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The A9 dualling is a question of 'trust' for the Scottish Government

By Scott Maclennan

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The government promised more sections like this one just south of Inverness.
The government promised more sections like this one just south of Inverness.

Former SNP transport secretary Michael Matheson pursued a private finance strategy to fund the A9 dualling despite civil servants warning that “would mean the 2025 deadline would not be met”.

Opposition politicians issued scathing verdicts after it was revealed that the Scottish Government had been aware since 2018 that it would miss its own deadline and told the public nothing – until February this year when they admitted they would fail to dual the Inverness-Perth stretch by their self-imposed promised deadline.

Highland Labour MSP Rhoda Grant said the “morally bankrupt” SNP “sat on their hands doing nothing” while far north Liberal Democrat MP Jamie Stone accused ministers of failing to act “despite a steady drumbeat of road deaths across the Highlands”.

Conservative MSP Edward Mountain said it is disappointing that neither north SNP MSPs Fergus Ewing nor Kate Forbes “fought for the Highlands and the dualling of the A9”.

Another Tory, Jamie Halcro Johnston said: “Highlanders and Highland businesses have been lied to for too long.”

The long-delayed update is expected this week when it is hoped we will find out the fate of the A9 dualling programme.

But the release of information from cabinet-level papers showed that the Scottish Government effectively knew from 2018 that the 2025 deadline for the dualling programme could not be met.

Not only did the government say nothing, it actively pursued a version of the Welsh Government’s Mutual Investment Model (MIM) but never decided on one way to fund the programme.

In August 2018, Mr Matheson sought “information on possible private financing of the A9 and the A96 dualling”. He was told that “pursuing a private financing model would mean the 2025 deadline would not be met”.

Yet by November a cabinet briefing paper “assumes” that just one more section after Luncarty-Birnam would be built with capital funding (public cash) – indicating an acceptance of private over public finance and pushing 2025 out of reach.

A cabinet paper from that time states: “The revised approach to delivery will mean the 2025 timescale is not achievable with the end date yet to be determined.”

In May 2019, a briefing for Mr Matheson considered that “a version of the Welsh Government’s Mutual Investment Model (MIM)” could be the way forward but it was still being “progressed” a year later and no final mechanism was ever chosen.

Two months later a briefing to Mr Matheson stated: “Funding the remainder of the A9 through MIM would mean that completion by 2025 would not be achievable.”

That sparked questions why Transport Scotland did not come clean years earlier than the February 2023 announcement and why Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch MSP Ms Forbes did not say anything when she learned of delays in December 2021.

Kate Forbes with Humza Yousaf and Ash Regan at the Inverness Courier leadership hustings. Picture: James Mackenzie.
Kate Forbes with Humza Yousaf and Ash Regan at the Inverness Courier leadership hustings. Picture: James Mackenzie.

Ms Forbes believes that anyone with any “semblance of intelligence” knew by then that the A9 could not be dualled by 2025 yet Transport Scotland insisted that it was only certain of that a year later in December 2022.

Ms Forbes believes it is a “question of trust” for the SNP but that even she, as a cabinet colleague, had trouble securing “conclusive” answers from Mr Matheson after writing to him on behalf of constituents.

“It would be obvious to anybody considering how long the sections that have been done took to complete,” she said. “But there’s absolutely an acceptance from me, I’ve heard from Fergus Ewing as well, that we could all have done more in pushing Transport Scotland to be open earlier.

“I think it’s a question of trust in all these issues.

“I recall writing letters to the transport secretary on behalf of constituents asking when the A9 would be dualled and obviously those answers that I received were not conclusive, despite it being patently obvious to most people that it was unlikely to happen.”

Inverness and Nairn MSP Mr Ewing said: “I have never shirked my responsibility, my share of the blame if you like, having served in the Scottish cabinet and as a minister and I mentioned this at the A9 Crisis Summit.

“But the simple fact is that the official papers released to the inquiry show that I was not on the circulation list for those papers so I was not aware of their contents.

“I am glad that these papers have been released – albeit with large redactions which have not been fully explained – however, the public does have a right to know what happened, when it happened and who was responsible for the decision-making.”

A Transport Scotland spokesperson said: “The advice provided in 2018 related specifically to the impact of moving to a Mutual Investment Model.

“It did not relate to a traditional capital funding model.

“It was in late 2022 that Transport Scotland knew with certainty that the 2025 date could not be achieved.”

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