• A96 Action

Full article: The end of the road?

A96 Action group’s Chair Lorna Anderson states the case against Transport Scotland’s stalled plan to create a “new A96” from Inverness to Aberdeen.

This week marks the anniversary of the last Transport Scotland public “drop-in sessions”, held for the A96 Dualling, East of Huntly scheme. The date for announcing the final preferred route option was expected to be late 2019 but has now been delayed until later this year. Transport Scotland’s explanation for the delay is that more time is required to fully assess the unprecedented level of feedback received from the public.

It is doubtful that this is the only issue preventing Transport Scotland from publishing their plans for the upwards of £3bn A96 dualling and the delay is a fair indication that all is not well. In the interim, a number of other consequential things have happened that may well seal the fate for the grandiose plans to plough the A96, for the most part, through 88 miles of pristine rural countryside.

The first of these is the publication in January of the Infrastructure Commission for Scotland Phase 1 Key Findings Report – A Blueprint for Scotland. This document lays out a framework and guidance for future infrastructure investment decisions in Scotland and covers topics such as funding priorities, flooding and the environment. Specifically on roads infrastructure, one of the key recommendations is that the final versions of the National Transport Strategy and Strategic Transport Project Reviews should adopt the principle that there should be a presumption in favour of investment to future proof existing road infrastructure. Future road investment should primarily be directed towards making infrastructure safer, resilient and more reliable, rather than increasing capacity.

Transport Scotland’s explanation for why sections of the existing road cannot be upgraded is because the carriageway is constrained by the standard of the existing geometry, by a high number of roadside properties and by a high density of existing junctions and accesses. On examination by independent civil, these issues can for the most part be overcome by selecting a more appropriate road specification as directed by the Design Manual for Roads and Bridges. Transport Scotland and their consultants engineers have applied the widest possible “rural profile” for the carriageway passing in the vicinity of properties, whereas selecting an urban and narrower profile would have enabled dualling through Inverurie and resulted in a much better outcome for the Scottish taxpayer and environment.

The Infrastructure Commission Report does not make specific reference to current projects but it does recognise that a conflict of interests will be inevitable. The report states “It is also becoming clear that the vision of an inclusive net zero carbon economy, will sometimes require difficult choices to be made and trade-offs to be addressed. Therefore, if we are to be successful in capturing the opportunities whilst facing up to the challenges, it is not a matter of choosing change or no change; it is a matter of what, how and when future change will happen and the choices we make to get there.”

Firstly, as the Ministerial sponsor for the report and in the full knowledge that current proposals will come under the close scrutiny of The Scheme Reporter, Public Inquiry and possible Judicial Review thereafter, it seems inconceivable that Michael Matheson, the Minister for Transport and Connectivity, would not order Transport Scotland to at least revisit current proposals.

Secondly, at the request of The Environment Secretary, Roseanna Cunningham, the Committee on Climate Change has provided advice on post COVID-19 ‘green recovery for Scotland’. The committee has suggested six areas where the Scottish Government should focus on, including embedding fairness as a core principle and with the long-term target to reach net-zero by 2045. The clear inference is that Digital Infrastructure is key to Scotland's economic recovery and that the Government should 'prioritise broadband over roads'. Nobody could have foreseen the cataclysmic COVID-19 events that would unfold, or the predicted impact on the economy and particularly oil related employment in the North East. Many businesses will not rise from the ashes of COVID-19 and sadly countless thousands of Scots will join the ranks of the unemployed. What it has brought into sharp focus is the importance of having access to a fast and reliable Broadband connection. Excellent connectivity is essential for a fully inclusive society to function efficiently and fairly. Those on the right side of the “digital divide” have continued to work from home perfectly well and many corporations have realised that they do not require expensive office blocks in the middle of the city for business to function at a new normal.

Individuals have enjoyed not having to sit in traffic for hours each day to get to the office or catch the "red eye" flight to London. The Scottish fiscal plan for the next few years lies in tatters but what we do with what little capital may be available post COVID is critical. Serious Ministerial consideration must be given to redirecting budget from Transport to Digital. This should serve to re-energise the ailing R100 programme but with an aspiration to deliver a Gigabit Fibre network, future proofing public investment.

There is a vast amount of evidence to support the view that the return of investment on digital infrastructure in excellent. The Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband being just one example where £12 was returned for every £1 invested. Full Fibre not only gives every Scot the opportunity to undertake highly skilled and highly paid employment, this can be done regardless of location. Social inclusion becomes a reality rather than a few words on a manifesto. Service like remote medical diagnostics become a reality, our children can have access to the best educational tools, opportunity to partake in the “Internet of Things revolution, the list of possibilities and potential benefits for all Scots to grasp is endless.

n stark contrast, The Strategic Business Case for the A96 dualling delivers a Benefits:Cost ratio of just over 1, and only when a 25% uplift from the highly dubious Driver Frustration category is added. Without this unmeasurable and unquantifiable inclusion, the ratio falls to 0.78. In simple terms, the Scottish taxpayer will lose 22p in the pound on the deal over a 60 year period, hardly a compelling economic argument to proceed. Politicians and Business repeatedly espouse the great economic benefits but when asked to provide data based evidence, the silence has been deafening. Reference is frequently made to increased tourism as an example. This road may simply be one step closer to destroying the peace and tranquility tourists come to Scotland to enjoy. Austerity is not the way to kick start the economy post COVID-19 but nor is spending scarce capital on dualling roads that aren't justifiable on economic grounds. Spend the money on infrastructure where the whole of Scotland can realise the benefits.

It takes a good Government to generate innovative, creative and futuristic policies. It takes an even better one to change direction and react wisely in the knowledge that revisiting a policy laid out in 2011 (and based on an oil price of $100+) is diligent indeed. In the “Protecting Scotland’s Future (The Governments Programme 2019-20)” policy document, the First Minister states “protecting the environment and ensuring a just transition to a net zero future is part of our commitment to put wellbeing at the heart of all we do as a government”.

On that basis and considering everything above, then the A96 should not be fully dualled between Aberdeen and Inverness, there is simply no justification. Of course people want to see the road upgraded, safety improved and dualled where necessary but not at any cost. Scotland has been presented with a once in many generations opportunity to exit COVID-19 as a greener, fairer and inclusive society. Let’s not squander the moment on outdated, wasteful and unnecessary infrastructure where the only people to benefit are road designers and contractors.

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