in recent times. I know that councillors, members of Parliament and members of the Scottish Parliament, from all parties and none, have supported the campaign. The Northern Scot has always been at the forefront of efforts for a bypass. Its extremely useful briefing highlights the time for which the campaign has been running and the support that it has received over the years.

I will highlight some of the points in support of a bypass. Elgin is the largest conurbation in Scotland that is between two cities and does not have a bypass. It is the capital of a picturesque constituency, yet commuters face significant delays getting through the city at peak times. That has an adverse effect on the environment, as more fumes are emitted by vehicles slowly winding their way through the narrow roads or sitting idle in traffic jams. Thousands of vehicles pass through Elgin every day. Vehicles are getting larger, which contributes to the delays and queues that people face. It is almost unbelievable that, in 2008, the main trunk road between Aberdeen and Inverness can be blocked by someone unloading their shopping from their car on the West Road in Elgin, or that buses have significant problems leaving the bus station as they try to access the main road.

Moray is home to some of Scotland's most renowned companies, such as Baxters of Fochabers, Johnstons of Elgin and Walkers Shortbread, as well as half of all Scotland's distilleries. Those companies have prospered despite the poor transport links, but their businesses could be significantly improved with better roads in and out of Moray. The airbases at Kinloss and Lossiemouth contribute significantly to Moray's economy. The efficient movement of personnel and material associated with the Royal Air Force bases relies on good road links and would be greatly assisted by an Elgin bypass. The poor trunk road infrastructure is also a negative for inward investment and undoubtedly affects tourism. Pressures also arise from the increasing housing developments in the area.

When people leave Inverness, they see a sign that says it is 110 miles to Aberdeen; that distance would take an hour and a half or an hour and 40 minutes on normal roads or motorways, whereas I certainly cannot get to Aberdeen in much less than two and a half hours. I think that the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment, who is the constituency MSP, is nodding in agreement. In the Highlands, we hear a lot about the upgrading of the A9, which I support fully, but we must not forget the need to upgrade the A96.

While he was in opposition, the First Minister, Alex Salmond, pledged his support, along with thousands of others, by signing the petition for the Elgin bypass. I do not think that the Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change needs to be reminded of his manifesto commitments, but the Scottish National Party manifesto promised

"key improvements to ... the A96".

I am pleased to offer the minister the opportunity to confirm that pledge, given that no improvement to the A96 could possibly leave out an Elgin bypass or a commitment to a Nairn bypass.

The motion mentions the A96 corridor. Massive developments are planned around Nairn and in the A96 corridor between Nairn and Inverness. We are talking about not hundreds but thousands of houses and, indeed, about new towns and villages. Surely it would be wise to plan the Nairn bypass infrastructure prior to those developments taking place.

Angus Robertson, MP for Moray, said to the transport minister in 2002:

"What we would like to know is whether the Scottish Executive is committed to help deliver an Elgin bypass. We would like to know how long this will take and where an Elgin bypass stands as a priority for the Scottish Executive."

Those are the very questions that I would like answered today.

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour 5:12 pm, 27th March 2008

I congratulate Mary Scanlon on securing the debate. As she said, it follows a succession of similar debates over the years—Margaret Ewing sponsored one, as did my former colleague Maureen Macmillan. As Mary Scanlon also said, part of what lies behind these debates is the well-organised local campaigns that have been run over many years. Those campaigns, notably led by the Northern Scot and its previous editor, carry on.

I have lived in Inverness for more than 30 years and have travelled the A96 for most of that time. In my previous job, I covered territory that included Aberdeen, so I was a frequent traveller down that route. I remember travelling through Elgin before the first bypass—or relief road, as it was properly called—was constructed. I remember all the rat runs that people learned. We avoided the traffic jams in the centre of Elgin by going along roads that were not constructed for that purpose. The relief road that was built a number of years ago provided significant relief for the traffic congestion problem, but it was quickly overtaken by the growth in traffic, which continues today and, given current projections, is bound to continue into the future.

The traffic problem in Elgin is chronic and getting worse by the week, month and year. There is no question but that chronic traffic congestion in any town or city impedes the economic growth of the area. The Elgin problem is a complicated mix of through traffic and local traffic. The solution to the problem is complex, too. There are delays to traffic through Elgin, which impedes not just Elgin's future growth but the growth of the whole A96 corridor. There are also delays to local traffic within Elgin. Congestion reduces the quality of life of the citizens of Elgin and the surrounding area and causes various environmental problems. As Mary Scanlon said, there is cross-party agreement that the current situation requires attention.

The issue is not about the nature of the problem, which we all understand, but about the nature of the answer. Not just a bypass is required, although that is critical; local traffic distribution questions must also be addressed as part of an overall package.

I was a councillor for about 17 years before I came to the Parliament, and I was responsible for council budgets and for building and procuring roads—we were trunk road agents at the time—so I fully appreciate that procuring a road is a very complex process that involves Scottish transport appraisal guidance appraisals, consultants' reports, physical planning, possible public inquiries, detailed options appraisals, detailed design, statutory orders and land assembly questions—which are themselves hugely complex—before it is possible to procure a contractor and start to build. Those things do not happen overnight.

It is important to keep drawing attention to the issue and to keep trying to find the right solution. All that work requires to find a place among competing priorities across the country. As Mary Scanlon said, the A96 has many problems in several places: east of Inverness and towards Culloden; out from there to Inverness airport; towards Nairn, where a bypass is also needed; and east of Elgin.

During the election campaign, the minister's party promised a lot on roads. Notwithstanding that, I will be surprised if the minister says tonight that he will give a full green light to the proposal for an Elgin bypass, with a detailed timetable for its completion. However, I like surprises, and I hope that he might do that. What he could do, at any rate, is make clear his Government's support for the project advancing. He could also make it clear to Moray Council and Transport Scotland that he will help them to finance the work that is required to select a line for the bypass and to do the other work that is necessary to find complementary solutions to the problem in Elgin. On the basis of getting that work advanced significantly, further detailed planning to secure the road can move ahead.

Finding a line for the bypass will not be easy: to the south there are issues with current amenities such as Elgin golf course; to the north the route could impede on statutorily designated areas of land. Without a line for the road, the progress that everybody wants cannot be made. I hope that the minister will be able to signal tonight that he can make some progress.

There is a clear problem and a clear impediment to growth in and around Elgin. The Government can, I hope, signal that the next stage of important actions can be reached. I trust that the minister will provide that signal tonight.

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative 5:17 pm, 27th March 2008

I congratulate Mary Scanlon on securing the debate, which I hope will inform the Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change as he prepares to finalise the Scottish Government's strategic transport projects review. I also hope that it will demonstrate to him the cross-party support for a bypass for Elgin and other much-needed transport improvements along the A96 corridor.

Like other members, I pay tribute to all the organisations that have campaigned for the Elgin bypass with such enthusiasm and vigour. As with Robert the Bruce and the spider, they will not give up. As I know from personal experience, Elgin suffers the worst traffic congestion anywhere between Inverness and Aberdeen. It is common sense to conclude that that must act as a deterrent to business investment in the Elgin area. Moray has some of the lowest average weekly earnings in Scotland. Improving the area's transport links is a key part of tackling that by attracting new businesses and employment to the area.

Highlands and Islands Enterprise's valuable study of drivers' perceptions of the A96 highlights the slow-moving agricultural traffic, the lack of overtaking opportunities and stressful journeys. The quality of the route is viewed as a constraint to future economic expansion. The Scottish Government has a duty to respond to those issues without delay. I note that Moray Council's Elgin traffic management document suggests that public transport provision along the A96 route needs to be boosted in conjunction with road improvements. Perhaps the minister will want to address that tonight.

Does the minister agree with almost 90 per cent of the Moray citizens panel that more goods should be transported by rail along the route, rather than by road? What action can he take to support that?

Apart form the economic aspects of the bypass campaign, there are important safety and environmental issues, which other members have spoken about and which add weight to the arguments of local campaigners.

I welcome the fact that, during his visit to Elgin last month, the minister agreed with local campaigners that improving the area's transport infrastructure is the key to unlocking Moray's economic potential. We are now all looking to the minister to set himself apart from his predecessors by actually delivering the Elgin bypass, and not just delivering lip service to it.

Photo of Alison McInnes Alison McInnes Liberal Democrat 5:20 pm, 27th March 2008

I thank Mary Scanlon for affording us the opportunity to debate this matter this evening. I apologise that I cannot stay for the whole debate. I add my voice to the call for much-needed improvements on the A96 and state my support for a bypass for Elgin.

Today, the Government published its infrastructure investment plans. However, the only piece of work on the A96 that I could find in the plan is the bypass at Fochabers and Mosstodloch. Residents, businesses and public transport operators along the route will, no doubt, react with disappointment to that news. The minister will say that other schemes are being considered as part of the strategic transport projects review. Although I recognise the need to consider how transport projects fit within the wider context, the fact that the review does not conclude until the summer, at the earliest, leads to uncertainty. Perhaps the minister can give us an assurance that the strategic transport projects review will not be delayed beyond the summer and that the prioritisation of projects will include criteria that ensure that there is a fair geographical spread of investment across Scotland.

The A96 suffers from low average speeds, poor journey time reliability and, of course, a mix of traffic, including quite a lot of slow-moving agricultural traffic. Road safety is often compromised when drivers become frustrated. I urge the Government to develop a programme of improvements that increases safety at accident black spots, provides unambiguous overtaking opportunities and tackles bottlenecks. Elgin is one of those bottlenecks and is in great need of a bypass. That need is something that it shares with other towns along the A96. Keith, Elgin and Nairn would all gain significantly from such infrastructure investment. My colleague Danny Alexander has campaigned vigorously on Nairn's behalf.

The Highlands and Islands strategic transport partnership and the north east of Scotland transport partnership jointly commissioned the A96 corridor study, which led to a series of recommendations for all modes of transport. Flowing from that, a further piece of work was commissioned by HITRANS recently to consider road improvements specifically, including bypasses for those three towns. That objective work is now almost complete, and I believe that it will give further valuable ammunition to the local campaigns.

I am disappointed that the regional transport partnerships' role in helping to bridge national and local strategies in a coherent way has been a little undermined. It is not too late for the Government to reconsider the value that it places on RTPs.

For local residents in towns along the A96, the congestion, pollution and noise are a real headache. Even crossing the road has become a challenge for elderly residents. Further, the congestion also prohibits the opportunity to introduce more sustainable transport modes, such as cycling and walking within the towns. However, the congestion in those towns is not only causing local problems; it is clear that it is beginning to act as a break on the economic growth along the whole corridor. The economy of Elgin is more fragile than any of us would like it to be, and I would like to emphasise that good transport links help to build a stronger economy.

It is also worth noting that shorter and more reliable journey times can have benefits for the provision and take-up of bus and coach services, particularly long-distance ones.

I commend the local community, the council and the Northern Scot on their persistence, which I am sure will pay off. These bottlenecks are strategic constraints that need to be addressed sooner rather than later, so I urge the minister to bring forward plans to tackle them.

Photo of Nanette Milne Nanette Milne Conservative 5:23 pm, 27th March 2008

I congratulate Mary Scanlon on securing the debate. As a North East Scotland MSP, I am particularly pleased that her motion notes the need for bypasses for other towns along the A96 corridor as well.

"We are all paying for the lack of investment in our roads network at the hands of the Labour/Liberal Government".

Those are not my words but those of the First Minister during the Holyrood election campaign in May 2007. During that election, the Scottish National Party pledged to lead a step change to bring our beleaguered transport network into the 21st century, including the dualling of the A96 and A90. I hope that that pledge will soon be acted on.

Scottish Conservatives have a long-standing commitment to the dualling of the A96 and a positive record of delivering for the communities that the road serves. For the record, the previous Conservative Government delivered the Huntly, Inverurie and Kintore bypasses, as well as the dualling of the A96 between Aberdeen and Inverurie, as the starting point for the dualling of the road between Aberdeen and Inverness.

Like my Highlands and Islands Conservative colleagues, I support the call for a bypass for the city of Elgin. The recent announcements on progressing the bypasses at Fochabers and Mostoddloch are welcome. However, those developments alone, which were already in Transport Scotland's road infrastructure programme prior to last May, do not go far enough to address the dangers of the A96 or the transport infrastructure improvements that are desperately needed by Elgin and the communities along the A96 corridor.

I recently contacted Transport Scotland to find out what timescale the new SNP Government had set out to undertake a study into dualling the A96. Its response stated:

"MTRIPS is undertaking a study into the dualling of the A96 between Inverness and Inverness Airport".

There was no mention of any other dualling studies on the A96. Anyone who regularly uses the road will agree that it is a joke that the main road connecting the two great cities of Aberdeen and Inverness grinds to a halt at the bottleneck at the Inveramsay bridge, north of Inverurie. That situation will soon get even worse, with the instalment of another two sets of traffic lights in Keith, solely for the access to the new Tesco store in the town.

As I said, the recent announcements on the Fochabers and Mosstodloch bypasses are welcome. However, welcome as those are for the Moray communities, they expose the greater need for the community of Keith to have a bypass. In fact, just glancing at a map of the north-east, what shows up starkly is that only the communities of Keith, Elgin and Nairn are without bypasses. Just over a year ago, prior to the election, I lodged a motion calling on the previous Scottish Executive to reinstate plans for a Keith bypass. I was pleased that my motion attracted cross-party support, including that of fellow North East Scotland MSP Maureen Watt. Scottish Conservatives would like the SNP Government to right the wrongs of the previous Lib Dem-Labour Scottish Executive and reinstate the plans for a Keith bypass that were proposed by the previous Conservative Government.

I hope that when he responds, the Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change will be able to announce that he will start the process to support a bypass for Elgin and instruct Transport Scotland to undertake a study into the dualling of the A96. I hope that he will, at the very least, agree to meet me and other local representatives in Keith to discuss the reinstatement of the plans for a Keith bypass as a transport priority for the north-east of Scotland.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party 5:27 pm, 27th March 2008

I add my thanks to Mary Scanlon for lodging the motion and giving members a fourth opportunity since 2002 to engage in a debate about a bypass for Elgin. I thank all members for their contributions to the debate. I have at my elbow Richard Lochhead, the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment, who lives in Elgin and is the local member. Members can be sure that although protocols prevent his direct participation in the debate, his regular attendance at the Elgin bypass steering group and his engagement on the issue show that he shares their concerns.

It is opportune to debate this subject in the year in which I look forward to receiving the results of the strategic transport projects review, which, as all members must know by now, will shape our transport investment plans for 2012 to 2022. The review will produce a plan that is not determined by geographical fairness but which addresses the needs of different parts of Scotland. Each part of Scotland has needs and future investment will be needs-driven, which is the correct way to proceed.

As other members have mentioned, I recently visited Moray, where I benefited from a presentation by Moray Council on the traffic problems affecting Elgin. I had the opportunity to meet and have discussions with the Elgin bypass action group. In a private capacity, I am a regular visitor to Elgin, as I live within a short distance of the city.

On the subject of Nairn, members can be confident that the local member, Fergus Ewing, is in regular contact with me and that I am entirely aware of the issues there.

The local member with Inveramsay bridge in his constituency occasionally draws to my attention the need to address that issue. I am well aware of the issues that affect people right along the A96 corridor and of the need to respond to them.

No transport minister could be ignorant of the local aspirations to solve the problems in Elgin town centre. Such steadfast, cross-party campaigning over a significant period deserves a response. I acknowledge Peter Peacock's extremely well made point that it is not simply about the bypass. The council needs to work with any upgrading in the trunk road network to ensure that local roads make their contribution. I engaged with the council on that important point during my visit. I know that a study by Moray Council in 2003 concluded that a bypass for strategic traffic would not be the appropriate short-term solution for Elgin because much of the traffic was local. Mr Peacock developed that point. However, events have moved forward. Moray Council commissioned consulting engineers to develop a transport model for Elgin that would inform a fresh STAG appraisal. That new STAG report identified three potential route options but, unfortunately, shows that all three routes offer relatively poor value. I have just been made aware that the cost benefit outcomes are in the range of 0.50 to 0.53, which would mean that we would not get our money back for the investment.

I understand that Moray Council has taken the position that the bypass options should be allocated to the council's medium-term delivery programme, as they are not the whole answer. Nonetheless, and despite the disappointing benefit cost ratios for the options in the council's report, my officials in Transport Scotland have been in touch with Moray Council to request a copy of the new STAG report so that we can consider it alongside other information and evidence that will help us to identify the future investment priorities for the A96 corridor. One of the things that encouraged me when I spoke to the council and campaigners was that there is considerable interest in developers who want to develop in Elgin contributing. That gives us some insight into the ways in which we can close the gap that there appears to be in the current STAG appraisal.

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

I understand the technical points that the minister is making about the STAG appraisal. Earlier in his speech, he mentioned that the future investment priorities for Scotland will be based on need, and I understand that point too. However, do opportunities as well as needs feature in his considerations? There is an area of Scotland in which there are huge economic opportunities, but we require investment to exploit them.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

I absolutely accept what Peter Peacock says. That is precisely the point. The economic hot spot of Scotland is in Inverness and extends east along the Moray Firth to Elgin. We have to capture and make the best of the potential there. It is not just about roads. Reference has been made to rail, and we want to get an hourly service on the route. As a Government, we have increased the money that is available for improving cycling and supporting walking.

All those are issues that we wish to consider in relation to Elgin and the A96 corridor. We will resolve the tension between longer-distance traffic and local traffic by the STPR process, and will identify how we can improve journey times and increase the reliability of public and private transport. There is great access to the area, but we need to discover the right way to proceed. We are fortunate in having considerable resources ready that help us to understand how we might proceed. The work that has been done over a considerable period has been worth while.

Many communities would benefit from improvements in Elgin; it is not simply a local issue. We are looking at a 10-year programme, and I expect that that will include projects that relate to the A96, although we have not as yet finalised which ones to take forward.

We are looking to have a significant number of projects in that period, and we also have a planned programme of 40 major projects in the period to 2012, so we are not simply standing still. I hope that Mr McGrigor will have noticed that we have included the Newtongary to Adamston climbing lane in 2004—which was under the previous Administration—and the Coachford climbing lane in 2005. There has been some investment, which has made some contribution. However, the major project is the Fochabers to Mosstodloch bypass during 2010-11. We have to deliver the projects that are in the queue. One aspect of transport is that we need a portfolio of projects to ensure that we do not lose a sense of pace.

Mr Peacock said that he would not be surprised if I did not announce a start on the Elgin bypass today, and I do not want to disappoint him. The right time for that work is in the context of the STPR. We expect to start engaging with stakeholders in local communities over the summer. I have given many answers in response to parliamentary questions and correspondence: the STPR is the best way of making progress and building our new investment programme for the 10-year period.

We are deploying Scotland's resources for the benefit of people throughout Scotland and we are committed to doing that in a way that is equitable for the whole of Scotland. That means recognising the needs in every part of Scotland.

Meeting closed at 17:36.