A former SNP minister has warned the case for Scottish independence will be damaged if the Greens are allowed to “scupper” A9 and A96 dualling.
Alex Neil, who was infrastructure secretary a decade ago when funding was promised for the two multibillion-pound road upgrade projects, urged his former colleagues in government to ignore “nonsense” arguments from the Greens about the schemes.
In an interview with us, he said he feared the “negative” political impact for the SNP of ongoing delays and doubts about the long-awaited dual carriageway work.
Mr Neil said it risked sending the “wrong message” about independence to voters north of the central belt.
Work to upgrade 80 miles of the A9 between Inverness and Perth was originally pencilled-in for completion by 2025, but only two of the 11 sections have been dualled to date.
It’s sending the wrong message to the people in the north of Scotland about independence” – Alex Neil
SNP ministers have been saying for more than a year that they are close to revealing the “next steps” for the £3 billion scheme, but a new procurement strategy is still to be unveiled.
Meanwhile, the government’s target for dualling the A96 between Inverness and Aberdeen was initially to be 2030, but construction is yet to begin.
A review is now being carried out into the future of much of the project, following the SNP’s power-sharing deal with the Greens last year.
Concerns have also been raised about a shortfall of cash for major projects in the government’s capital programme, including the A9 and A96.
Mr Neil said both dualling schemes must be prioritised, even if budgets are tight.
“Obviously while there has been some progress on the A9 it doesn’t seem to me as though it is anywhere near on target to be completed by 2025,” he said.
‘Don’t listen to the nonsense from Greens’
“And I really hope we don’t listen to the nonsense from the Greens that we shouldn’t be upgrading our road infrastructure.
“Because quite frankly it’s beneficial to the environment, even if we all end up driving electric cars we still need decent roads.
“I hope the Greens are not being allowed to scupper the additional investment that’s needed both in the A9 and the A96.”
Mr Neil’s remarks were made just a day after it emerged that Stewart Nicol, Inverness Chamber of Commerce chief executive, had written to transport officials to say he was “extremely concerned” about the framing of a consultation on the future of the A96.
Mr Nicol said it was hard to conclude anything other than that the survey was “designed to give desired responses”, because there was no references to the needs of the economy or businesses.
Mr Neil, the former MSP for Airdrie and Shotts who stood down from Holyrood last year, said: “This is an investment with a very high return, in terms of jobs and investment.
“So it should be given the priority that we gave it 10 years ago to ensure that it happens.
Central belt investment
“Because quite frankly we’ve had a lot of investment in the central belt with the upgrading of the M8, M74 and various other major road projects, and they’ve acted advantageously both to the economy and to the environment.”
Mr Neil, who served in various government posts, including as health secretary and communities secretary, warned of the political damage that could be caused by cutting investment while also advocating a transition away from fossil fuels.
“The political problem for the SNP is that if you are saying that the oil industry should be run down, and you don’t then provide the alternative investment to generate alternative sources of employment and growth, people will begin to wonder where your priorities lie,” he said.
“If you’re calling for no new investment in oil and gas, and at the same time cutting the investment in these two projects, which are major stimulants to economic development, then it’s sending the wrong message to the people in the north of Scotland about independence.
“Because independence is about making Scotland far more prosperous, because we’ve got the potential to realise much more potential than we have at the moment.
“If it looks as though we’re not going to do that then it can only be negative in terms of the political impact.”
Maggie Chapman, Scottish Green MSP for the north-east, said: “No analysis of the north and north east’s transport infrastructure should be taken seriously if it only focuses on roads.
“Of course the area requires improved infrastructure.
“And I’ve always said that we should invest to maintain our road network, particularly in light of the impacts of climate change, and also fund safety critical improvements.
“But we also need much better public transport and active travel links too. That’s why I’m working with the campaign for north-east rail, for example, to champion better rail links in the region.
She added: “There’s much more to do, but the future of transport in the 21st century cannot simply follow the 1960s mantra of more roads.”
The Scottish Government has said it remains “firmly committed” to completing the dualling of the A9 between Perth and Inverness, describing it as both a national and a local priority.
More than £400 million has already been spent on the dualling programme.
Ministers have also said they are continuing to progress plans to dual the Inverness to Nairn section of the A96, including the Nairn bypass.
It is separate from the wider A96 corridor review, which will report by the end of this year.