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Forth bridge sucks cash from Scottish budgets

Scotland’s bold transport plan was the envy of England when it was announced late last year. But the huge cost of the Forth Replacement Crossing is putting pressure on the plans and with the axing of the Glasgow’s rail link, are cracks are beginning to show? Mark Hansford reports.

Scottish transport received an early Christmas present last year when Transport Scotland unveiled its bold, post-2012, 10-year vision for investment.

In the Strategic Transport Project Review (STPR), a manifesto pledge of the SNP ahead of its May 2007 election, the nation had what many south of the border have been screaming for ever since John Prescott’s own 10-year transport plan bit the dust.

The STPR recommended a total of 29 transport packages which Transport Scotland argues will enhance the transport network in key locations across the country. It was the start of a process intended to help inform ministers’ future decisions on transport spending for Scotland.

A visionary transport document, it even has prices in it − with the full programme expected to cost between £13bn and £23bn. There’s just one problem − finding the money. Civils spend in Scotland sits at around £2bn a year, with transport making up about £500M of it and there’s little chance of it growing in the foreseeable future. There’s simply not enough cash.

Simply not enough cash

Chief problem is the elephant in the room − the £2.3bn Forth Replacement Crossing (FRC) that the ruling SNP government is committed to, but has, as yet, no better funding solution than plundering from the bread tin.

Efforts to convince Whitehall to stump up the cash have failed, PFI is a banned concept under the SNP, tolls are outlawed, and the SNP’s PFI-lite alternative, the Scottish Futures Trust, has fallen flat. Borrowing the cash from the banks is also out, as Westminster is loathe to allow Scotland to head any further down the devolution path − and being able to borrow vast sums of cash without going through the Treasury is a clear step towards it.

So what’s to be done? The FRC is ploughing ahead, with the Arup/Jacobs design well advanced, and invitations to tender for the mega-construction contract sent out − even if the client was this week forced to propose offering tenderers a reimbursement should their bids fail (see News).

“There is a firm commitment to the [Forth Replacement Crossing]. That project will go ahead.”

Ainslie McLouglin, Transport Scotland

Transport Scotland remains committed to the scheme being funded out of the capital budget. “There is a firm commitment to the project. That project will go ahead,” says Transport Scotland head of major transport infrastructure projects Ainslie McLouglin.

“And the Government remains committed to funding it on a conventional basis.”

But most hopes − and certainly those of the construction industry − are pinned on a rescue of the Scottish Futures Trust, which in its present form is effectively a PFI without the profit. The SNP is probably going to need to compromise and allow someone to make at least some money from the deal.

“The FRC could have a dramatic impact on our market,” says Civil Engineering Contractors Association (CECA) Scotland director Alan Watt. “We would welcome any facility whereby Scotland didn’t have to pay for it as it was built because of the impact it would have on other budgets, principally transport.”

Little in the pot

CECA is understandably concerned that £500M a year over four or five years to pay one consortium for the FRC would leave little in the pot for contractors working on other projects around the country.

Signs are that the impact of FRC is already being felt, with last week’s announcement that the Glasgow Airport Rail Link (GARL) has been canned (see News).

Until last week such a move was unthinkable, with the project a key part of Glasgow’s successful bid for the 2014 Commonwealth Games. But contract award had already been delayed amid rumours of land acquisition problems.

Further financial issues are also yet to be resolved on the Edinburgh tram project. It is under construction and will be built, but the question of who will pay for any cost overruns remains to be answered (NCE 10 September).

Transport Scotland says it remains committed to “significant levels of investment to improve transport networks across the country”, including “an ambitious programme of major enhancements”. Projects such as the £450M M74 completion, Aberdeen’s Western Peripheral Route, the Borders Railway and support for the delivery of the £500M Edinburgh tram project are all either under way or in advanced planning stages − although that did not save GARL.

“We have got two of the largest projects in the UK under way already, with a combined value of more than £800M. We’ve got £40M to £50M of projects at tender and we’re about to launch the tender for the FRC, which is worth over £2bn,” says McLouglin. “It’s a pretty big programme by any stretch.”

Hard to disagree, perhaps, but some are already arguing that the long-term plan − at £23bn − is not visionary enough.

This summer think-tank Reform Scotland put forward its own proposal for a fully integrated road, rail and air hub called “Grand Central” around Edinburgh airport as the centrepiece of a £25bn revolution in transport policy.

“We’ve got £40M to £50M of projects at tender and we’re about to launch the tender for the FRC, which is worth over £2bn. It’s a pretty big programme by any stretch.”

Ainslie McLouglin, Transport Scotland

This hub − the main railway station in Scotland − would create the focal point for a properly integrated network of road, rail and air transportation, it claims. The station would be fed by high-speed rail links from England and Scotland’s main cities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Stirling, Perth, Dundee, Aberdeen and Inverness.

In addition an improved trunk road network would cut journey times between Scotland’s main cities, with particular attention given to upgrading road links to Aberdeen and Inverness − not entirely dissimilar to Transport Scotland’s plans.

Indeed Transport Scotland would not disagree over the need for high speed − further development of rail routes between England and Scotland is considered essential in the STPR in the light of their strategic importance for freight and to provide a viable alternative to air travel and the use of private cars.

Where Reform Scotland’s ideas fundamentally differ is in the funding. Funding of its plan would come, in part, from roadpricing schemes covering the whole of Scotland − something that is not on the agenda of the SNP in Holyrood. More funding would come by granting the Scottish Parliament greater taxraising powers − something that is not on the agenda of Brown and co in Westminster.

Readers' comments (1)

  • The 2nd Severn crossing is5200m long; the FRC is 2700 m long
    The 2nd Severn Crossing is 6 lanes: the FRC is 4 lanes.
    The 2nd Severn Crossing has 18 kM of Motorway;The FRC 5kM of Dual Carriageway
    The 2nd Severn crossing took 4 years to build; the FRC - 5 1/2 years
    The 2nd Severn crossing cost £890 million at 2008 prices according to Transport Scotland; the FRC is £2320 million
    The 2nd Severn Crossing is twice the size at a third of the price.

    AT LAST - the media has started to raise the issue of these extortionate costs to the Scottish taxpayer.
    Mail on Sunday
    " Bridge to bankrupt Scotland"
    "Brig o Doom"

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

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