Can’t get there from here

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Spending £1.6 billion on a new Forth road bridge at a time of public service cuts would tie Scotland to an old style of economic development blind to climate change realities

writes Patrick Harvie

You fucking beauty, he thought … What a gorgeous great device you are.  So delicate from this distance, so massive and strong close-up.  Elegance and grace; perfect form.  A quality bridge; granite piers, the best ship-plate steel, and a never-ending paint job … Iain Banks, The Bridge

The SNP’s plans to build a second Forth Road Bridge may have seemed like fantasy, especially given the growing pressure on the budget, but they are now – with the announcement on March 21 of a winning consortium bid to build the additional bridge – becoming a bit more real.

The protagonist of Iain Banks’ classic novel The Bridge ends up in an accident on the Forth Road Bridge when he becomes distracted by the power and beauty of the older rail crossing.  Now it’s the SNP’s obsession with building an additional bridge that’s setting them on a collision course: with local communities, with Scotland’s climate commitments and with public finances.  But resistance to these plans is growing, and the Scottish Greens will keep working with the community and others who rightly maintain that the problems with the bridge can be addressed without building a second one.

The pressure is now on, because the SNP sees this project as a vote winner in the May election.  Alex Salmond has his eyes on a photo opportunity at the cost of £1.6 billion, the current price tag for the new bridge, though the reductions from £4.2 billion to £2.3 billion and now down again are hardly credible.  Salmond is even preparing to sign contracts in April during the traditional election ‘purdah’ period.  Constitutional convention prevents ministers from taking decisions which are “significant and may be politically contentious” once Parliament has been dissolved.  So I have written to Sir Peter Housden, Scotland’s most senior civil servant, asking him to reconsider the authorisation he has granted for the government’s hasty move.

Quite apart from any electoral capital the SNP hope to gain from breaking convention – and you have to wonder about this when the only poll conducted on the issue saw 57% of Scots favouring repair to the existing bridge, with just 34% backing a new crossing – if contracts do get signed before the election, this government would be trying to tie the hands of the next Parliament and the next Scottish Government.

In the US, where pork-barrel politics still looms large, votes in Washington during razor-edge legislative moments come at a premium.  Congressmen have admitted on the record that on such occasions they get offered so many bridges for their districts that the main challenge is to find another river.  The geography and circumstances we face today are clearly different – but the principle is the same, and prudence here means fixing the existing road bridge instead.

Consider this: a new bridge would take five years to build. Breaking the earth on it before we find out if alternative repair technologies could be effective for the current bridge cannot be justified given that at least £1.6 billion of public money is riding on this.  One alternative is dehumidification – drying out of corroding bridge cables with pumped warm dry air.  The conclusions on dehumidification are due later this year, though a 2008 interim assessment from the Forth Estuary Transport Authority on a test section of the bridge reported ‘encouraging results’.  Dehumidification has been a success elsewhere, but even if it doesn’t work here, replacing the bridge cables would cost just £122 million, less than one tenth of the cost of a new bridge.

The Scottish Greens and many others have been pointing out that spending £1.6 billion on an unnecessary bridge at a time when public services are facing huge cuts is irresponsible.  Friends of the Earth Scotland reckons that for this kind of money Scotland could build over 100 new schools or employ over 11,000 nurses for ten years. Shelter sees it as 40,000 affordable homes.  Alas though, these squandered opportunities are all in keeping with an SNP government whose latest budget in February took an axe to Scottish housing, education and local services, while leaving its road-building programme unscathed.

Scottish Greens would like to see major investment going into public transport, not more major new road capacity.  As Audit Scotland has recently identified, there is even a pressing need to tackle the £2.25 billion road maintenance backlog in Scotland, and there would be gains in this too for cyclists and pedestrians as well as other road users. But what about the suggestions that the new road bridge would include extra capacity for public transport, or that the existing bridge is planned for buses?  Can’t we live with this?  Not only do the current plans lack any detail on the first argument, but as with any new road capacity it’s only likely to stimulate road demand, and as the new bridge starts to experience heavy congestion the clamor will grow for the existing bridge to be made available for cars again.

We have got to start formulating transport policy based on a shift from the car to public transport.  The additional Forth Road Bridge, if it goes ahead, will stand as a ruinous memorial to the old thinking and all the political shenanigans that come with it.  A second vote for the Scottish Greens at the upcoming elections is the only thing that might see this daft idea shelved.

Patrick Harvie is Co-convenor of the Scottish Green Party and the party’s top candidate for Glasgow in May’s Holyrood election.

This article was first published in Product magazine