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NICKY MARR: A9 Crisis Summit – They needed to feel the emotion and hear stories from Highlanders

By Nicky Marr

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Laura Hansler A9 Dual Action Group. Picture: Callum Mackay..
Laura Hansler A9 Dual Action Group. Picture: Callum Mackay..

In the seconds before any live event kicks off, there’s always a moment of calm. The lead-up can be frantic; phone calls and meetings, call-offs and late substitutions, script changes and reversals of the running order.

There will be panic about PowerPoints and technical hitches, but as soon as the audience is seated, it’s time to switch from preparation mode to presenter mode. Time to perform.

The Inverness Courier A9 Crisis Summit was no different.

My role was to act as event host and moderator, introducing speakers and interviewing a representative from the civil engineering body, plus A9 safety campaigner Laura Hansler. The bulk of the event, though, involved moderating a panel discussion with transport secretary Màiri McAllan, Transport Scotland, and representatives from business and local communities. Without a shadow of a doubt, that’s the bit I’d been most nervous about.

But with seconds to go, it was time to pack away my fears and get on stage to do my job. To find out what had gone wrong with the A9 project that has led to such glacial progress. To seek assurances that the dualling of the A9 is still firmly on the Scottish Government’s agenda. To seek a timetable for the works – section by section – to be completed. And to find out what interim measures can be implemented to improve the safety of the road until dualling is finally completed.

I had prepared questions that would take the whole afternoon to be answered, but knew I had to find time for audience questions too. Despite my weeks of research, their voices would have greater impact than mine with the cabinet secretary, and the executives from Transport Scotland. I needed them to feel the passion, the anger, and the mistrust in the room. I needed them to hear stories of loss and family devastation.

The audience included local politicians and councillors, road safety experts, and people like you and me, who drive the A9 regularly either for business, or to visit family and friends. It also included family members of some of those killed on the A9 over the years.

I felt a weight of responsibility to represent their concerns, not to let ministers and civil servants off the hook, and to extract some detailed promises.

So how did it go? I’m probably not the best person to answer that question.

What I can say is that the two hours from 2pm-4pm flew by, and that while the Scottish Government made no new announcements, and gave no new guarantees, Highland voices were heard, emotions were high, and anger was unleashed. I hope – desperately hope – those voices were taken seriously.

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MÃ iri McAllan MSP. ScottisPicture: Callum Mackay..
Màiri McAllan MSP. ScottisPicture: Callum Mackay..

Màiri McAllan and Transport Scotland were robustly challenged, not just on their failures to date, but on the safety measures they could – and should – put into place to save lives in the intervening years until the dualling programme is complete.

From where I was sitting on stage, I could see the cabinet secretary taking notes. Her assistants in the front row scribbled furiously throughout too.

But we’ve heard the promises before. Will Màiri McAllan’s autumn statement – whenever ‘autumn’ might be, answer the demands that were made? Will there be a detailed timetable for completion, backed up by a budget? Only time will tell. That is now out of our hands.

As we wrapped up, I allowed myself another moment of calm, and I reflected on the power of local journalism.

Because while the BBC, STV and many national media organisations all reported the outcomes of the A9 Crisis Summit too, they weren’t the ones who made it happen.

Only The Inverness Courier brought the decision-makers up the A9 to face the people, communities, and businesses who have been let down by government failures. Their journalists won’t let this matter rest till the A9 dualling is complete.

I tucked away my clipboard, pleased to have played my part.

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