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A96 Investigation part two: Less than 0.5 per cent of A96 dualling price tag pledged until 2026 as internal emails show funding details removed from Government reports

By Lewis McBlane

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LESS than 0.5 per cent of the cash required to dual the A96 is available until 2026 – and the Scottish Government would have to spend more than £1 billion a year to avoid missing its 2030 deadline.

Less than 0.5 per cent of the funding required to dual the A96 was pledged in the Scottish Government's last infrastructure plan.
Less than 0.5 per cent of the funding required to dual the A96 was pledged in the Scottish Government's last infrastructure plan.

Spending plans until 2026 were set out in the Infrastructure Investment Plan 2021 (IIP 2021), and only £20 million was earmarked for A96 dualling, over five years.

The scheme was estimated to cost £3 billion to complete – at 2011 prices.

And we can reveal that Michael Matheson MSP, as transport secretary, chose not to release budget information on A96 dualling – citing "handling issues".

That is according to internal emails from January 2021, obtained through Freedom of Information requests, which also highlight tensions between civil servants and Transport Scotland over the "removal" of spending figures from the IIP 2021.

The emails came in the wake of a Westminster funding announcement which, according to the IIP 2021, impacted Scottish Government promises "to a significant degree".

Last week, the first part of our investigation revealed that Mr Matheson agreed to scrap references in reports to dualling the A96 by 2030 - more than three years ago.

Despite the emails and lack of cash, the Scottish Government has not directly answered whether the 2030 dualling deadline will be met.

A Transport Scotland spokesperson, responding to the claims, said: “The Scottish Government is committed to dualling the A96.”

The spokesperson also highlighted ongoing work on dualling between Inverness to Auldearn and claimed review delays were due to “11,000 options” being considered.

Michael Matheson resisted civil servant's call to release details of A96 dualling budgets, citing ‘handling issues’

The internal emails were sent in the leadup to the release of the IIP 2021.

At 3pm on January 12, a redacted email address sent Transport Scotland finance director Lee Shedden the list of projects to be included in the plan.

Two days later, director of major projects Alasdair Graham sent Mr Shedden an updated list of projects, with "further footnotes and caveats".

However, Mr Graham mentions that "Rachel [Gwyon, then-Director of Infrastructure and Invesment at the Scottish Government] will push back on removal of CSR figures given portfolio allocation of funding in CSR has been allocated."

Then, after a series of six heavily redacted emails between January 18 and January 21, Lee Shedden sent an email to Ms Gwyon.

"Mr Matheson wants to re-visit this due to the handling issues that it would cause. He appreciates the risks in relation to managing the CSR but wishes this to be prioritised," the email said.

Chief executive Roy Brannen and major projects directors Alasdair Graham and Michelle Rennie were also copied into the email.

The following day, Mr Shedden sent Transport Scotland chief executive Roy Brannen – now Director of Net Zero at the Scottish Government – an email saying he expected an extra £15 million per year until 2026 to be spent on the A96 project.

However, it is not clear why this was not mentioned in the IIP 2021.

He added that there would be "slippage next year of sufficient magnitude to cover this" within the capital land and works budget.

Mr Shedden went on to encourage Mr Brannen to include it in the "AO budget assurance", the official advice top civil servants give to ministers.

In a redacted message, the finance chief refers to a "continuation" in reference to the A96.

Six days later (January 28) the 2021 Scottish Budget was released, and the Capital Spending Review was published on February 4, 2021.

Then, on February 15, the IIP 2021 named A National Mission with Local Impact was published – setting out the government's plans until 2026.

Less than 0.5 per cent of required cash pledged on A96 dualling

All mentions of the 2030 deadline were dropped in the plan, which estimated a total spend of £20 million between 2021 and 2026.

The estimated cost of dualling the A96 was £3 billion – in 2011.

Given inflation this would now be more than £4.2 billion, and could be higher considering the increases of around 50 per cent in the price of construction projects due to factors including Covid 19 and the war in Ukraine.

As a result, less than 0.5 per cent of the cash required has been set aside for the A96 until 2026.

Therefore, unless the plan is changed or the 2030 date formally scrapped, the Scottish Government's next infrastructure plan will have to set aside more than a billion pounds each year between 2026 and 2030 to meet the goal.

That is during a period where the Scottish Government has had to postpone all capital projects in the face of budget pressures.

The 2021 document, instead of the deadline, described the A96 project as as "continuing the design and development work to dual the A96" to a timetable "to be set following completion of relevant statutory procedures".

Dualling progress hinged on budgets

Our first part in this investigation series showed that Scottish Government officials discussed delays to A96 dualling as a result of UK Government funding cuts as early as November 2020.

Minutes from the Transport Scotland A96 dualling board meeting at the time said A96 progress would depend on "the Capital Spending Review (CSR) and Scottish Budget 2021/22 on January 28, 2021".

However, upon the release of the CSR, which underpinned the IIP 2021, the document said the UK Government's 2020 Spending Review involved a "significant cut to the Scottish Government's capital and financial transactions budget".

And, when the IIP 2021 was published, it argued that the Westminster spending review meant that: "to a significant degree, our ambitions are hindered by the actions of the UK Government".

The CSR set the entire budget, until 2026, for Scotland's road improvements and "capital land and works" at less than a third of the cash required to dual the A96 alone – with most cash assigned to other projects.

‘Extremely constrained’ budgets left even Inverness to Nairn section in doubt as recently as May 2022

However, even sections excluded from the A96 Corridor Review did not escape potential scrapping due to budgets.

In May 2022, a briefing was sent to the Minister of Transport ahead of a meeting with Nairn BID on the Inverness to Nairn section.

It confirmed that as "budgets across government are extremely constrained", "difficult choices" would be required, "including the Inverness to Nairn (Nairn Bypass) scheme."

The briefing note added: "Construction of the scheme itself shall require allocation of funding from future Spending Reviews."

And in a letter sent on December 22, 2022, transport minister Jenny Gilruth MSP confirmed that it "has not been possible to fund all the commitments from the 2021 Capital Spending Review."

She added that: "there are a number of areas where the funding profile has had to be slowed down – such as road improvement programmes."

‘Scottish Government is committed to improving the A96’

A Transport Scotland spokesperson said: “As we have made clear on a number of occasions, including through our Programme for Government, the Scottish Government is committed to improving the A96.

“The current plan is to fully dual the route and, as part of this process, we are undertaking a transparent, evidence-based review of the programme, which includes a Climate Compatibility Assessment and other statutory assessments.

“The significant interest in the review’s initial consultation, with nearly 4600 responses, generated 11,000 options to improve the corridor and it’s only right that appropriate time has been taken to examine and fully appraise these.

“It is expected that the draft outcomes from the Review will be consulted on in the coming months, before a final decision can be reached.

“At the same time preparation work continues on the dualling of the Inverness to Nairn section, including the Nairn bypass, which already has Ministerial consent following a public local inquiry.

“We are continuing to progress the significant and intensive work required to prepare for publication of Made Orders, including the Compulsory Purchase Order, with a view to completing the statutory process as soon as possible.”

“Delivery of the scheme can only commence if approved under the relevant statutory authorisation process and thereafter a timetable for progress can be set in line with available budgets.”

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