The Scottish Government has removed consideration of both the A9 project and the A96 dualling scheme from its Strategic Transport Projects Review (STPR2), despite Transport Scotland officials telling MSPs that the review would consider the future of both schemes.
It also appears to be backing away from a longstanding pledge to complete the dualling of the A9 from Perth to Inverness by 2025, and said it is 'taking stock' of how best to deliver the project in light of the new economic environment.
A spokesman confirmed: 'We appointed commercial advisors last year and, as part of ongoing stakeholder engagement, market consultation will be undertaken this year to inform identification of the most efficient delivery model and programme.'
The devolved government’s commitment to the two huge projects – each is costed at £3bn – has raised questions about its attempts to move away from roadbuilding and towards more sustainable transport modes.
However, the SNP administration has cited the schemes as proof of its commitment to improve regions of the country outside the central belt between Glasgow and Edinburgh.
The Transport Scotland website states that the Scottish Government has committed to completing the upgrade of the remaining 80 miles of the A9 between Perth and Inverness by 2025, but states: ‘This is an ambitious deadline for a project of this size and complexity.’
One of 11 sections has been completed (pictured) and another is due to be completed shortly. However, the remaining nine sections are ‘in preparation’ with no sign of construction work starting this year.
Asked by Highways whether the Scottish Government was still committed to completing the A9 dualling between Perth and Inverness by 2025, a Transport Scotland spokesman would say only that it ‘continues to make significant progress’ on the scheme.
The spokesperson added: ‘The economic climate has changed considerably and unexpectedly. For a programme of the scale and significance of A9 Dualling, it is simply good, responsible governance to take stock and ensure public funds will be spent efficiently, effectively and balancing the considerable benefits of the programme against financial risk and undue cumulative impacts to the travelling public and local communities.
‘In such an uncertain economic climate it is essential we discuss our current programme and understand market conditions within the contracting industry to ensure that together we can deliver A9 Dualling as efficiently and effectively as possible.’
The 2007 SNP manifesto included a pledge to complete the dualling of the A9 by 2025. The Scottish Government’s Infrastructure Investment Plan 2011 stated: ‘by 2025, we will have dualled the A9 between Perth and Inverness.’
Just over a year ago, in late 2019, Transport Scotland's director of roads, Hugh Gillies appeared before the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee. Asked if there was a review of ‘whether we are going to continue with the dualling of the A9 and A96’, he replied: ‘What I will say is that all of this is up for debate as part of the Strategy Transport Projects Review.’
Mr Gillies subsequently wrote to the committee to 'clarify' his words. He wrote: 'My comments in relation to [the STPR and the National Transport Strategy] were intended to be distinct from commitments already made by the Scottish Government in relation to the A9 and the A96.'
He added: 'As the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity, Michael Matheson MSP, advised the Committee on 11 September, the Scottish Government remains committed to dualling the A9 between Perth and Inverness and theA96 between Inverness and Aberdeen as part of its current programme of infrastructure improvements.'
In December Mr Matheson, responded to an allegation that it ‘cares more about investing in central belt infrastructure than it does about investing in roads in rural and remote Scotland’ by stating: ‘We are taking forward one of the biggest infrastructure projects in Scotland through the dualling of the A9 up to Inverness and that, alongside that, we will be dualling the A96 between Inverness and Aberdeen.’
The first phase of STPR was published this week, with the second phase. ‘focusing on the delivery of medium to longer-term schemes’ due in the Autumn.
A Transport Scotland spokesperson told Highways that the A9 and A96 projects are ‘not included in the STPR’.
The spokesperson said: ‘STPR is Scottish Government’s review of potential future interventions to improve Scotland’s transport networks. This is different to the Scottish Government’s committed infrastructure programme, which continues to include both A9 and A96 dualling programmes which we are continuing to progress.’
However, with little progress on either scheme, the reality may be that both have been effectively shelved.