We have been here before. Nearly a year ago we held an almost identical debate, calling on the Scottish Government to reaffirm its commitment to dualling the A9 and the A96, and to commit to upgrading other roads. We lost. The Scottish National Party amended our motion to take out any reference to particular roads.
Today, the SNP amendment mentions both roads, but nowhere in it is a commitment to fully dual them. Instead, we have the language of short-term fixes and a review. It looks very much as though those historic commitments lie in the gutter.
The SNP was once behind these projects. It committed to fully dualling the A9 between Perth and Inverness by 2025. Since that pledge was made 11 years ago, just over 12 miles have been completed—a little over a mile a year. At that rate, it will be 2086 by the time the other 70 miles are complete. I am afraid to say that none of us will be around to see it. Nicola Sturgeon can cancel the photo call—there will be no selfies on the A9 for her, and nor should there be, because there is a very sorry tale to tell.
Since our debate last year, a number of lives have been lost. So far this year, there have been 12 deaths on the A9 between Perth and Inverness—the highest number for 12 years, and all on single-carriageway sections. The latest incident—last month—saw 64-year-old George Norris killed when his Ford C-Max was in a collision with two other vehicles near Kingussie. Also in October, a man and a woman died when their car collided with a lorry near Birnam, south of Dunkeld. There were two fatal crashes on the A9 in September, one near Slochd and another near?Dunkeld, along with a fatality near Carrbridge on 30 September. That followed three members of one American family dying after a collision with a lorry on the A9 near Newtonmore on 10 August. Further, in July, 68-year-old David McPherson died in a crash at Slochd summit near Carrbridge, with his 65-year-old wife, Elza, and their two-year-old grandson dying in hospital a short time later.
Some 333 people have been killed on the A9 between Perth and Inverness since 1979. That is why we need desperately to fully dual that road. Accidents will continue to happen—there are different reasons for all accidents—but there will be far fewer of them. We can literally save lives by investing in these roads.
What about the A96? Thankfully, the death toll on the A96 this year has not been as bad as it has been on the A9. There was one fatality, though, in January, when 78-year-old John Channon of Dyce died following a crash near Auldearn.
The campaign to dual the A96 has been going on for 30 years. As far back as 1989,
The Press and Journal was running a campaign called “end the carnage, spend the cash”. At that point, it was the UK Government that was responsible. It did not end the carnage and it did not spend the cash, and nothing has really changed since devolution.
In 2011, the SNP committed to completing the dualling of the road between Inverness and Aberdeen by 2030. Of course, that was before it did its deal with the Greens, which put a halt to things while we wait for a “transparent, evidence-based review” of the environmental impacts of the project. Last year, Transport Scotland was claiming that the study would be completed by the end of this year, and the minister’s amendment today makes the same claim.
I can only hope that Transport Scotland has not been listening too much to the words of Green MSP Maggie Chapman, who predicted last year that the review would find that it
“isn’t viable to dual the whole way”.
The problem that we have here is that the SNP has been ensnared by the Greens. It is almost as though Jenny Gilruth has to ask permission from Maggie Chapman to do anything. We can imagine the conversation: “Please, Maggie, can I dual the roads?”; “No, minister—don’t you remember? It’s not viable.” We really are in a bad place if we are to base our roads improvement programme on the views of Maggie Chapman.
Of course, investing in those roads is not just about road safety. Making transport easier boosts the local and—because of the roads’ strategic importance—national economy. Members would not expect the anti-growth Greens to understand that, but I would have thought that wiser heads in the SNP might do so.
It would be remiss of me not to mention other roads in Scotland that are in dire need of improvement, such as the A75 and A77. Between 2018 and last year, on those two roads, there were nine fatal accidents—a shocking toll of death. Today, I met members of the A77 action group—
Will Mr Simpson join me in welcoming the news that, after concerted efforts from the Conservative benches, the Scottish Government has dropped its grievance-led, hard-line, no co-operation approach on the union connectivity and is now engaging positively in how our two Governments can come together to bring much-needed investment to the A75?
I thoroughly agree with Mr Carson, who is a champion of these roads. I do not want to be here, moving this motion, because it should not be necessary.
With regret, I move,
That the Parliament notes with alarm the number of recent fatalities on the A9 and A96; recognises the pain that these tragedies have caused families; believes that fully dualling both roads could lead to a significant improvement in road safety as well as helping the economy; notes the SNP administration’s previous commitment to fully dual the A9 between Perth and Inverness and the A96, and calls on the Scottish Government to set out when these vital works will be completed.
I thank the Conservatives for bringing forward today’s motion for debate. The tone of the motion is respectful to the families of those who have lost loved ones on Scotland’s roads, and I will, of course, continue that sentiment throughout my contribution.
The publication of reported road casualties in Scotland for 2021 showed a broadly stable picture of deaths and injuries on our roads—there was one fewer fatality than in 2020, and a single percentage increase in injuries. However, that will not be the picture for 2022. We already know that the statistics for this year are going to be very different. To date, in 2022, 10 fatal injury accidents have been recorded on the A9 trunk road, with 15 fatal casualties. Of the 10 fatal accidents, seven occurred between Perth and Inverness, resulting in 12 fatal casualties. To compare that with previous years, there was only one fatal accident between Perth and Inverness in each year of 2019, 2020 and 2021.
Every death on the A9—or any of Scotland’s roads—is one too many. Every life lost has devastating impacts for families, friends, colleagues and communities. I express my sympathies to everyone who has been affected by such a loss, and to anyone who has been injured on our roads. We know the very human cost of loss and the toll that it takes on our emergency services.
I am sure that members will understand that, because police investigations into recent accidents are on-going, it would not be appropriate for me or any of us to comment significantly on any individual case today. However, I assure members that I have met Police Scotland in recent weeks in Inverness to better understand the increase in fatal accidents and the underlying contributory factors.
On Friday this week, in Pitlochry, I will chair the A9 safety group, which includes wider partners from our roads operating company, Police Scotland, the road haulage and freight transport associations, local authorities and the Confederation of Passenger Transport. Thereafter, I will meet constituency and regional members to hear their views and concerns and to ensure that those are taken into account in planning the required short-term interventions. In the coming weeks, I will announce additional short-term measures for the A9 between Perth and Inverness, in advance of dualling works.
It is worth saying that, this year alone, the Scottish Government has invested more than £7 million in spend on maintenance, structures and road safety improvements on the A9.
I think that Mr Simpson makes a fair assertion. If he does not mind, I will come to that later in my remarks.
We have made that investment and, this year, we will make further investments to improve safety at Ballinluig, Bruar and Ralia. However, I accept that more will need to be done before full dualling is complete.
The Government remains committed to investment in the A9, including dualling the road between Perth and Inverness. As I mentioned, we have already invested significant finance—approximately £431 million to date—delivering the dualling programme. That has allowed road users to benefit from the dualled stretches between Kincraig and Dalraddy and between Luncarty and Pass of Birnam, which opened in September 2017 and August 2021 respectively. It has also supported the development, progress through statutory processes, advance works and procurement evaluation work being undertaken for the remainder of the programme.
We are currently in procurement for the award of the construction contract for the section between Tomatin and Moy. Final decisions on that will be subject to our normal tender evaluation and business case approval. We are also progressing design work on the rest of the programme, with the statutory process being well under way for seven of the eight remaining sections.
The Pass of Birnam to Tay crossing project has not started the statutory process yet, but Transport Scotland is currently progressing the design and assessment work to identify the preferred route option for that section, following the innovative co-creative process with the local community. Further, work is on-going to determine the most suitable procurement options for those remaining sections of the road, which needs to involve consideration of a range of factors, including how the project can be delivered most efficiently by the industry while minimising disruption to road users. I hope that the wider MSP forum that my private office has contacted members about today will seek to set out to members some of the detail of those sections.
I turn to the A96. As Mr Simpson noted, there has not been a similar increase in accidents on the A96—he pointed out one fatality this year. It is worth saying that we are talking about very different roads, but it remains the Government’s commitment to fully dual the A96 between Inverness and Aberdeen.
I am grateful to hear that commitment to fully dual the A96, which I hope to see come to fruition. The minister was written to in September by Moray Chamber of Commerce, which outlined how important the dualling is for businesses in Moray. So far, there has been no response, so will the minister get in touch with Moray Chamber of Commerce, which needs reassurance from the Scottish Government that this infrastructure link will be delivered?
I am happy to do so. I apologise to Mr Ross and to Moray Chamber of Commerce, and I will ensure that it receives a response from my private office.
As members know, and as has been alluded to already, we are undertaking a transparent, evidence-based review of the corridor. The recent public consultation received nearly 5,000 responses, which generated more than 11,000 suggestions and potential opportunities for the route. Rightly, it has taken more time than was originally planned to look at and appraise all of those options, but there will be a report on the public consultation and the initial appraisal will be published by the end of the year, as my amendment makes clear and as Mr Simpson alluded to.
We also continue the preparation for the dualling of the Inverness to Nairn section, which is quite a different section of the route. Members might recall that it has already received ministerial consent following a public local inquiry, and I expect to be able to make the orders on that part of the A96 in the coming weeks.
Earlier this year, I was pleased to meet the constituency MSP and MP in Nairn, and to meet local school children at Rosebank primary school. The playground of the primary school borders the A96, and the pupils explained to me what that means for their learning, outdoor play and environment. Therefore, it is imperative that we deliver on these road improvements for local communities, particularly, in my view, for the generations yet to come.
I move amendment S6M-06520.2, to leave out from “believes that” to end and insert:
“and indeed the pain caused by all fatalities and serious accidents across Scotland’s road network; acknowledges that Transport Scotland is working with Police Scotland and partner agencies to understand the circumstances of recent accidents; notes that, as investigations continue, it would be inappropriate for the Parliament to comment on individual cases further; agrees that road safety is paramount and, while the Scottish Government is investing record amounts in road safety to help meet the long-term goal of zero fatalities and injuries on Scotland’s roads by 2050, there is more to do with short-term measures to address specific safety issues on trunk roads like the A9 and A96; acknowledges the investment of £400 million to date for dualling the A9 between Perth and Inverness and that work is continuing across the A9, and notes the Scottish Government’s commitment to take forward a transport enhancements programme on the A96 corridor and that the review of the programme to fully dual the A96 will report by the end of the year.”
I thank Graham Simpson for bringing the debate to the chamber. I would normally say about one of his debates that I welcome the debate, but, as he acknowledged, we would rather not be discussing the serious topic of road safety in such tragic circumstances.
Over the past decade, almost 200 people have sadly lost their lives on Highland roads. In the past six years, more than half of the deaths in the area took place on the A9, A96 and A82. In just the past three months, there have been a further eight deaths on a 25-mile stretch of the A9 alone. One of those who was killed was just two years old.
As the death toll on the A9 climbs, it is now at its highest in 20 years. As the minister said, every report of a fatality relates to a person with a family left behind. We can only imagine the pain that is felt by family members and friends who have lost loved ones on those roads. We must do all that we can to make roads such as the A9 and A96 safer, and I welcome what the minister said about short-term measures.
I am concerned, as I am sure other members are, to hear reports that not only are police officer numbers being cut across Scotland but the number of traffic police officers is being reduced. That issue must be addressed and looked at in the context of the areas that we are talking about today. It is also crucial that, in the long term, the Government invests to upgrade those roads.
The SNP has given clear manifesto commitments to dual the A9 by 2025 and to dual the A96 between Inverness and Aberdeen by 2030. John Swinney, the then Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, in answer to Mr Harvie, said that he recognised the very
“serious and alarming safety records”—[
, 6 June 2019; c 20.]
on those roads.
The situation appears to be getting worse, not better. Therefore, local people expect the SNP to deliver on its promises.
We must see urgent and major investment in our transport infrastructure across Scotland—in rail, roads, ferries and active travel. The criteria for investment need to take fully into account safety issues, journey times and economic and community development, as well as the impact on the climate.
I will come on to that. I thank Mr Whittle for his intervention.
Investment to upgrade transport infrastructure is not just an issue for the north and north-east of Scotland; it is an issue for the south-west of Scotland, too. Earlier today, along with Mr Whittle, I met the A77 campaign team, which is campaigning for the A77 and A75 to be upgraded and brought up to dual carriageway standards.
As well as the need to address safety issues, there are strong economic grounds for investment, given that those roads are our main link to Northern Ireland.
I am aware that the group met the minister earlier, and I understand that, as Mr Whittle said, the group was concerned that the minister said that the partnership with the Greens may hinder the SNP’s efforts to progress the matter.
I do not appreciate two members separately taking words that were given in a private meeting with a group in relation to a road earlier today—[
.] Well, neither of them was in the room.
I had a very positive meeting with the action group. I made time to meet the group and to listen to its concerns. I would be grateful if the member could clarify his understanding of that conversation.
I had a wide-ranging conversation with the group, including, as I think that Mr Carson alluded to, in relation to the UK Government. A wide range of matters was discussed.
I do not think that it is appropriate, Presiding Officer, to have my words in a meeting that neither member was present at repeated in the chamber today. Perhaps the member would like to correct the record to that effect.
I notice that the minister did not answer my question about whether the Greens have a veto on SNP policy. She is not denying the claim that was made.
As I said, I understand that the group was concerned that the minister told them that the Greens’ partnership with the SNP may hinder the SNP’s efforts to progress the matter. I am not aware that such meetings are secret meetings, Presiding Officer.
Earlier, I listed the factors that should be considered in determining priorities for infrastructure investment. One factor that really should not be present for the SNP when taking a decision is whether the Greens like it. People deserve clarity on the Scottish Government’s position on roads investment. We need to know from the SNP whether the Greens have a veto over its roads policy.
People also deserve clarity from the Green party on its position when it comes to votes on roads investment. When we last debated roads in this Parliament almost a year ago, the Greens attacked my party, which believes that money needs to be spent on upgrading key routes. The Scottish Government’s amendment spells out in black and white that more than £400 million has been spent on dualling the A9 to date—more than £400 million has been allocated in budgets that the Greens have voted for. That begs the question: if the Greens are against spending money on roads, why do they keep backing budgets in which money will be spent on roads?
Of course Scottish Labour acknowledges the challenges that we face when it comes to the climate emergency. We must do more to encourage less car travel and to help people on to public transport. That is the subject of our amendment, and I hope that it is an issue on which we can all agree.
However, regrettably, we have seen our public transport system decline under this Government. I have said it before and I will say it again: public transport in Scotland is, frankly, a joke, and there does not seem to be much ambition on show from the Government to address the issue.
We have seen rail fares hiked and 250 rail services a day cut compared with the pre-pandemic timetable. Local councils are still waiting for additional powers and funding from the Government so that they can bring buses—which use roads too, of course—back under public control. Meanwhile, private bus companies continue to fail passengers with skyrocketing fares and cuts to socially necessary routes. Cities such as Manchester and Liverpool are bringing buses back under public control and capping fares at £2. We need to see that action in Scottish cities such as Glasgow, Perth, Inverness and Aberdeen, because we will not get people out of their cars and on to public transport until we have a public transport system that is affordable, accessible and reliable.
There is no better example of how disconnected our communities are than that of one of the areas that we have been talking about today. The BBC journalist Douglas Fraser documented his recent trip by bus from Inverness to Aberdeen, a journey that took five hours, including having to change buses at Broxden interchange station outside Perth. I understand that there is a direct Stagecoach service between Inverness and Aberdeen, but it is not much better, as it takes a staggering four hours and 15 minutes to travel along the A96 from Inverness to Aberdeen. It is a 104-mile journey, which means that people are travelling at an average speed of just 24 miles per hour between those two cities. If we want to reduce traffic on the A96, we also need to consider how to improve bus and other public transport links between those two cities.
We need major and urgent transport infrastructure investment in the areas that we have discussed today and across other parts of Scotland, including investment in roads, so that we can support building local economies, better connect our communities and take the action that is necessary to address issues around safety, which people have been demanding for many years.
I move amendment S6M-06520.1, to insert at end
“, and further calls on the Scottish Government to urgently publish the final Strategic Transport Projects Review (STPR) 2 Report and a clear Delivery Plan for active travel, bus, ferry and rail infrastructure projects, including investment in roads across Scotland that has due regard to road safety, journey times, economic and community development and climate impact, and clear actions to reverse the decline in public transport, which has seen significant cuts to both rail and bus services in Scotland.”
I, too, thank Graham Simpson for allowing Parliament to have this debate and for setting its tone, which I think has been entirely in keeping with the seriousness of the issues. I also thank Neil Bibby for lodging Labour’s amendment, which might give me an opportunity, if time permits, to reference ferries without incurring the wrath of the chair for being off-piste.
I also declare an interest. Unlike Edward Mountain and perhaps one or two other colleagues, I am a regular user of the A9, although not, I appreciate, as regular as some. I observe that some of the issues in relation to connectivity and, indeed, safety apply as much beyond Inverness and further north as they do in relation to the Perth to Inverness stage. However, I will focus most of my remarks on the A9, as I am more familiar with the conditions and circumstances on it than I am with the A96.
The case for improvement by dualling has long been accepted, and dualling has long been promised. What we are talking about is the pace at which that commitment is delivered. One of the long-standing arguments has an economic one about the better connectivity that we need, not least between some of our main cities—Perth, Inverness and Aberdeen—but also between many of the outlying towns and villages beyond them. Neil Bibby quite rightly drew attention to travel times, some of which, by rail as well as by road, are absolutely ridiculous by European standards and even by the standards in other parts of the United Kingdom. If we are trying to encourage people out of their cars and on to public transport, those travel times are unlikely to serve that purpose.
However, the focus of the debate is rightly on the safety case for dualling. I looked at the statistics for 2012 to 2019, and there appears to have been a doubling of deaths and serious injuries over that period. I appreciate that there has been a slight change in the way in which serious injuries are captured in the statistics, but they are fairly frightening figures. When we layer upon that what we have seen over the past 12 months, the case seems absolutely unanswerable.
There are undoubtedly individual factors involved in each case. As a regular user of the A9, it often occurs to me that there is a mixture of regular users who are very confident on the road and people, particularly tourists, who are unfamiliar and underconfident, which is a recipe for problems.
We have seen some of those problems arising from the improvements that we have seen in recent years. A situation in which drivers move from single to dual carriageways and in and out of overtaking stretches can be very confusing, particularly for those who are unfamiliar with the road. Alongside that, even for regular users of the road, some of the junctions can be somewhat confusing and therefore precarious.
The safety case is absolutely compelling, but there are other things that need to be done, too. We need to see that modal shift, particularly in terms of getting more freight off the road. Again, I would make that argument for north of Inverness as well as between Perth and Inverness.
With regard to public transport, we need to look beyond the main routes—having bus routes that link in to those main routes are absolutely vital if we are to encourage more people to take up those services.
That talks to the wider strategic review of transport, which is where, using Neil Bibby’s amendment, I will segue into the issue of the strategic transport projects review. The exclusion of Orkney’s lifeline air and ferry services from that review is absolutely inexcusable and needs to be addressed. I have had useful meetings with the minister on that issue, and I hope that she will be able to confirm that it will be addressed.
I again thank Graham Simpson for allowing Parliament to have this debate and to show the cross-party support that there is for pressing ahead as quickly as possible with the dualling of these vital arteries.
At the outset, I associate myself with all the comments that Liam McArthur made, in what was a well-informed contribution on the issues.
The A9 trunk road between Perth and Inverness has an unenviable reputation as Scotland’s most dangerous road. Over the years, we have seen too many serious accidents and fatalities, mostly on the single-carriageway sections of the route. As we have heard, this year has been one of the worst on record. In just 10 months, we have had 12 fatalities on single carriageways. Each one of those is a tragedy that has enormous knock-on consequences for the families and friends of those who are involved.
The issue is vital for my constituents in Perthshire who have to use the road daily. They know, as do I, how deadly it is. The matter also affects me personally. In 1990, the car that I was in was involved in a head-on collision on the A9 single carriageway near Carrbridge. I suffered multiple fractures and spent weeks in hospital. I was one of the lucky ones—I survived—but others have not been so fortunate. For decades now, I have been campaigning for A9 improvements, with petitions, at public meetings and by raising the issue in Parliament with successive ministers. It has been clear to me and to many others that only by completing the dualling of the road will we substantially reduce the accident risk.
I was therefore pleased when, in 2011, we saw the first real commitment from the SNP Government, in its infrastructure investment plan, to dual the road in its entirety as far as Inverness. Sadly, since then, progress has been slow. The A9 dualling programme was due to start in 2015 and to be completed by 2025. However, in the 11 years since that commitment was made, just 12.5 miles of dual carriageway has been opened—that is 12.5 miles in 15 years of SNP government. To put that in perspective, the Conservative Governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major opened 25.3 miles of dual carriageway between Perth and Inverness, which is more than twice as much. I know that Covid has caused delays to all infrastructure projects but, even with that, progress has been painfully slow.
On the A9 between Perth and Inverness, there are only two areas where compulsory purchase of land for dualling would be difficult—at Dunkeld and Aviemore. Therefore, if the Government wants to meet its target, surely it should get on with dualling the rest of the road and start compulsorily purchasing the land now, because otherwise it will remain a pipe dream.
My colleague Mr Mountain makes a very good point. I know that communities along the A9 are now wondering whether the project will ever be completed. The involvement of the anti-road Greens in the Government has added to their concern. It is noteworthy that, as Graham Simpson pointed out, the Government amendment to today’s motion does not restate a commitment to A9 dualling. That is unfortunate. We need to be clear that it will proceed, and we need to know when.
I am regularly contacted by constituents who live beside or close to the A9 and who want clarity on the route. That is particularly the case in communities such as Dunkeld and Birnam, where the A9 passes very close to people’s homes and businesses. Without a clear plan and timetable, those properties are effectively blighted. We need clarity, and we need it soon.
There are strong economic arguments for the benefits to Perthshire and the Highlands and Islands from completing A9 dualling but, to me, the issue is principally one of road safety. Too many people have died on the A9 single carriageways. They are dying this year and they will continue to die. That is why we need action now, and it is why we should support Mr Simpson’s motion.
The recent accidents on the A9 are, of course, a tragedy for everyone involved, and my sympathies are with the families and friends of everyone affected by those events.
Dualling of the A96 has been a commitment in successive SNP manifestos. Members might be wondering why I am speaking in the debate. The main east coast road, the A1, passes through my East Lothian constituency and was dualled around 2000. Prior to that, it was a two-lane road with no passing points, and I remember the frustrations of residents, commuters and businesses at that time. I also lost three friends, who were 17 years old, on the road; the three guys were in the same car. I remember that very vividly.
Dualling of the A96 has huge public support for the following reasons. It links two major cities: Aberdeen and Inverness.
I am conscious of the time. I have only four minutes. I am sorry.
The road currently has pinchpoints, and there are large towns in between the cities. The road is used by many slow-moving vehicles, such as agricultural vehicles and heavy goods vehicles, which can cause driver frustration, and there is a lack of safe overtaking opportunities, as was the case with the A1 previously.
Of course, the A96 is a commuter route to Inverness and Aberdeen for many towns and villages along the corridor. There is an equity and fairness issue in relation to infrastructure for rural areas. There are fast and safe dualled routes between other Scottish cities, but not between Inverness and Aberdeen. That disadvantages residents in all the towns and villages along that corridor.
A review to take into account climate change commitments is, of course, necessary, but it should be balanced with the need to address the long-term safety and equity concerns of users of the corridor. A modern highway that facilitates the fast charging of low-emission vehicles and has safe segregated active travel solutions should be the goal. Slow-moving traffic is bad for emissions. We can see from the Aberdeen western peripheral route how a safe dualled route that facilitates high-gear driving and the overtaking of slow-moving vehicles can reduce emissions in the long term.
The people who use the corridor do not just live in towns right next to the corridor; they also come from more rural towns where people have limited public transport options. That is very similar to the situation in East Lothian. There is a great deal of support in Aberdeenshire and throughout the north-east of Scotland for the dualling of the A96 in order to improve safety, reliability and efficiency for road users. A lot of people are road users because they have no reliable, quick and affordable alternatives. Again, that is similar to the situation in East Lothian in many ways.
Road safety is of paramount importance to the Scottish Government and to the Parliament overall. The road safety framework, which the minister touched on, was backed last year by £21 million—an uplift of £17 million.
As we have heard from the minister, the Scottish Government is absolutely committed to completing the dualling of the A9. I welcome that, but it could be done so much faster if the Scottish Government had more capital funding and if that funding was not being cut at every budget. We heard about the budget pressures from John Swinney earlier this afternoon.
I have only four minutes.
We all recognise that improved road safety also brings economic benefits to Scotland’s road users and local communities. Roads cannot be dualled overnight, and let us remember that the Scottish Government has already invested more than £400 million in dualling the A9, which is part of a £3 billion investment in one of the biggest transport infrastructure projects in Scotland’s history.
The Scottish Government remains committed to the north and north-east of Scotland, including by dualling the A96 corridor and taking forward an enhancements programme to improve connectivity between surrounding towns, to tackle congestion and to address safety and environmental issues. The current plan is to fully dual the A96 route between Inverness and Aberdeen. However, the Scottish Government is, quite rightly, conducting a transparent evidence-based review of the programme, which will report by the end of this year.
The Scottish Government is committed to improving the road network on the A9 and the A96, and I am glad that that commitment has been endorsed by the minister again this afternoon. I share the frustrations of local members, having been through similar experiences with the A1.
I thank my colleagues for bringing the debate, which is of key importance to my North East Scotland region, to the chamber. It has been 11 years since this shambolic SNP Government first announced that the A96 would be upgraded from a single carriageway to a dual carriageway, but there has been 11 years of broken promises, dither and delay from the Government.
Make no mistake: that delay has cost lives. Between 2018 and 2021, there were 11 fatal accidents and 94 non-fatal accidents on the A96. I send my condolences to all the families who have been affected by those tragic events. Between January and August this year, nine people were seriously injured on the Huntley to Inverness stretch alone of this notorious road.
The grubby deal between the SNP and its anti-growth, anti-business, anti-car and anti-north-east Green partners has not only delayed the project but firmly put the brakes on it. Not just lives depend on the dualling of the A96, but jobs too.
In June, Liz Cameron, the chief executive of Scottish Chambers of Commerce, said that the region needed a “firm commitment” on the dualling, to give the region a “much-needed boost.”
She added that Scottish Chambers of Commerce is
“firmly of the view that the Scottish Government should honour the commitment made to businesses and communities along the A96 that the road is dualled from start to finish, unlocking economic growth, workforce mobility and investment along the route and providing improved connections between two of Scotland’s leading cities and areas of economic growth.”
In an article in the
Press and Journal last December, haulier Colin Lawson said that
“dualling had to happen urgently”, and added that
“people in all the towns and surrounding villages within the A96 corridor have suffered enough. It has become one of the worst trunk roads in the UK.”
Does Mr Lumsden agree that investment is needed across Scotland’s road network, particularly in the south of Scotland, at Sheriffhall, where congestion is building up every single day, largely as a result of the Greens organising a write-in to force it to public inquiry? Does he agree that action on roads is urgently needed also on the A1 at the Belhaven junction?
I agree with the member that investment is needed right across our road network. The Toll of Birness just north of Ellon in my constituency is another area that the Scottish Government needs to focus on.
The dualling of the A96 should be a priority for the Government and it should have been delivered long ago. I speak in this chamber every week about broken promises from this SNP-Green devolved Government of chaos, and that is just one more to add to that long list.
Businesses, residents, the national health service, hauliers, the oil industry and traders have all called on the Government to move forward with the dualling. They are crying out for increased investment in the road network. Public transport is not always a solution for those who live in rural areas, and these trunk roads are a lifeline for our rural communities in the north-east. It is wrong for them to be ignored for 11 years by this Government and for their priorities to be ignored and sidelined.
It is clear that, when it comes to business rates, the oil and gas industry, and now roads, the SNP has turned its back on the north-east, and it is shameful. Neither warm words nor empty promises are needed, but action is. Will the minister commit today to dualling the A96 and give the communities, residents, employers and business owners the reassurance that they need that the Government is listening to them?
I am grateful to the Scottish Conservatives for giving us the opportunity to debate these vital matters.
For many people in the Highlands and beyond who have lost loved ones in their families—in some cases, more than one family member—and have lost friends as I and others have, as we have heard, 2022 will be their annus horribilis. It leaves behind the devastation of a life-long impact on their and their families’ lives. That is why I welcome the tone that the minister has set, as this is the most serious of matters.
My theme today is the question of what the people of Scotland want from us. They want real, rapid, solid, concrete, substantial progress, and I truly believe that they do not really want politics—by that, I mean party politics and a partisan approach—because the matter is just too serious for that.
I do not, I think, need to rehearse the arguments why single carriageways are more conducive of risk than dual carriageways. The Road Safety Foundation study from years ago proves that conclusively. The fact, of which most drivers are acutely aware, is that single carriageways do not have a central reservation and therefore have nothing to reduce the velocity of head-on collisions. From 60mph each, the vehicles stop and go to zero, but the internal organs carry on at 60mph. That is why the impact and consequences of those particular incidents on single carriageways are so appalling and serious.
Mr McArthur made a number of relevant descriptive remarks. The junctions at Aviemore, Kingussie, Carrbridge and in other places are all associated with very serious incidents and deaths, and, of course, visitors to this country are unfamiliar with road laws, signs and systems.
Therefore, in the short time that I have in which to speak, I will make three asks of the minister. The first is to progress the dualling works as swiftly as possible. The second is to publish a revised plan of when the dualling commitments will be completed in respect of the A9 from Perth to Inverness and the A96 in my patch—a commitment that is enshrined in the Bute house agreement. The third—something that the minister is doing this Friday and has been doing for months, and that her predecessor, Mr Dey, also did—is to work on further safety measures that can be progressed ad interim, including improvements to lighting, signage and education. More can be done, and many of my constituents have contributed to that work.
Given the gravity of all those matters and the strength of feeling, I also ask that the Scottish Government consider making ministerial statements on each of those serious matters in due course.
In particular, I want to say that progress has been made on the A9, from Luncarty to the Pass of Birnam and from Dalraddy to Kincraig, but also on the other nine sections that are due to be dualled. In almost every case, there has been painstaking, detailed, expensive and thorough design work, preparatory work, engineering work and community engagement. Do not overlook all of that, because an enormous amount of work has gone into that and to say that nothing has happened is simply wrong. Perhaps we need to take our trumpet out of the case and blow it a bit more, just to say what work has been done.
There are four sections—the Tay crossing to Ballinluig, Pitlochry to Killiecrankie, Glen Garry to Dalwhinnie, and Dalwhinnie to Crubenmore—on which dualling seems to be ready to go ahead. Minister, can the following questions be answered today or shortly? When will the dualling of those sections go ahead, when will that work go out for procurement, and can we have those decisions made as quickly as possible?
Presiding Officer, I think that my time is up, and I do not want to get into your bad books. I will conclude by saying that, for me, the theme today is that what the people of Scotland want is progress—real progress—not party politics.
I am sure that there is not a single member in the Parliament who has not been affected directly or indirectly by a tragic road accident over the years. In that spirit, I looked forward to a genuine debate about the actions that the Government can take to save lives on the A9 and the A96, from improving dangerous junctions to rolling out the use of average speed cameras. However, instead, we have seen an attempt to use recent accidents to bolster the case for dualling every inch of the A9 and the A96, without any analysis of why accident rates have worsened recently or how those accidents could have been prevented in the first place.
It is important that we go back to the basics. According to Transport Scotland, the case for the A9 dualling project was largely an economic one—it was about reducing journey times between Inverness and Perth—and the secondary benefits of reducing driver frustration and the severity, if not the frequency, of accidents came later. As members have said, there have been calls from communities along the A9 over many years to improve dangerous junctions and reduce speed.
Those priorities are reflected in the Bute house agreement, which commits the SNP and the Greens to addressing and tackling safety concerns on our roads while, at the same time, responding to community needs and delivering on our climate ambitions across Scotland. Investment should be directed where it is most needed and where it can make a real, tangible difference.
I accept that targeted improvements are needed, and, over a decade ago, I was proud to back the campaign to improve the dangerous Ballinluig junction on the A9. Every time I drive through that junction, I think back to how dangerous it was and I think about how many lives have been saved as a result of that investment. The community in Dunkeld and Birnam still live, with a high-speed junction that is confusing and dangerous, and I back their calls for investment in a safer junction, speed reduction, better signage and other measures. I look forward to the meeting that the minister will convene with local members on those issues next week.
However, as with the original problem at Ballinluig, those problems are made even more critical because of the high speeds that vehicles travel at on dualled sections of the road. Let us not forget that the continuously dualled section of the A9 between Perth and Dunblane has also had tragic junction accidents that have required further sustained investment over many years. Simply dualling is not a panacea to address deep-seated accident and road safety issues on our roads. An evidence-led approach is required.
With the A96, the Government’s review provides a chance to look afresh at what investments are genuinely needed on that corridor, including in public transport. That is embedded in the Bute house agreement. I have my doubts that that review will conclude that dualling every last inch of that road is the best option for safety for communities or for the climate.
I am running short of time. I do not think that there is time in hand.
We need to champion measures that have already worked on the A9 and on other roads in Scotland to improve road safety. It is clear that average speed cameras save lives. On the A9, the number of fatalities fell by 40 per cent in the first three years after their introduction. Collisions were down by nearly a quarter, while frustrating road closures due to accidents were also reduced by a quarter. Therefore, it is disappointing that there has been no mention so far in the debate, or in the Tory motion, of the role of average speed cameras. I hope that the minister will reflect on their potential for the A96 in her closing speech.
The Government is right to mention the worsening financial settlement that has been handed down to the Parliament, which will limit the Government’s ability to invest in the projects that we need in order to save lives. Projects to improve road safety, bypass communities or maintain roads will be threatened by the slash-and-burn austerity of the Tory party. We must have the ability to invest in genuine road safety improvements to protect lives across Scotland. That needs budget and a real focus on the measures that will actually work, backed up by the evidence.
I am pleased to speak in this debate and to support my colleague Fergus Ewing’s call for an updated timeline for completion of dualling the A9. In him, the people of the Highlands have a great advocate and a persistent fighter on their behalf.
As has been acknowledged, it is still the case that too many lives are lost or damaged on Scotland’s roads—not least on the roads in question. I am sure that members are united in expressing our condolences to everyone who has been affected.
Whenever there are significant project delays, regardless of the reason for them, there are issues of trust and confidence. Further information always adds value, so I am very grateful for the minister’s earlier comments.
It is right to acknowledge all the work that has been done thus far. I am referring not only to the completion of some sections of the A9, but to the design and preparatory work that has been undertaken on all other sections that are due to be dualled, and the work on the Tomatin to Moy section—I have mentioned it previously and the minister mentioned it—which is due to be completed by 2025.
As someone who has, on occasion, travelled up the A9, I am very aware of the need to have a heightened sense of care as the road changes. No one thinks that the current stage of development is sufficient—hence the continuing commitment to complete that important work. However, we must remember that there have been huge problems with many large-scale projects in recent years as a result of the halting of so much project work because of the pandemic. I suspect that each and every MSP will, if we are honest, be able to point to delayed projects in their constituency.
There is an added financial problem, as the capital cost increases that result from inflationary pressures are compounded by supply chain problems. Such effects are very real and must be carefully addressed. Ignoring the context serves no one—least of all the people who are campaigning for projects to be completed. That is why I have regularly called for the Scottish Government to have full borrowing powers, rather than limited borrowing powers, to enable it to borrow to invest.
Recently, the UK Government has been very willing to happily borrow eye-watering sums, counted in the tens of billions, to bail it out of its own failures, while denying Scotland appropriate borrowing powers for critical capital investment. I hope that all those who want—
It is quite incredible that the member is making those statements. Following the union connectivity review, the UK Government made a commitment to fund improvements on the A75, which is of huge economic significance, but despite there being £20 million on the table, the Scottish Government refused to sit down with it to build the process of how the two Governments could work together.
The member fails to understand the fundamental point that I am making, which is about capital borrowing powers for this Parliament—the Scottish Parliament—in which the member sits and to which he should be contributing for the Scottish people.
I hope that all those who want, for the best of reasons, to hasten capital spending on projects such as road dualling will, equally, argue for increased borrowing powers to strengthen our capacity. If anyone else wants to intervene on that point, I am willing to take the intervention.
I would very much like the minister to address two questions in his summing up.
First, will he outline the major impediments to publishing a timeline for completion of dualling the A9 and A96? Secondly, what is the current state of play regarding capital funding for the projects? Let us hope that we can get them back on the road to completion.
The debate has shown that the case for the upgrade of the A96 and the A9 is stark. Graham Simpson reminded us of the tragic fact that more than 330 people have died on the A9 since 1979. As Murdo Fraser said, each of those deaths is a tragedy.
Fergus Ewing spoke passionately about the fact that some of the deaths on those northern roads involve several people from the same family. A week rarely goes by when we do not hear of another casualty or, tragically and all too often, another fatality.
I presume, as Neil Bibby highlighted, that that is why the SNP gave a clear manifesto commitment to dualling the A9 by 2025 and the A96 between Inverness and Aberdeen by 2030. Those deadlines—indeed, those commitments—are no longer clear. The minister was upset earlier when it was suggested that the Greens can veto SNP commitments on roads, but if they cannot, maybe the minister will, in summing up, tell us once and for all whether the SNP’s manifesto commitment to dual the A96 will be delivered and, if so, when.
The more the Government delays, the more casualties there will be on those roads. However, “dither” and “delay” have been the Government’s watchwords when it comes to investment in our transport infrastructure. The late STPR2 kicked further into the long grass a host of projects that are crying out for funding. We could almost forgive the wait if the Government had shed any light on when many of those projects will happen, but the vague commitments, the lack of detail and the uncertainty have left communities across Scotland in limbo.
A number of members highlighted the fact that, just today, Anas Sarwar, Neil Bibby and I welcomed to Holyrood members of the A77 action group, council leaders and representatives of ferry firm Stena Line to brief MSPs on the need to upgrade the A75 and the A77 trunk roads. It is now vital that the Scottish Government listens to the clear message that we and the minister heard from the community and the ferry firm. If it is serious about supporting not just Wigtownshire’s economy but the whole of Scotland’s economy—given that the routes are the gateway to Northern Ireland—it needs to invest in making those long-forgotten roads fit for purpose. Communities there have waited long enough.
That is why Labour’s amendment urges the Government to get on with the job. It must urgently publish the final STPR2 report with a clear timetable for delivering investment in those strategic active travel, ferry, bus and rail projects, and for delivering the improvements that we need to Scotland’s crumbling roads, based on road safety, journey times, economic and community development and climate impact. That should not be based on behind-closed-doors deals, of which safety on the A96 has been the victim. There should be no more dithering and no more delay.
We all want—in fact, we need—fewer cars on our roads, but we cannot have an approach to roads that fails to distinguish between urban and rural and does not understand that, in rural communities in particular, a car is often a necessity and not a luxury. The delivery plan needs to include a sea change on our woeful record on electrifying car use. The Climate Change Committee estimates that we will need at least 30,000 public electric vehicle charging points in Scotland by 2030. The Government’s target is for just over 4,000 in the next few years. Today, the BBC’s “Disclosure” programme revealed damning evidence that almost a quarter of existing points are faulty. That is not an incentive to switch to electric vehicles.
The Government’s record on public transport is certainly not going to get people out of the car and on to buses or trains. On this Government’s watch, our bus network is being dismantled, route by route. Passenger numbers have fallen by 25 per cent since 2007-08, which is 121 million fewer passenger journeys, yet bus fares rise and rise and rise. They have risen by nearly 19 per cent over the past five years alone.
In 2019, I lodged amendments to the Transport (Scotland) Bill to give councils the power to run their own buses. Three years on, they still have no guidance or funding to establish those bus services to put passengers, not profits, first. More dither, more delay.
The Government’s record on trains is, sadly, no better. In 2014, when it handed the keys of Scotland’s trains to Dutch firm Abellio, the SNP promised that our rail system would be world leading. Well, it certainly did lead the world, but on fare rises, delays and cancellations. Now the Government has cut the number of trains per day by one third—250 per day—from pre-pandemic levels.
On active travel, the Government failed to reach its 2020 target to increase the share of everyday journeys that are made by bike to 10 per cent. In fact, that year, it was only 2 per cent.
Transport remains the largest source of climate emissions at nearly 29 per cent, most of which is from cars. That is why Labour’s amendment focuses on reversing this Government’s woeful record on public transport. However, we also recognise that, without strategic investment and improvement of our key trunk roads—whether the A96 and the A9 in the north or the A75 and A77 in the south—Scotland’s economy and our poor safety record will continue to fail Scotland.
As many members have done, I begin by expressing my sympathies to everyone who has been affected either by the loss of a loved one or by injury on our roads over this year.
As the Minister for Transport said, the accidents on the trunk roads, in particular, that members have been discussing are deeply tragic for everyone. Our road safety framework to 2030 sets out ambitious targets to reduce the number of accidents, and we are absolutely determined to deliver on those. That will require us to address the recent upturn in the number of accidents on the A9 while we continue to invest in the safety of our wider network and promote safety for everyone who uses it, the communities that it serves, and the businesses, services and individuals who rely on it.
That will require on-going investment to support a wide range of outcomes— reducing death and injury on our roads, of course, but also improving safety for communities and reducing the terrible loss that families, friends and individuals suffer whenever a loved one is lost, whether they are a driver, a pedestrian, a cyclist or anyone else.
Road safety, every bit as much as the climate emergency, demands of us a change in approach to transport after decades of rising road traffic volumes, with all the additional risk and the environmental damage that comes as a direct result.
Perhaps on another occasion we will get into a discussion about the role of hydrogen and whether transport is its most likely sustainable use. However, of course there are differences between urban and rural contexts, whatever the fuel source that is being used.
Over the course of the debate,
I have listened carefully to the arguments on progress with the dualling works on the A9 between Perth and Inverness and improvements on the A96 corridor. It is important to recognise that the Government is delivering exactly what we said we would when the shared policy programme was published.
In a moment; I will first make some progress.
As committed to in the shared policy programme, the A9 programme between Perth and Inverness is being taken forward subject to the normal statutory authorisation and business case processes.
I am about to turn to some of Mr Simpson’s comments, so let me make a little progress.
Road safety is about more than road design, and increased capacity is certainly no guarantee of better safety. Although the transport minister was right to say that the Conservative motion strikes a respectful tone, I genuinely wish that that was true of all the speeches that we heard, some of which appeared to be more interested in party-political point scoring or name calling than in dealing with genuinely serious road safety issues.
Mr Simpson recognised that different reasons exist for all accidents. That is true, but his focus was on one intervention only—dualling. He had little to say on issues around reducing road speed, reducing traffic volume, addressing driver behaviour or the very positive role that cameras can play, as Mr Ruskell mentioned—in fact, very few members did. In what should be a serious debate about road safety, Mr Simpson seemed more interested in slightly cartoonish imagined conversations between people whose politics he disagrees with.
I am fully committed to what we published in the Bute house agreement, which is a commitment to the north and north-east, including improvements on the A96 corridor. We have made it very clear that the current plan is to fully dual the A96, but at the same time, a transparent evidence-based review that includes a climate compatibility assessment to consider the direct and indirect impacts on climate and the environment must and will be conducted. I would have hoped that any political party that wills the end, by voting for ambitious climate targets, is also prepared to will the means, and will support us taking forward that work.
There is not enough time to address all the many issues that I wanted to discuss, but I genuinely hope that members in discussing these issues will focus on all the aspects of road safety that need to be taken forward, including the need to reduce traffic speeds and traffic volumes, achieve a modal shift to public and active travel and recognise that many people who are vulnerable to issues around road safety need protection when they use active travel. There is a huge amount that we need to get right, and the Government is committed to doing that as part of our road safety framework. I support the amendment in Jenny Gilruth’s name.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of the debate happened yesterday evening, as it was being set up. The motion in Graham Simpson’s name demands that Parliament
“notes with alarm the number of recent fatalities on the A9 and A96” and demands a timetable for the fulfilment of the promise to dual them. However, as Graham Simpson pointed out, the amendment in the name of Jenny Gilruth makes no mention at all of the promises to dual either road. Coupled with what we have heard today from the Scottish Government and its Green partners, the people of the north and north-east will no doubt draw the inevitable conclusions.
We heard from many speakers that the accident statistics on the A9 and A96 are truly horrific, and I particularly note Fergus Ewing’s passionate and moving contribution in that regard. Douglas Lumsden told us that since 2019 there have been 11 fatal accidents on the A9, resulting in 13 deaths, and that 164 people were injured in 94 non-fatal accidents. Between January and August this year, 30 people have been injured—nine seriously—in crashes on that road, and one person died.
In a powerful contribution from Murdo Fraser, we heard that the A9 has the unenviable reputation of being Scotland’s most dangerous road.
Between 2018 and 2021, 21 people have been killed and 257 injured. This year alone 14 people have lost their lives, which is the highest number for 12 years. Murdo Fraser told us that 12 of those accidents were on single-carriageway sections.
A month ago, I attended the funeral of a friend who tragically died in a road accident on the A9 in September, and the sorrow that every fatality brings for the families and close friends of people involved is simply impossible to describe. Does Liam Kerr agree that the Scottish Government needs to take swifter action not only on the A9 but on other roads in the Highlands and Islands, such as the A83 at the Rest and Be Thankful, which have not yet seen fatalities but have seen serious accidents and remain perilously dangerous?
Yes, I do. I thank Donald Cameron for the intervention and give my condolences to him and to all who have lost friends, family and acquaintances for their loss— every one is a tragedy. He is right about taking wider action. I strongly agree with that.
In the interest of time, I will be brief in acknowledging the economic aspect of this. We heard from Douglas Lumsden how Liz Cameron, the chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, said that a dualled A96 would unlock
“economic growth, workforce mobility and investment,” and Douglas Ross intervened to talk of Moray Chamber of Commerce’s survey, which found that dualling would benefit business and the economy locally.
More failures to honour promises are unforgivable. Those are breaches of promises, because—as we heard from Graham Simpson—in 2011 the Scottish Government’s infrastructure investment plan promised to dual the A96 in full, and to dual the road from Perth to Inverness by 2025 in full, yet only two out of 11 sections of the A9 have been done to date. All we have on the A96 is a four-week consultation on whether to dual it, which has cost nearly £2 million and—as we heard—got fewer than 5,000 responses. What a waste of taxpayers’ money. We know what the people want, yet this consultation will not even reveal what the people want, because although the minister claims that it is “evidence based”, of the 100 questions, not one asked about dualling the A96. There are plenty of questions about how old people’s vehicles are, what mode of transport they use and how good they feel the active travel options are in their area. It is little wonder that Stewart Nicol, chief executive of the Inverness Chamber of Commerce, suggested in July that it had been “skewed” to ensure that it gave the result that the SNP-Green coalition wanted.
Further, when, as Graham Simpson reminded us, Maggie Chapman said more than a year ago that the survey was going to be very clear that it
“actually isn’t viable to dual the whole way”, a cynic might suggest that she was only reflecting what the Scottish Government had already decided to conclude. Also, given Mr Ewing’s comments in summer 2021 that
“support is forthcoming from all but one party, which attracted little support” it is clear that a handful of MSPs, who attracted a tiny number of votes, are capable of holding any manifesto commitment to ransom, so long as they are nationalists.
It is abundantly clear from this consultation that the SNP Government wants to kick the upgrade into the long grass and find any excuse to breach its promise on the A96, just as it breached it on the A9.
Earlier this month, Badenoch and Strathspey ward councillor Bill Lobban described the death toll in his ward as “catastrophic”. He went on to say:
“How we tell the people left behind that we could do something about this and we didn’t, is something we have got to live with … this is more important than money.”
That is indeed so.
More than a decade has gone by since the SNP promised to dual the A96—promise broken. The A9 was promised to be completed by 2025—promise broken. It is time for the SNP to stop pandering to its Green partners and get on with these life-saving improvements and dual the A96 and the A9 in full. The families of those killed and injured deserve nothing less.
On a point of order, Presiding Officer. During the debate, Douglas Ross made mention of a letter that I had received from Moray Chamber of Commerce on 21 September in relation to the A96. I want to put it on record that a response was issued from our parliamentary office on 18 October to Sarah Medcraf, the chief executive of the chamber. I would be grateful if the
Official Report could be updated accordingly.