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A9 inquiry: MSP ‘really taken aback’ that the government knew for years the project was late

By Scott Maclennan

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MSP Jackson Carlaw.
MSP Jackson Carlaw.

Jackson Carlaw has admitted that he was “really taken aback” when official papers were finally revealed to the A9 inquiry that the Scottish Government knew the project was off track as early as 2018 – yet told no one.

The Scottish Parliament’s Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee’s is conducting an inquiry into the A9 dualling programme after escalating campaigner Laura Hansler to petition to a probe.

Speaking after the latest evidence session involving the civil engineering sector as well as past and present bosses of Transport Scotland, he underlined just how few answers there are to what exactly went wrong.

He also touched on the risks to the project, not this time from a lack of political will but from the billions in civil engineering investment coming to Scotland which could see cash made available for the A9 but insufficient people to do the work.

Addressing the revelatory documents that showed Michael Matheson as transport secretary in 2018 was moving to a privately financed project despite warnings that would make the 2025 deadline unachievable, Mr Carlaw said: “I was really taken aback by it.

“Because as I tried to drill down in the questioning it was not at all clear to me from where all this had emerged – was this transport Scotland, talking-up, or was this ministers talking down?

“Nobody seemed to have the answer. I couldn't find anywhere in all of that somebody who had said, ‘look, there's an issue here, I would like to see all different alternative funding models presented with the consequences for those laid out for us to consider and perhaps adopt’ – nobody said that.

“It just seems to me that these things emerged and then there was like a vacuum of leadership, it seemed to me there wasn’t anybody then taking direction of where they went to after that.

“So that is the point at which I probably most felt that association I raised with the Queensbury Crossing project where a parliamentary committee had been overseeing the kind of development of plans in terms of route and how funding would be put in place and all of that.

“Because I felt then that was the clear point there was drift but it wasn't communicated out with what seemed like a very narrow circle of people and the rest of Scotland was left completely in the dark believing there was a project on schedule, when it was pretty clear at that point, it wasn't.”

The closest that Mr Carlaw can get to pinpointing where things went awry was when Michael Matheson took over the transport brief and there emerged “a bit of confusion, dither and delay.”

He said: “It does look to me from the paperwork that Alec Neiland then Keith Brown who was overseeing a number of projects everything seemed to be kind of following that track up to that point.

“I think it coincidentally, given everything else that's going on with him at the moment, I think it was when Michael Matheson took over responsibility whether by coincidence or whatever, that is the point where it seems to have gone into a bit of confusion, dither and delay.

“The petitioner wants to see a route delivered and therefore, the principle name of our enquiry is to ensure that we have in place – now that we have a commitment again – we have in place procedures, processes and management to ensure that will be.

“But that I think requires us also not to lose sight of why we ended-up where we are and that does require us to try to understand how that dither of delay and obfuscation came about so that we can ensure that in any recommendations we make that there is a, a more coherent stricter and more transparent line of communication going forward.”

Noting both positive and concerning developments regarding the project, Mr Carlaw argued that: “in order to get the balance right to ensure that we deliver, you have to learn the lessons of the past.”

In her evidence, Alison Irvine, Transport Scotland’s interim chief executive, warned that the new 2035 target of completion was “not without risk” – something that Mr Carlaw feels must be taken very seriously.

He said: “I think the balance now was about the future in order to get the balance right to ensure that we deliver, you have to learn the lessons of the past and I still think some of the very specific and targeted questions we asked on the basis of all the paperwork that we'd received, it was unclear really why we ended up as we had.

“But the encouraging feature going forward, I think is the likelihood, I thought, from the way in which transport Scotland's thinking was leaning to a proper project manager for the A9, as was the case for the Queensferry Crossing.

“But possibly the most alarming aspect of the evidence, we heard right from the start and which I don't think Transport Scotland necessarily really properly took on board, was the extraordinary range of huge capital investment projects scheduled for Scotland in the rest of this decade.

“And, the competition there is going to be for contractors to deliver on all of these and that continuing uncertainty in terms of the length of a contract relating to the A9 means that we could find that the capital is there to deliver a project, but the people aren't.

“I still thought they were quite vague in appreciating the nature of that and moreover, a lot of other big capital investment projects, probably would be compromised if the A9 isn't delivered because they were relying on that infrastructure in order to facilitate their plants.”

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