The SNP’s Westminster chief cast more doubt on a long-term plan to upgrade major trunk roads despite previous Scottish Government promises to dual routes between cities.
Ian Blackford said “safety” improvements will continue on the A96 Aberdeen-Inverness road days after his party agreed with Greens to “review” the wider plans together in government.
Plans for the A9 Perth-Inverness road appear to have been given the green light to continue, but it could mean only part of the A96 is upgraded from single carriageway.
Mr Blackford was questioned about the deal’s implications three days after the deal was published by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
The Highlands MP told BBC Radio Scotland he was sent emails “congratulating” the “far-sighted” arrangement with the Greens.
Asked specifically what it means for road plans previously backed by the SNP, he side-stepped.
On the dualling of the A9 and A96, Mr Blackford said: “What is important is that we take account of safety.
“That will be key both when it comes to the A9, the tremendous improvements that have been made, and indeed the requirement that we have to make sure we deliver safety over the course of the A96 as well. These things will still happen.”
What does the deal mean for roads?
The SNP and Green agreed in their deal for government power-sharing to hold “distinct positions” on the A96 plan.
It commits to dualling from Inverness to Nairn. Bypasses will be built at Nairn, Keith, Elgin and Inverurie.
Road improvements are promised between Fochabers and Huntly, and Inverurie to Aberdeen.
The route will become an “electric highway”, the government says.
But the agreement states: “The current plan is to fully dual the A96 route between Inverness and Aberdeen. We agree to conduct a transparent, evidence-based review to include a climate compatibility assessment to assess direct and indirect impacts on the climate and the environment. This will report by the end of 2022.”
The parties also want to look at major new rail improvements to take pressure off roads. It includes the potential re-opening of a line from Aberdeen to Ellon and perhaps beyond to Peterhead and Fraserburgh.
‘Stuck in the slow lane’
Conservatives reacted angrily to the road plans.
Tory transport spokesman Graham Simpson said projects such as the A96 are now “stuck in the slow lane”.
He added: “Yet again the SNP are failing to deliver on their promises and are abandoning communities who are relying on these vital upgrades.
“It’s bad enough that these improvements are already years behind schedule but it now seems any prospect of them actually becoming a reality has now gone.”
What did the Scottish Government promise the region?
The Scottish Government agency, Transport Scotland, still officially commits to dualling the Inverness-Aberdeen A96 road.
Its website carries information about preparation to dual the trunk road along the the full 86 miles of existing single carriageway.
“All political parties are having to change position, some are going faster than others.”
– Green MSP Patrick Harvie
The project boasts benefits to journey time, reliability, economic growth, improved connections and reductions in accidents.
Engineering assessment is complete for the section between Nairn and Aberdeen.
A firm was appointed in 2016 to assess the 29-mile route between Hardmuir and Fochabers.
Another firm was appointed in 2017 to look at options for the 26-mile section between Huntly and Aberdeen.
The Scottish Government said in 2011 it wants to dual the entire A96 by 2030, with multiple bypasses for towns along the route.
Transport Scotland said it was carrying out an environmental assessment.
What does the Green party say?
Green party co-leader Patrick Harvie stood beside Nicola Sturgeon to unveil the deal at Bute House in Edinburgh.
Three days later, he said the SNP Government is not where “they need to be” on the environment, including oil policies.
“All political parties are having to change position, some are going faster than others, but they’re doing that because Greens are in there making the case,” he said.
His party said the agreement will see the budget for safe walking and cycling routes treble to over £300 million.
There are plans to spend £5 billion maintaining, improving and decarbonising Scotland’s railways, ensuring public transport becomes an “affordable choice for all”.
In a statement, Mr Harvie added: “Scotland has not met its climate commitments in recent years, and rising emissions from transport have been one of the main causes of this.
“Getting back on track means taking determined action to deliver a green, fair and affordable transport system for everyone.”
The agreement between the two sides was rubber-stamped by the SNP’s national executive committee on Saturday, with plans for a non-binding members’ vote to be held this week.
The final hurdle will be passed at the end of August, if Green members at an extraordinary general meeting of the party also vote to approve it.