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WATCH A9 Inquiry: Fergus Ewing says 'I hear what you are saying but I'm just not convinced'

By Scott Maclennan

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The patience of MSPs involved in the petitions committee’s A9 dualling inquiry appears to be wearing thin as it has emerged problems started as far back as 2014 yet there is still “a complete absence of an explanation of what went wrong.”

That was according to Fergus Ewing while Jackson Carlaw remained at a loss to understand whether ministers or officials were leading on decision making and described one witness testimony as “soporific.”

Significant new information emerged during the questioning of transport secretary Mairi McAllan at the petitions committee inquiry involving delays to financing and formal processes.

Ms McAllan also admitted that neither the Scottish Government nor Transport Scotland have conducted any kind of formal review into the failure to meet the 2025 deadline.

Perhaps the most significant revelation was that as early as 2014 there were problems with financing after the ONS changed the classification for the funding infrastructure projects.

The Scottish Futures Trust took a further five years to determine a new model to replace non-profit distributing (NPD) with the mutual investment model (MIM) and get it approved by cabinet.

Ms McAllan’s said: The “reclassification in 2014 of the non-profit distributing (NPD) model” was “quite a turning point.”

She said: “I think it did have an impact on the timetable and I would set that alongside a slight delay in statutory processes as the two reasons that I believe the project has been delayed.”

At one point there was an apparent contradiction in what Ms McAllan said when she insisted that only in late 2022 was it confirmed that the 2025 dualling deadline was unachievable.

But she also argued that the government was obliged to consider private finance initiatives which would put the deadline out of reach – they were considered as early as 2018.

According to her own words, the delays to the project were in part caused by the funding “reclassification” – so her predecessors must have known about the delays and kept quiet or they were not the cause, in which case what did cause the delays?

Mairi Macallan faces off against Fergus Ewing at the A9 Inquiry.
Mairi Macallan faces off against Fergus Ewing at the A9 Inquiry.

But perhaps most worryingly of all for campaigners is there will be a review of financing in 2025 – the same year the project was to have been finished – whether it is affordable, sparking the ire of Mr Ewing.

He said: “The capital budget available to the Scottish Government a year is of the order between £4,000 million to £5,000 million. I think it's reasonable to assume that will continue to be the case.

“So by 2035 that suggests that there's a total of £40,000-50,000 000 million available in the capital budget, the Highlands is wanting £3.7 billion, which is less than 10 percent of that.

"So why is the Scottish Government not making a clear, cast-iron commitment that if MIM proves to be too expensive for the reasons that you've set out that there will be a clear guarantee that a sum less than one tenth of the total capital will be available for the Highlands

"Particularly since, and this is just a matter of fact, there has been hardly any spend on the Highland since devolution – all the money has gone elsewhere. We've had a couple of roundabouts and a couple of small sections of dual carriageway.

"Surely the government recognises it's the Highlands turn."

Ms McAllan also responded to claims made by former MSP Alex Neil who was in charge of the project at one stage and said there was clear route to finance and deliver the 2025 deadline.

She said “I think the advice that he received was ‘yes, minister, this is how we are taking it forward, this is how we propose to do it’ but it was also quite heavily caveated by the great many things to be worked out here and I think actually some of the other ministers comments on this including Nicola Sturgeon’s are helpful hopefully to the committee.

“Because I think that she's pointing out that Mr Neal was absolutely correct to say that for his purposes at that time funding had been identified but I think what Ms Sturgeon's view of that was that ‘well, that was for one to two year period during a long project’ and that's not uncommon for major projects.

“Very seldom at the very beginning of such a complex project will you have certainty over delivery and funding right through to the end but that's what it was, it was Mr. Neil’s impression of that one to two-year period rather than the whole thing.

Mr Ewing said: “Well, I hear what you are saying, cabinet secretary, but I'm just not convinced because there was a complete failure to adhere to the very clear schedule of works and programming because it set out in which year every section would be done. That was completely abandoned.

The transport secretary answered: "I don't deny that there were delays, Mr. Ewing, I think what I would say is the principal reason for that were the two things that I pointed out to the convener, firstly, the ONS classification of the price of the not-for-profit distribution model in 2014 and the one to two year delay on statutory processes."

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