20 March 2008

(S3O-2698) Water Charges

Water Charges

3. Andrew Welsh (Angus) (SNP): To ask the Scottish Executive what progress has been made in reviewing water charges. (S3O-2698)

The Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson): We have just consulted on the charging principles that we wish to see the Water Industry Commission for Scotland apply when determining caps for 2010 to 2014. An analysis of that consultation will be published in due course.

Andrew Welsh: Having personally raised the issue in parliamentary questions and in a members' business debate in the previous parliamentary session, I again stress to the minister the potentially devastating effects on churches, voluntary organisations and village halls if their exemption from water charges is removed. Given that the problem affects around 2,600 halls and volunteer organisations throughout Scotland, will he ensure that the continuation of the exemption is a priority in any review of water charges?

Stewart Stevenson: I recognise the member's long-standing support for churches, charities and voluntary organisations throughout Scotland. He can be sure that we will take careful note of the substantial number of approaches that we have had on the subject and the many consultation responses that we have received. I am conscious that, in changing how we assess the responsibilities of business organisations under the water charging regime, we must not unduly and unreasonably disadvantage other very important organisations in our communities.

Des McNulty (Clydebank and Milngavie) (Lab): I was a member of the Transport and the Environment Committee that recommended that the exemption be applied. At that time, the exemption was argued for on the basis of the level of disruption that would be caused to churches, scout groups and other small organisations if they were suddenly exposed to significant increases in water charges. That situation has not changed. If the exemption were withdrawn now, such organisations would be faced with exactly the same situation—

The Presiding Officer (Alex Fergusson): I must press you for a question.

Des McNulty: I hope that the Government will respond in a similar way by extending the exemption and making it permanent.

Stewart Stevenson: I am happy this week to agree with Des McNulty's analysis, which I think is pretty much spot on. A range of opportunities is available for dealing with the matter in the context of water charging, but members should be assured that the importance of the issue to organisations throughout Scotland is recognised by all political parties in the Parliament.

Jim Tolson (Dunfermline West) (LD): Is the minister aware that my constituent the Rev Jock Stein currently has an e-petition before the Parliament on that very issue? Can the minister assure me that, when the e-petition is considered, account will be taken of the representations that have been made not just by members on a cross-party basis within the Parliament but by members of the public and by all sectors?

Stewart Stevenson: I congratulate the Rev Jock Stein on his efforts on behalf of churches and others on the issue of exemption from water charges. We will certainly take account of information that comes from that source.

John Scott (Ayr) (Con): As the minister will know, voluntary sector groups are concerned about the onerous conditions that require to be met before water and sewerage charge relief can be obtained under the current exemption scheme. Can he assure me that, as well considering whether the exemption should continue—I certainly believe that it should—the Government will also reconsider the burdensome conditions that currently exclude many charities and other organisations from the scheme?

Stewart Stevenson: I am aware that the present scheme has a number of inconsistencies and unexpected side effects. For example, when organisations move, they lose their right to an exemption. Those and other similar matters will be considered in our response to the consultation.

13 March 2008

(S3O-2646) Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route

Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route

4. Alison McInnes (North East Scotland) (LD): To ask the Scottish Executive what timescale is in place for the public local inquiry into the Aberdeen western peripheral route. (S3O-2646)

The Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson):

We are making arrangements for the public local inquiry. I hope to announce shortly a date for the pre-inquiry meeting, which will set the inquiry's timescale.

Alison McInnes: Does the minister agree that time is of the essence? The AWPR is crucial to the north-east's economic wellbeing. Will he not only assure me that he will announce the inquiry in the immediate future, but guarantee that when the reporter makes her or his recommendation, the Government will reach a conclusion promptly?

Stewart Stevenson: I agree that the project is essential for the north-east. It has one of the highest rates of return among transport projects—that sits at 5, whereas the figures for other projects are dramatically lower. In line with our objective of supporting economic progress, we will seek to make the fastest possible decision that is consistent with fairness to all parties.

Brian Adam (Aberdeen North) (SNP): Does the minister agree that the AWPR's northern leg is less contentious than other parts? Could the public local inquiry, on which I hope he will announce details in the near future, be structured to proceed in segments that would allow faster progress to be made on delivering the AWPR?

Stewart Stevenson: We acknowledge that different parts of the route are subject to different challenges from objectors. People have been on the ground to undertake preliminary work on the northern leg of the route. I am confident that, overall, we will make the necessary progress and be able to proceed with the whole plan. We will see what the objectors have to say to the inquiry and what conclusions the reporter reaches. There will be several ways to deal with the outcome when we know it.

Lewis Macdonald (Aberdeen Central) (Lab): How does the minister intend to fund the western peripheral route when final decisions on it have been taken? Will those details be made public before the public local inquiry?

Stewart Stevenson: The route will be funded with money. The issues that the public local inquiry will cover relate to objectors' interests. Funding is unlikely to be relevant to the inquiry.

Mike Rumbles (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): The First Minister has given a commitment to abide by the public local inquiry's recommendations, whatever they are. Will the minister confirm that that is still the Government's position?

Stewart Stevenson: It is unusual to reject the inquiry's findings, but the decision must be made by ministers, and of course ministers will make that decision. Parliament will be party to that. I am sure that we will make a decision that reflects the view of the 90-plus per cent of people in the north-east who want the road to be delivered as early as possible.

6 March 2008

(S3O-2540) Road Equivalent Tariff (Mull and Islay)

Road Equivalent Tariff (Mull and Islay)

4. Des McNulty (Clydebank and Milngavie) (Lab): To ask the Scottish Executive on what basis it was decided that services to and from Mull and Islay should not be included in the pilot of the road equivalent tariff scheme that was recently announced by the Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change. (S3O-2540)

The Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson):

Mr Swinney announced details of the road equivalent tariff study during his visit to Stornoway on 13 August 2007. That announcement made it clear that we would carry out a study into RET in the context of ferry fares in Scotland and that the study would include a pilot exercise on one or more of the Western Isles to mainland routes.

I am pleased to say that we are able to include all the Western Isles to mainland routes in the pilot exercise as well as the Oban to Coll and Tiree service. Focusing on those routes initially will allow us to reach a view on the potential costs and benefits of the scheme and to take informed decisions on its potential impacts across other routes. Consideration will be given to the roll-out of RET across the Clyde and Hebrides and northern isles networks once the impact of RET has been evaluated.

Des McNulty: Some of the minister's responses are beginning to resemble the justification that was provided by comical Ali during the Iraq invasion. Such things will be picked up—[Interruption.]

The Presiding Officer: Order.

Des McNulty: People in Arran and Cumbrae will be extremely annoyed that significant reductions in ferry fares will be available to others, but not to them. People in Mull and Islay will be annoyed that significant reductions will be available to others, but not to them. People in Orkney and Shetland will also—

The Presiding Officer: They would probably like a question as well, Mr McNulty.

Des McNulty: Had the Government followed Labour's approach of implementing a 40 per cent reduction in ferry fares—

The Presiding Officer: Can we have a question, please.

Des McNulty: Such a reduction would have delivered something for everyone. Why will the minister not deliver that?

Stewart Stevenson: Perhaps we can now clearly understand why Labour has no parliamentary representatives in the Western Isles.

The median wage in the Western Isles is £55 a week less than that in Shetland. The unemployment rate is twice that in the northern isles. Over the past 20 years there has been an 18 per cent reduction in the population of the Western Isles, but other island populations have experienced relative stability. If it is not clear to the member, we are delivering equity and fairness as well as delivering on a manifesto commitment. We have done the right thing by the people of the Western Isles.

Jamie McGrigor (Highlands and Islands) (Con): Not only the people of Mull and Islay, but the residents of Jura, Bute, Colonsay and Arran—as well as those who live in Dunoon—will miss out on the lower ferry fares. All those people would have benefited from the previous Government's manifesto plan for a 40 per cent cut in ferry fares, but after 19 October—

The Presiding Officer: Can we have a question please, Mr McGrigor.

Jamie McGrigor: For 30 months after 19 October, only the people of the Western Isles, Coll and Tiree will benefit from lower fares. Does the minister think that that is equitable?

Stewart Stevenson: The member should revisit some of the information that he has provided and understand it more clearly. Every user, no matter where they reside—whether their journey is for business or pleasure or for the purposes of local education or health—who travels by ferry to and from the Western Isles will benefit from the £22.5 million that will be invested in the pilot over the 30-month period starting in October.

Labour's proposed 40 per cent cut was a narrow scheme that would have been limited to residents. The key difference between the two schemes is that our pilot will be a way of bringing new people to the islands and supporting the islands' economic potential—I have already given some numbers on the median salary in the Western Isles. It is clear that there is potential to be exploited.

From the pilot, we will draw conclusions in due course for the 69 ferry routes that operate throughout Scotland. We are leading the way but we're no finished the job.

The Presiding Officer: I have agreed to a request from Alasdair Allan to ask a supplementary question in Gaelic. Members will be relieved to know that he will also provide his own translation.

Alasdair Allan (Western Isles) (SNP): Chan eil mi a' tuigsinn càit a bheil comical Ali a' tighinn a-steach.

A dh'fhaighneachd do Riaghaltas na h-Alba dè seòrsa beannachdan eaconamach a thathar an dòchas gun tig dha na h-Eileanan an Iar agus gu Colla is Tiriodh nuair a thòisicheas sgeama pìolait RET air aiseagan anns an sgìre.

I am not sure where comical Ali fits into this.

What benefits does the Scottish Government expect to come to the Western Isles, Coll and Tiree when the RET pilot begins on ferry services in the area?

Stewart Stevenson: Tapadh leat. The member has homed in on the essential part of what we are trying to do. This is about economic development and equity. Primarily, we are creating an opportunity for tourism businesses and for the young people of the Western Isles to feel that they have a future there. We want to tackle the attrition of the islands' population, which has declined by 18 per cent in 20 years, and to give hope to the people of the Western Isles. I hope that Mr Allan will be able to convey that message to them powerfully. I believe that they will welcome it.

(S3O-2513) Sheriffhall Junction

Sheriffhall Junction

7. Rhona Brankin (Midlothian) (Lab): To ask the Scottish Executive whether it will provide an update on Transport Scotland's consideration of options for improving the Sheriffhall junction. (S3O-2513)

The Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson):

Transport Scotland has commissioned the consultants Atkins Ltd to investigate short and long-term improvement options for Sheriffhall. Short-term measures to optimise the performance of Sheriffhall roundabout without incurring the delay involved in publishing road orders, such as signal adjustment and localised improvements at the roundabout, are being considered. Depending on the nature of such measures, implementation will begin this summer.

Longer-term options that are identified as part of the feasibility study will be considered against other priorities in Transport Scotland's strategic transport projects review, which is under way and due to report in summer 2008.

Rhona Brankin: Coming just a day after the minister announced that the £115 million that was earmarked for the Waverley line has disappeared, and that my constituents will wait at least five years for trains to run on the Waverley line, his answer represents a double whammy for Midlothian commuters. Not content with delaying the Waverley line through 10 months of Scottish National Party inaction, the minister is no closer to delivering much-needed improvements—
The Presiding Officer: I believe that this question is about the Sheriffhall junction. The member should ask a question.
Rhona Brankin: If the Government will not set a timetable or provide funding for the Waverley line, will it at least do something for fed-up users of the Edinburgh city bypass, stop dithering and commit to a grade-separated junction to ease congestion at a traffic black spot that was recently judged to be one of the 10 most daunting junctions in the United Kingdom?

Stewart Stevenson: I will confine my remarks to Sheriffhall, as the Presiding Officer instructed. Once again, I encourage Rhona Brankin to listen and to read what I have previously said. We are acting—[Interruption.]

The Presiding Officer: Order.

Stewart Stevenson: We are acting immediately to seek to make improvements that can be made rapidly. We are doing that because we recognise the need to make changes at Sheriffhall. Members would, of course, expect us to consider the long-term needs of Sheriffhall too, which we are doing. [Interruption.]

The Presiding Officer: Order.

Stewart Stevenson: The member may not have had confidence in the strategic transport projects review that the previous Administration undertook, but I am sure that the SNP Administration will take community concerns very seriously, despite the member's loose and unhelpful language.

(S3O-2539) Clyde Fastlink

Clyde Fastlink
6. Pauline McNeill (Glasgow Kelvin) (Lab): To ask the Scottish Executive what steps are being taken by ministers to progress the Clyde fastlink public transport project. (S3O-2539)

The Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson):

The Clyde fastlink project is being considered within the strategic transport projects review.

Pauline McNeill: Phase 1 of the Clyde fastlink would provide a vital link between Glasgow city centre and the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre, which is a venue for the Commonwealth games in 2014, and which will be the location of the press and international broadcasting centre. For that reason, does the minister agree that the fastlink project should be supported financially within this spending review? Does he agree that this is not just about the Commonwealth games, but that the fastlink would be a vital link for people in my constituency who live along the north of the Clyde in new communities, and that it would link up two major hospitals, not to mention other important venues? When will money be made available for fastlink? When can we expect to hear when it will be available?

Stewart Stevenson: We are proceeding at best pace with the strategic transport projects review that we inherited from the previous Administration. We think that that is a sound way forward. We are making progress, and we have identified a series of clusters and corridors in which we are looking at transport needs.
I expect to undertake a series of engagements with communities throughout Scotland to discuss which particular needs we should reflect in the final outcomes. I expect that to happen over the summer recess.

Stewart Stevenson
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