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WATCH: Former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon blames ‘austerity, Brexit, the pandemic’ for A9 dualling delays

By Scott Maclennan

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Former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said the A9 dualling was delayed because of “austerity, Brexit, the pandemic” while also admitting that it is in effect the Highlands’ “turn” for investment.

Her appearance at the public petitions committee inquiry into the decade-long delay to A9 dualling has been much anticipated because the bulk of the programme should have been concluded while she was First Minister.

That has sparked allegations that Ms Sturgeon’s government did prioritise the delivery despite the road being well-known for numerous and ongoing fatalities, not to mention its economic importance.

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Prompted by a spate of deaths on the road, Kincraig campaigner Laura Hansler submitted a petition demanding the dualling is finished, which in September of last year was upgraded to a formal inquiry.

That allowed the committee to call on cabinet secretaries past and present, as well as Transport Scotland officials and now two former First Ministers – Alex Salmond and Ms Sturgeon.

Inverness and Nairn MSP Fergus Ewing has campaigned tirelessly for the dualling of the A9, kicked off his questioning of Ms Sturgeon by interrogating her priorities and how that impacted on the capital budget.

He said: “Surely, many people are right to say that the A9 just wasn’t the top priority for the Scottish Government because there was money, there was four of five billion – plainly at least some of the sections that haven’t been dualled, could have been dualled, if more priority was attached. That is a strongly held view within the Highlands.”

The former First Minister said: “It is an absolutely fair point for people in the Highlands to look at it as the A9 should be prioritised above the other demands on capital budget and if I was living in the Highlands no doubt that is the view that I would have.

“The other part of that in the way you posed the question, to point to a big budget with a particular project relative to the size of the budget is relatively small – just doesn’t capture the full process of budgeting.”

When the committee convener Jackson Carlaw questioned her on whether her administration really did have the political will to drive it forward, she claimed her government worked on the A9 with “drive and determination.”

Ms Sturgeon said: “I do not agree there was a diminution of the drive to complete the dualling. During my time as First Minister two sections were completed and there was and continues to be an incredible amount of work to progress things.

“When the 2025 target was set, a target that was set in good faith, the question I go back to in my mind now is was there sufficient rigour and openness about how challenging a target that was.

“When I look at that target now to be met, we would require a fair wind on every aspect of it but the 2012 change of classification of NPD [non-profit distributing - a form of public-private funding], austerity, Brexit, the pandemic all had an impact.

“Therefore I simply think we encountered… we talk about the A9 being one project, it is in fact 11 major projects in one, a lot of effort went in to some of the preparatory stages.

“One of the achievements is – and don’t want to sound as if I am underplaying the challenges – but I think one of the achievements is that we haven’t ended up caught up in endless legal processes.”

She concluded: “I think we have progressed the A9 with drive and determination, we just have encountered significant challenges – some of them foreseeable on a project of this scale others were not foreseeable.”

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