25 March 2010

(S3O-9995) Transport (Ayrshire)

6. Irene Oldfather (Cunninghame South) (Lab): To ask the Scottish Executive what importance it places on improving transport infrastructure in Ayrshire. (S3O-9995)

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. We have improved the rail service to Kilmarnock and have upgraded the A77 at Glen App and Haggstone. We are also introducing class 380 rolling stock on services in Ayrshire and we are consulting on further improvements to the A77 at Burnside. In addition, the strategic transport projects review has identified a number of interventions that will benefit Ayrshire, including the upgrading of the A77 around Ayr, bypasses around Maybole and Dalry, and future enhancements of the rail service between Ayrshire and Glasgow.

Irene Oldfather: Is the minister aware that business in North Ayrshire has identified improvements to transport infrastructure as the biggest factor in increasing confidence and investment in the local economy? When will the projects in the strategic transport projects review that will affect North Ayrshire, such as the bypass at Dalry and the upgrading of the A737, be fully allocated a budget and a timescale?

Stewart Stevenson: Contrary to Labour Party leaflets that are currently circulating in the member's constituency, work is in progress on the planning for the Dalry bypass. It is the first time that a Government commitment has been made to that intervention. The class 380 rolling stock is the subject of a £200 million contract, which shows the Government's earnest good faith in making the necessary investments in response to the legitimate requirements of business in North Ayrshire. The Government is addressing the historical neglect that took place under the previous Administration.

Alasdair Morgan (South of Scotland) (SNP): The minister is aware of the imminent move by Stena Line ferries from Stranraer to Cairnryan. Can he give me an assurance that the Government remains committed to the maintenance and development of the railway line south from Ayr through Girvan to Stranraer?

Stewart Stevenson: The railway line to which the member refers is an important part of our infrastructure. We will continue to support that railway line and the services on it, and we will make further investment in improvements to the A75 and the A77 in support of the Stena Line move.

John Scott (Ayr) (Con): The A70 from Ayr to the M74 is one of southern Ayrshire's major economic development routes; yet, to date, it has not been designated a trunk road. I have raised the issue before with the minister. Will he give it further consideration and agree to adopt the A70 as a trunk road so that the route can receive the investment that it needs to improve road safety and boost the economy of southern Ayrshire?

Stewart Stevenson: The member will be aware that the local authorities have this year received an increase in funding above the level that they would have received otherwise. It is a substantial increase. We do not plan to review the trunk roads network across Scotland; I look to the local authority to make the appropriate decisions to meet local needs.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP): I am delighted that the vital A737 Dalry bypass remains a priority in the strategic transport projects review. Does the minister agree that the Labour Party should apologise to the people of North Ayrshire for deliberately misleading them by telling them that the project, which is on-going, has been shelved?

Stewart Stevenson: It is certainly unhelpful, and it has led to unreasonable concerns among the local community, that the Labour Party is publishing leaflets that are wholly at odds with the action that is taking place.

18 March 2010

(S3O-9876) Planning (Agricultural Land)

8. Mary Scanlon (Highlands and Islands) (Con): To ask the Scottish Executive what importance in the planning system is given to using prime agricultural land for development. (S3O-9876)

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

It is Scottish planning policy that development on prime agricultural land should not be permitted unless it is an essential part of the settlement strategy or is to meet an established need where no other site is available.

Mary Scanlon: Two recent housing developments on prime agricultural land in the Highlands have been approved—Ness Gap at Fortrose on the Black Isle is grade 1 agricultural land, which I understand is very limited in the Highlands, and the Tornagrain development on the A96 is also prime agricultural land, used previously to grow cereals. Given that food security and self-sustainability remain important issues to future food production in Scotland, will the minister consider re-examining planning policies to ensure that our best agricultural land is safeguarded for agricultural use?

Stewart Stevenson: It is clear that I cannot comment on specific planning applications because of potential involvement for ministers as a whole. However, we have recently published the consolidated Scottish planning policy, in which we take a stronger line on such developments than was set out previously. We are also developing a land-use strategy this year as part of our responsibilities under the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009 and I am sure that matters such as the one raised by the member will be taken account of.

Mary Mulligan (Linlithgow) (Lab): Will development on prime agricultural land, or indeed on brownfield sites, still be subject to local negotiation of planning gain, or was The Herald correct this week to report that planning gain was to be abolished?

Stewart Stevenson: The Herald was entirely mistaken in suggesting that it is our intention to abolish planning gain. I wrote to The Herald immediately after the publication of its article to make matters plain. It is clear that the system would benefit from a review of the processes, but where developers are making significant impacts in communities and on the transport network, it is important that they step up to the plate to make their contribution to addressing those problems with their money.

(S3O-9870) Rural Petrol Stations (Closures)

5. Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con): To ask the Scottish Executive how many petrol stations in rural areas have closed in the past 10 years. (S3O-9870)

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

I answered a similar question—S3W-27817—on 28 October 2009 with an extract from the interdepartmental business register, which is maintained by the Office for National Statistics. Although the figures do not provide a precise answer to the question asked, the latest statistics suggest that there may have been a reduction in the number of rural petrol stations over a 10-year period of about one third.

Murdo Fraser: The minister may be aware of the serious situation that is faced by filling stations with attached retail premises, some of which have just seen increases of 50 per cent or more in their rateable values that may well threaten their viability. Does the minister agree that we cannot afford more closures of petrol stations in rural areas? If so, can he tell us what action the Scottish Government will take to try to address this serious situation?

Stewart Stevenson: There are two parts to my answer. First, we congratulate many of the rural filling stations as they diversify into other business areas, meeting local needs and, as they broaden their potential income base, giving greater long-term security. Following representations from the industry, the independent Scottish assessors are reviewing the methods used for the valuation of petrol stations.

Jamie Stone (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): Prices at many petrol stations in the Highlands are at very high levels right now. Besides hitting customers, those prices may well bring closure nearer to the petrol stations in view of cheaper fuel being available at centrally based supermarkets and areas further south in Scotland. Has the minister had any discussions with HM Treasury with regard to possible changes to the taxation regime that might assist motorists, petrol stations and the local economies of remote and economically fragile areas of Scotland? If he has not had such discussions, will he consider approaching the Treasury as soon as is practically possible?

Stewart Stevenson: I suspect that there are few subjects on which we have had more correspondence with the Treasury. In particular, we have drawn its attention to the experience in Corsica—I think that I am correct in saying this—where the European Union has agreed that prices may be supported in a way that ensures that rural and remote areas such as Corsica can have prices that meet local needs. We absolutely commend that approach as one that is appropriate to Scotland. We need support from the Treasury on it, which we have so far not had.

(S3O-9957) Stones (Recycling)

1. Maureen Watt (North East Scotland) (SNP): To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to recycle unused stones located on rural land for construction projects. (S3O-9957)

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

Decisions on the suitability for reuse of unused stones on rural land are best taken at a local level. Not all unused stones are suitable for construction.

Maureen Watt: Unused large stones are a common feature of many fields and could provide a cheaper, more environmentally friendly alternative to disruptive quarrying practices. Will the minister undertake, along with local authority officials and construction companies, to examine ways of encouraging the use of such stones in construction projects, which would reduce carbon emissions and damage to the environment?

Stewart Stevenson: The member makes an interesting point. Like many people in Scotland, I live in a house in a steading in a rural setting, which makes use of stones that were found around the farm when the steading was converted. That is a traditional approach to building, which commends itself in many instances.

Local authorities could impose planning conditions on the design of buildings in the countryside, to ensure that we use such stones, which people have been digging out of arable land throughout the world for some 8,000 years.

11 March 2010

(S3O-9820) Kintore (Proposed Railway Station)

5. Alison McInnes (North East Scotland) (LD): To ask the Scottish Executive whether it has revised estimated passenger usage numbers for the proposed new railway station at Kintore. (S3O-9820)

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

Network Rail is at an early stage of feasibility work on improvements to the Aberdeen to Inverness line, which includes consideration of a station at Kintore. Work to assess estimated passenger demand for the proposed station will be carried out as part of the business case. That will be done when the technical feasibility of the station has been assessed.

Alison McInnes: The minister said in October last year:

"we underestimate patronage in new railway stations. It might be worth saying that we use a Great Britain-based model, which we are increasingly of the view does not properly reflect Scottish circumstances."—[Official Report, 7 October 2009; c 20356.]

In his letter to me of last month, the minister stated that the Department for Transport was leading on the development of a new model for estimating patronage. Estimates for the discredited model suggest that 68,000 passengers would use a crossrail service, although it is fair to mention that those in the know suggest that those passenger figures could safely be doubled and still be achievable. Why has the minister backed off from developing a properly responsive Scottish model? When will he grasp the opportunity to bring about a significant modal shift at Kintore?

Stewart Stevenson: It is an interesting suggestion from a unionist party that I should not work with the Department for Transport. I find that we can make common cause on a range of issues. Some of the issues that affect us in Scotland affect other parts of the GB rail network, and the same can be said on a number of other matters. I intend to continue to work with the DFT.

Maureen Watt (North East Scotland) (SNP): As the minister knows, the new model that is being examined by the DFT uses evidence from new stations that have been opened in Scotland. Does the minister believe that it is important to learn from the lessons that are offered by comparing estimated passenger numbers and actual passenger numbers at other stations that have been opened by the Scottish National Party Government, so as to apply them to future projects such as that at Kintore?

Stewart Stevenson: It is important to have a model that takes account of the specific local circumstances that will apply to proposals that may come before us. Transport Scotland has already provided the Department for Transport at Westminster with information relating to the Larkhall to Milngavie link, the Stirling-Alloa-Kincardine link and Laurencekirk station. We will work with colleagues at Westminster to ensure that the model that is developed by the Department for Transport, with our co-operation and participation, is fit for purpose in a Scottish context.

(S3O-9834) Electronic Bus Service Registration System

3. Willie Coffey (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (SNP): To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the progress being made regarding the introduction of the electronic bus service registration system. (S3O-9834)

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

Electronic bus service registration is a business system to register a bus service with the traffic commissioner for Scotland and the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency, which is an agency of the United Kingdom Government's Department for Transport. The Scottish Government has no responsibility for the system.

Willie Coffey: I draw the minister's attention to the failure of Strathclyde partnership for transport to implement EBSR properly. I have passed to the minister correspondence that was generated by EBSR on 18 December 2009, concerning the withdrawal of a vital bus service in my constituency. As the area's transport authority, SPT failed to notify East Ayrshire Council of the service withdrawal. Its failure to implement EBSR continued up to this week. Will the minister do what he can to re-establish SPT as a credible transport authority, instead of being a mouthpiece for Glasgow city Labour Party? If that cannot be done, will he consider abolishing SPT and allowing local authorities to establish a useful organisation in its place?

Stewart Stevenson: I note what the member says about SPT. I endorse the remarks that the First Minister made in the chamber last week regarding our expectations for SPT to reform itself. I shall be meeting the regional transport partnership chairs, including the new chairperson of SPT, on 2 June, and I plan to discuss with them their governance arrangements and any need for legislative change in the future.

(S3O-9810) Grangemouth Freight Hub

1. Cathy Peattie (Falkirk East) (Lab): To ask the Scottish Executive, following the final acquisition of land for the A801 Avon gorge upgrade, when its support will be forthcoming to enable the further progress of this project and other improvements related to the Grangemouth freight hub, as identified by the national planning framework 2 and the strategic transport projects review. (S3O-9810)

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

I recognise the value of the work undertaken by Falkirk Council and West Lothian Council in moving this project forward. Under the terms of the concordat with local government, Falkirk Council and West Lothian Council are free to bring forward proposals for the upgrade of the A801, should they wish.

The priorities arising from the strategic transport projects review are clear—the Forth replacement crossing, and the Edinburgh to Glasgow, Highland main line and Aberdeen to Inverness rail improvements. We will bring forward future road and rail proposals arising from the STPR and national planning framework as resources permit.

Cathy Peattie: Does the minister agree that early support for the A801 upgrade and the Grangemouth freight hub would not only make my constituency a safer place but would make a fundamental contribution to the local and Scottish economy and would meet the Government's climate change commitments? Will he make the proposal the highest priority? People in Falkirk East simply cannot wait. I think that people in Scotland also cannot wait.

Stewart Stevenson: We have to manage within the resources that we have, given the constraints of the reduced funding that is now available from Westminster as a result of decisions that Cathy Peattie's colleagues there have made. I share her enthusiasm for this project; it is an important one, coupled with support for Grangemouth. That is, of course, why the projects that I set out made it into the STPR and national planning framework. We will act at as early a stage as finance permits.

Margaret Mitchell (Central Scotland) (Con): Will the minister examine, alongside any plans to upgrade the rail facilities at Grangemouth freight hub, the potential to reintroduce passenger services to Grangemouth, not least because the infrastructure is in place and given the positive impact that that would have on the local economy?

Stewart Stevenson: My colleague Jamie Hepburn has already been on the case. The proposal has the potential to deliver significant local benefits. The rail line from Grangemouth that connects into the network is really only configured to allow trains to run to the west. One would therefore want to look to establish whether connections to the east would be of greater utility to Grangemouth than those to the west. We will keep the proposal under review, although I do not expect any early decisions on the matter.

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