28 February 2008

(S3O-2427) National Concessionary Travel Scheme

National Concessionary Travel Scheme

4. Des McNulty (Clydebank and Milngavie) (Lab): To ask the Scottish Executive what estimate it has made of the uptake by passengers of the national concessionary travel scheme in 2008-09 and what the difference is between the capped figure in the 2008-09 budget for reimbursement for concessionary travel and the projected claims for reimbursement if the current estimate for uptake is accurate. (S3O-2427)

The Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson): Transport Scotland is in discussions with the bus industry body, the Confederation of Passenger Transport, over an agreed cost escalator for 2008-09 that would set the payments limit to bus operators. Therefore, issues relating to the usage and possible cost of the scheme in 2008-09 are commercially sensitive at this stage.

Des McNulty: We could translate that as, "I don't know." It is interesting that the minister does not know, because the budget has been set. With the budget set, that rather restricts what he can now do. Over the past 10 years, there has been substantial bus patronage growth and stability in fares, but the minister has failed to increase the bus service operators grant in line with what happens south of the border. The price of the council tax freeze is a sharp, above-inflation rise in bus fares. Does the minister recognise that if fares go up, the cost to the Treasury of concessionary fares will go up and we will end up in a financial mess?

Stewart Stevenson: The member may care to note that the structure, eligibility and funding process for the scheme has remained entirely unchanged. When and if he chooses to criticise the scheme, he criticises the previous Administration.

Ian McKee (Lothians) (SNP): Like me, the minister is a member of the national concessionary travel scheme, so he will realise that many pensioners do not want just to curl up at night with a cup of cocoa. Does he have any plans to extend the scheme to include travel on night buses?

Stewart Stevenson: I acknowledge my interest in the scheme. I have already used the eligibility card more than 60 times on ministerial business. We will review the scheme for 2008-09, and we will of course take account of the experience of the scheme and its success to date.

21 February 2008

(S3O-2330) Road and Rail Links (Ayrshire)

Road and Rail Links (Ayrshire)

6. Irene Oldfather (Cunninghame South) (Lab): To ask the Scottish Executive what importance it places on good road and rail links for the economic regeneration of Ayrshire. (S3O-2330)

The Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson): We recognise the important role of effective road and rail links in supporting Ayrshire's economic regeneration. Our current programme includes a range of interventions on Ayrshire's railways and trunk roads to improve journey times, capacity and reliability. We will consider future transport investment requirements through the strategic transport projects review, which will report to ministers in summer.

Irene Oldfather: The minister will recall that in a written answer, he advised me that upgrading of the A737 had basically been kicked into touch. The proposed transshipment container terminal at Hunterston has been dropped and the route development fund, which supported Prestwick airport, will go. What action will the Government take to put connectivity between Ayrshire and the rest of Scotland at the top of the agenda, to allow appropriate economic regeneration?

Stewart Stevenson: The member might need to be reminded of my answer to S3W-8711, which was that the A737 would form part of the strategic transport projects review. I assure her that it will. The review concerns the biggest programme of work that there has been in the life of the Parliament. Like people in other parts of Scotland, the people of Ayrshire are entitled to have their needs considered. Please accept that they shall be.

John Scott (Ayr) (Con): The minister will agree about the pressing need to improve road links between Ayrshire and the M74. Other Ayrshire MSPs share that aspiration, whose realisation Ayrshire residents and the local business community would widely welcome. Will he consider taking steps to upgrade the A70 to trunk road status under section 5(2) of the Roads (Scotland) Act 1984? Will that be part of the strategic review that he mentioned?

Stewart Stevenson: We have no immediate plans to extend the trunk road network. In the meantime, the A70 is a local road, so the local council can invest in it if it feels that that is appropriate. Of course, we are examining transport corridors and all modes of transport as part of the strategic transport projects review. I am sure that we will find appropriate responses in that.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP): The minister will recall from meeting several organisations in my constituency on 22 August last year that North Ayrshire Council, Scottish Enterprise Ayrshire and others have made it clear that the way to regenerate my constituency, and the most significant investment, would be to construct the Dalry bypass. Will he use his influence to press for the construction of that bypass at the earliest possible date as part of the review?

Stewart Stevenson: The Government's central purpose is to improve Scotland's economy and we recognise that investment in transport infrastructure is a necessary part of that. That is why we are undertaking a wide-ranging review. Ministers will receive the report of the strategic transport projects review this summer. Every part of Scotland is represented in the review's work and I am sure that we will see progress on many projects throughout Scotland.

(S3O-2262) A87 and A887 (Vehicular Accidents)

A87 and A887 (Vehicular Accidents)

4. John Farquhar Munro (Ross, Skye and Inverness West) (LD): To ask the Scottish Executive how many vehicular accidents on the A87 and A887 were reported to the police in December 2007 and January 2008, and how those compare with figures for December 2006 and January 2007. (S3O-2262)

The Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson): Complete data on the number of road accidents that occurred on the A87 and A887 in December 2007 and January 2008 have not yet been returned to the Scottish Government by the Northern Constabulary. I am happy to write to the member with the requested information, when it becomes available. Provisional information is expected in the next four weeks.

John Farquhar Munro: I am sure that the minister agrees that the dangerous road conditions on the A87 and the A887 require more than just a parliamentary question, but I asked the question because I have not received a reply from his office to my request for a meeting—maybe a reply will come.

At least 27 accidents have happened on the roads, and locally the number is thought to be nearer to 40. I drive that stretch of road weekly—

The Presiding Officer: Ask a question, please.

John Farquhar Munro: Yes, sir.

I do not know whether the problem is a lack of maintenance or the new brine treatment, but the road is much more dangerous and if nothing is done there could be a fatal accident in winter. What does the minister's department intend to do to address an obvious problem?

Stewart Stevenson: I have figures for December 2006 to January 2007—a year ago—which suggest that there were one serious and eight slight accidents on the A87 and that no accident was recorded for the A887. I am uncertain whether those figures are at odds with the figure of 27 to which the member referred, but I will be happy to hear from him if he thinks that our numbers are inadequate.

We put on the roads a mixture of 40 per cent brine and dry salt. Modern research shows that that is the most effective way of ensuring that we keep our roads clear. Until I hear to the contrary, we are likely to continue with the new way of distributing brine mixed with salt on our roads.

(S3O-2263) Public Transport (Rural Areas)

Public Transport (Rural Areas)

3. Jim Hume (South of Scotland) (LD): To ask the Scottish Executive what it is doing to improve public transport in rural areas. (S3O-2263)

The Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson): Since 1998, the rural transport fund has provided substantial resources to local authorities to help to introduce new or improved public transport services, and to community transport projects in rural areas where there are no public transport services or where such services are very limited. In total, almost £70 million has been made available.

The RTF ends on 31 March. From 1 April, we will provide local government with record levels of funding over the period to 2011. Local authorities will be responsible for arranging local transport services, including rural transport services, in line with local needs and spending priorities, from the substantial resources made available to them.

Jim Hume: The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's report "OECD Rural Policy Reviews: Scotland, UK - Assessment and Recommendations", which was launched yesterday, highlighted the discrepancy in funding in Scotland and observed that the Highlands and Islands have been favoured with public spending, whereas in the south of Scotland social exclusion is "a particularly serious problem". Transport is part of that problem.

The south west of Scotland transport partnership in Dumfries and Galloway proposes to increase fares by more than 60 per cent. The daily fare on a bus route that people use for work will increase from £5 to £8, which is unaffordable. Will the minister say what the Government will do to address social exclusion, particularly in the context of transport and the SWESTRANS issue?

Stewart Stevenson: I recently met SWESTRANS to discuss a range of subjects to do with transport in the south-west. The issue to which the member referred was not raised with me, so I concluded that the partnership is happy with its relationship with its local council, from whom it derives funding. SWESTRANS should be able to draw on the additional funding that has been made available to Dumfries and Galloway Council to deliver services in response to local needs.

7 February 2008

(S3O-2251) Lewis Wind Farm

Lewis Wind Farm

3. Robin Harper (Lothians) (Green): To ask the Scottish Executive whether it has received communications from Western Isles Council seeking an urgent meeting to discuss the Lewis wind farm proposal. (S3O-2251)

The Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson): Jim Mather met Angus Campbell, vice-convener of the council, on Monday 28 January to discuss economic development in the Western Isles. He could not comment on the specifics of the Lewis wind farm proposal prior to its determination, but he discussed the socioeconomic challenges that the islands face. The Scottish Government wants renewable energy to contribute to the islands' economy, and Jim Mather has agreed to attend an energy summit in Stornoway on 17 March.

Robin Harper: I understand some of the complications to which the minister refers. However, trust in the planning process, especially in relation to certain developments, often hangs by a thread. Will the minister assure me that, to ensure transparency and fairness in the process, the same opportunity to meet ministers to discuss the Lewis wind farm proposal will be offered to other interested parties, including local communities?

Stewart Stevenson: We await a final determination of the planning application to which the member refers. There has been substantial engagement with a wide range of interest groups on this major development. I am sure that that will continue, as it normally does.

(S3O-2243) Forth Road Bridge (Cables)

Forth Road Bridge (Cables)

1. John Park (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab): To ask the Scottish Executive whether it will provide an update on the condition of the main cables on the Forth road bridge. (S3O-2243)

The Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson): Investigating the condition of the main cables on the Forth road bridge is a matter for the Forth Estuary Transport Authority. I understand that FETA is confident that the current dehumidification project offers good prospects for slowing down or halting corrosion. However, FETA will not know the answer until the results of inspections that are due in 2011-12 have been analysed.

John Park: I was pleased to read a couple of weeks ago and to hear again today that it looks likely that heavy goods vehicles will not be banned from the Forth road bridge. The minister will surely agree that it was perhaps inappropriate that the suggestion that they might be banned found its way into the public domain.

I have two questions. First, when all the information on the condition of the cables is available, will the minister make a statement to Parliament on the issue? Secondly, given the need to focus on public confidence no matter the condition of the cables, will the Scottish Government set up information seminars similar to those that were held on the options for the new crossing, to update people in Fife, the Lothians and other appropriate areas on the condition of the cables when that information becomes available? It is important to ensure that we maintain public confidence going forward.

Stewart Stevenson: Mr Park makes some important points, but I must stress that responsibility for maintaining the bridge lies with FETA. I will, of course, stand ready to support FETA in its work and, if it is useful, I will be part of the team that will take responsibility for engaging with local communities and explaining to them the future of the bridge. I will not supplant FETA's responsibilities, although I agree with John Park's substantive point.

Jim Tolson (Dunfermline West) (LD): The minister's reply to Mr Park is interesting, but the matters that he raises are not likely to have any effect for several years. A much more immediate problem for bridge users is that FETA plans to replace the expansion joints on the carriageway next year. Does the minister know how long that work will take and the extent of the delays and disruption that it will cause? What will the minister do to minimise that disruption for my constituents in Dunfermline West?

Stewart Stevenson: Clearly, FETA needs to address the condition of the expansion joints to ensure the continued use of the bridge. The opening of a further crossing on the upper Forth will provide some relief, especially for HGVs, given that 80 per cent of HGVs that cross the Forth already use an upper-Forth crossing. I will work closely with FETA to ensure that Transport Scotland and the Government put in place appropriate measures, such as signage, to mitigate the effects of the closures by ensuring that people have adequate notice to plan their journeys. That is in connection with my wider responsibilities for the road network, albeit that FETA is responsible for the bridge.

Alex Johnstone (North East Scotland) (Con): Will the minister undertake to ensure that any announcement or statement that he makes on the matter will cover not only corrosion and wire breakage within the cables but the condition of the anchorage points at either end of the bridge? I understand that there may be cause for concern with the anchorage points, which were the subject of a perhaps speculative press article some months ago.

Stewart Stevenson: As yet, we have no particular reason to be concerned about the state of the anchorage points. Clearly, in looking at the effect of corrosion on the structure as a whole, it is important that we conduct tests to establish whether there are other causes for concern. I am satisfied that FETA is doing the necessary work. We will await the outcome of that research.

Tricia Marwick (Central Fife) (SNP): I am grateful for the responses that the minister has given, although I think that Jim Tolson was almost expecting the minister to go out and do the work himself.
Members have referred to the quality of the information that FETA releases, which is important. It is vital that all information is managed correctly, so that commuters and those who use the bridges receive it as quickly as possible. Will the minister have a chat with FETA about how it is managing information release at the moment?

Stewart Stevenson: I am always in the business of chatting with people with whom we work. I talk regularly to members of the FETA board and my officials are in regular contact with them. I am sure that appropriate ways of communicating with the communities that depend on the Forth road bridge will form part of our next chat.

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