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17 April 2008

(S3O-2903) Glasgow Subway

Glasgow Subway

16. Bill Aitken (Glasgow) (Con): To ask the Scottish Executive what discussions it has had with Strathclyde partnership for transport about the development of the Glasgow subway. (S3O-2903)

The Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson): I have discussed various transport projects that have been proposed for Glasgow, including subway development, with SPT officials. My officials remain in regular contact with SPT and will be happy to discuss any formal subway development proposals if and when they are received.

Bill Aitken: The minister will be aware of SPT's enthusiasm for extending the Glasgow subway beyond its current very limited circular route. Does he agree that extending the subway into new parts of the city, and therefore opening it up to new customers, could be a crucial step in enhancing its financial viability? Will he pledge to consider seriously whether that project might be worthy of being taken forward?

Stewart Stevenson: I am certainly interested in improving transport in Glasgow. There are a number of opportunities: we will have a members' business debate tonight on Glasgow crossrail, there are the fastlink proposals for improved bus services, and the subway is an important part of the transport infrastructure in Glasgow. I am seriously engaged with all of those. At the end of the day, the cost benefit cases must stack up. We have to prioritise our expenditure. I expect that SPT will, in its typically professional way, conduct its investigations in a manner that enables it to put a case to ministers that we will understand and to which we will be able to respond.

(S3O-2922) Wind Turbines (Permitted Development Rights)

Wind Turbines (Permitted Development Rights)

11. Malcolm Chisholm (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab): To ask the Scottish Executive whether it will reconsider the distance criteria that are proposed as a precondition of permitted development rights for wind turbines. (S3O-2922)

The Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson): The Government is consulting on revised permitted development rights for microgeneration equipment on domestic dwellings. We shall consider the issue further when the consultation closes on 12 May.

Malcolm Chisholm: If permitted development rights for microturbines applied only to houses that were at least 100m from the next house, as proposed in the Scottish Government's consultation paper, how many households in Edinburgh does the minister think would benefit from such rights? Would it be better to have a minimum standard for noise emissions from microturbines and to grant permitted development rights wherever that standard was met?

Stewart Stevenson: The member makes a fair point. The 100m distance was based on concerns about noise. If we can establish a clear and obvious standard, there is no particular reason why we cannot reduce the distance. I look forward to seeing responses to the consultation on that point. I rather hope to put up a turbine myself.

Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con):
I wish the minister every success with his new wind turbine.

We currently have hundreds of speculative planning applications for wind farms all over Scotland, which puts huge strain on council planning departments and causes communities grave concern. Surely it is time to revisit national planning guidance on siting onshore wind farms to end that ludicrous free for all.

Stewart Stevenson: The member is talking about something other than microgeneration. [Interruption.] That noise was not from my phone—I have just checked. Murdo Fraser will be aware of our serious endeavours to improve the operation of the planning system with regard to wind farms and other matters. Having officials making more decisions and dealing with appeals locally will speed up the planning process, improve its efficiency and deliver answers, whether positive or negative, to applicants much sooner than happens at present.

(S3O-2946) Bus Service Operators Grant

Bus Service Operators Grant

5. Des McNulty (Clydebank and Milngavie) (Lab): To ask the Scottish Executive what response it has made to representations from the bus industry regarding the bus service operators grant. (S3O-2946)

The Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson): Ministers are currently considering the future levels of bus service operators grant. Any changes to the increased level of funding that was set out in the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth's budget statement on 6 February 2008 will be announced in due course.

Des McNulty: The minister might remember that, during the budget debate, I raised the issue of the bus service operators grant, and specifically the fact that it would inevitably lead to fare increases. Is the minister aware of the Competition Commission report that was released earlier this week, which removes the cap from fare levels in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and which directly blames the Scottish Government's BSOG policy for the fare increases? Is he aware of this week's announcement by Stagecoach of bus fare increases in Fife, which are also directly attributable to the incompetence of his Government?

Stewart Stevenson: I am afraid that the member must look closer to home for incompetence. He will be aware of the substantial increases in taxation that have led to the increases to which he refers—and there is also the huge bonus that the Treasury is getting from the increase in the price of oil. If the member were to examine the construction of the bus companies' cost base, which is leading to the fare increases, he would find that the bus service operators grant is an extremely marginal part of it, and that the essence of the increase in the price of bus services is derived from the increase in the cost of fuel. The Competition Commission did not draw the conclusion to which the member refers.

(S3O-2874) Scottish Water (Compensation Payments)

Scottish Water (Compensation Payments)

4. Michael Matheson (Falkirk West) (SNP): To ask the Scottish Executive whether it is satisfied with the way in which Scottish Water is handling compensation claims from farmers. (S3O-2874)

The Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson): The procedures for providing compensation for loss or damage that is sustained by any person by reason of the exercise by Scottish Water of its powers are clearly outlined in both the Sewerage (Scotland) Act 1968 and the Water (Scotland) Act 1980, and they have operated successfully for a number of years. The legislation also provides for arbitration in case of disputes.

Michael Matheson: I apologise to the chamber for my late arrival, which was due to the change in time of the business programme.

Is the minister aware that it can take almost three or four years for farmers to secure compensation from Scottish Water when it causes damage to their farmland as a result of its work programme? Will he ensure that Scottish Water looks at its compensation scheme so that it provides compensation more timeously to farmers where it accepts liability for the damage that it has caused to farm land?

The Presiding Officer: Before I call the minister, I accept your apology, Mr Matheson, but I point out that Parliament agreed the change to the business programme yesterday.

Stewart Stevenson: A delay of three to four years is not the kind of performance that I expect to see. Scottish Water has improved its performance in many areas. Certainly, it is stepping up its game on customer service. If the member makes me aware of the specifics of the instances to which he referred, I will be happy to raise the matter with Scottish Water management to ensure that no one else experiences delays of that order.

Alasdair Allan (Western Isles) (SNP): A dh'fhaighneachd do Riaghaltas na h-Alba ciamar a nì e cinnteach gum bi Uisge na h-Alba ag obair nas fheàrr anns an àm ri teachd ann a bhith a' reic grunnd croitearachd tro rop poblach.

To ask the Scottish Government how it will ensure that in future Scottish Water improves the way it deals with instances where it sells crofting land by public auction.

Stewart Stevenson: Tapadh leibh, Alasdair.

There was a recent sale of land that had once been crofting land but was no longer in crofting ownership or subject to the various crofting acts. I have discussed the issue with the Minister for the Environment, who has a particular interest in the subject. We are looking at what options we have to ensure that communities have the most effective opportunities to ensure that land that has been taken into the control of Scottish Water and other public bodies is returned to the communities that once owned it.

(S3O-2916) First ScotRail Franchise

First ScotRail Franchise

1. Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab):
To ask the Scottish Executive why, in advance of a study by Audit Scotland to establish whether the First ScotRail franchise is giving value for money, it announced the extension of that franchise for a further period of three years without prior reference to the Parliament. (S3O-2916)

The Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson): This was the best time to extend the franchise, allowing the Government to secure early service improvements and funding from the franchisee. The option to extend was part of the original franchise agreement, which was fully consulted on before it was let. The core franchise proposition has not changed as a result of our exercising the extension option.

Jackie Baillie: The minister will be aware of the anger and disappointment felt at the fact that he failed to consult stakeholders, failed to await the publication of the Audit Scotland report in the autumn and even failed to give Audit Scotland advance notice of what he planned to do. There is undoubtedly plenty of time for us to reflect on whether the franchise represents value for money to the public pursue. I hope that he will agree that the best time for deciding whether to renew the franchise is when we have secured such value for money.

I ask the minister to indicate whether he agrees with the following comment:

"Whatever else we might disagree on, we should surely agree that, when we spend public money, we must seek value for money. That means not tying our hands."—[Official Report, 5 March 2008; c 6581.]

He may be interested to learn that the comment was made by himself—yes, by Stewart Stevenson—in the chamber on 5 March.

Stewart Stevenson: I am pleased to advise the member that the agreement that we have reached gives us a further 18 months in which to decide whether to refranchise in 2011. That will allow us to take account of any conclusions that Audit Scotland reaches that are material to the performance of the franchisee. I continue to agree with myself—I am not having a bout of schizophrenia. We shall, of course, engage with stakeholders when deciding how to spend the extra £70 million that this excellent agreement will deliver for Scotland's railways.

Alex Johnstone (North East Scotland) (Con): I heard with interest the answer that the First Minister gave earlier today on this subject. I was delighted to hear that there will be additional developments in services between Edinburgh and Glasgow, south of Glasgow and north of Inverness. Will you give a commitment today to ensure that there is effort to improve services between Aberdeen and the cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, so that your constituents and mine can enjoy some of the benefit of the agreement?

The Presiding Officer (Alex Fergusson): I will not answer the question, but the minister may.

Stewart Stevenson: Fortunately, we have already committed ourselves to improving services between Aberdeen and Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Glasgow and Aberdeen and Inverness, as well as between Inverness and the central belt. The announcement of improvements north of Inverness means that the whole of Scotland will benefit from the extra money that is being invested in railways, which will now be augmented by £70 million under the wonderful agreement that we have concluded.

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