Earlier this year, the Scottish Government announced that their promise to dual the A9 by 2025 was unachievable. On the back of this broken promise, The Inverness Courier launched a campaign to find answers and to move forward, asking a stark question which headlined their front page: how many more people need to die?
This question was on the audience’s mind yesterday when attending the Courier’s A9 Crisis Summit at Eden Court. Our Chief Executive Colin was representing the business community, and we also heard from Grahame Barn from CECA, Laura Hansler from A9 Dual Action Group, MSP Fergus Ewing, Alison Irvine and Robert Galbraith from Transport Scotland, and Màiri McAllan, the Transport Cabinet Secretary. The panel was expertly moderated by Nicky Marr, who allowed plenty of time for passionate questions from the audience.
From a political viewpoint, there were several statements of note. The Transport Secretary apologised to bereaved families, those with injuries, and everyone who fears driving the A9. She also admits she herself dreads driving the A9, and wanted to dispel the myth that the lack of progress had anything to do with the Bute House Agreement. MSP Fergus Ewing spoke of his “shame”, and announced he will no longer support the SNP if progress is not made. He also highlighted the fact that there has been four sections ready to be put out to tender since 2021, but there has been no movement from Transport Scotland.
Despite Transport Scotland publishing their “Case for Investment” report in 2016, Colin clearly laid out the impact the failure to dual has on the business community and the Highlands’ economy. He pointed out that Màiri McAllan is also the Minister for Net Zero, and stressed the Scottish Government’s climate goals will not be met without transport infrastructure to the Highlands. The potential of the Inverness and Cromarty Firth Green Freeport may not be fully realised if we can not encourage skilled workers to live in the Highlands, or if essential supplies, equipment, or products cannot be reliably transported.
There were also key business representatives in the audience, with Chris Dowling, Managing Director of Cairngorm Group, debunking Transport Scotland’s claim that construction could not progress during Covid; he calmly advised that his business was only forced to shut for 12 weeks in March 2020. With construction staff classed as key workers during the Pandemic, and traffic heavily reduced on the A9, surely Covid lockdowns would be the ideal opportunity to get spades in the ground?
Unfortunately, it seems many sections were nowhere near construction phase in 2020, and it most likely won’t be in the foreseeable future. Grahame Barn from CECA explained that due to implications of risk, Transport Scotland contracts are not commercially attractive or viable for Civil Engineering firms. In addition, the current sections may be too large to attract Scottish firms, meaning the only option may involve PFI and a contractor from a European company.
Other suggestions from the audience such as a project management approach, or simply adding speed limit signs, were pushed back by Transport Scotland. Despite the Edinburgh Bypass having “special dispensation” status, allowing speed limit signs to be displayed on the side of the dual carriageway, they seemed reluctant to issue the same status to the A9. The Minister advised Colin she would “consider” his request for a local working group, with government representatives attending quarterly meetings in Inverness.
Of course, the substantial impact on business and the economy can not be compared to the devastating loss of life that is all too common on the A9. When discussing the logistics of the project, the Minister also factored in the “disruption” roadworks would cause. We would argue that this is incomparable to the disruption caused by frequent road closures, and most importantly, to the lifelong upheaval for bereaved families. We would urge the Minister and Transport Scotland to heed the words of their colleague, Fergus Ewing: “This is a matter of life and death”.
All photos are courtesy of Highland News and Media. Click here for more information on the Inverness Courier A9 campaign.