VITAL information and key decisions about the two Forth road bridges will be shrouded in secrecy if the Scottish Government goes ahead with its current plans for overseeing the crossings, it was claimed today.
MSPs have approved in principle legislation to scrap the Forth Estuary Transport Authority (FETA) – made up of councillors from the local authorities either side of the river – and hand management and maintenance of the existing bridge and the new crossing to a private company in June 2015.
The Scottish Government, which will in future be ultimately responsible for the bridges, has set up an advisory Forth Bridges Forum, but it will meet in private and councillors have been banned from sitting on it.
Community leaders and local politicians fear crucial information, such as the state of repair of the bridge, details of how the dehumidification project is working and the future maintenance required, will no longer be made public.
City transport convener Lesley Hinds gave evidence to the committee arguing that councillors should sit on the forum, but Transport Minister Keith Brown claimed such a move would “muddy the waters” since they had no responsibility for spending decisions on the bridges.
Officials from Edinburgh, Fife and West Lothian will be included in the forum along with representatives from Transport Scotland, Network Rail and Historic Scotland.
Community councils and local businesses are represented on a sub-group of the forum.
Councillor Hinds said: “At the moment you have FETA, which has elected members on it and has meetings which are open to the public. The reports and documents are published on the website and available for scrutiny.
“If the forum is to meet in private, are the council officials who attend allowed to report back to councillors? Can we discuss the issues and make them public?
“The Forth bridges are vital to the economy of the city and it is only sensible we should have some scrutiny.”
The Scottish Government has been criticised for centralising control and privatising the operation of the bridge.
Former FETA chairman Lawrence Marshall said there was a lack of accountability in the new arrangements.
He said: “The main traffic the bridge carries, particularly at peak periods, is local – commuters coming into the Edinburgh and Lothians area – so there is a large local impact even though the bridge is of national significance.
“It seems wrong that members of the local authorities who have the most local knowledge are not involved in running the bridge.
“I can see no reason why the forum should meet in private.
“The bridge is not only being centralised and privatised, but now it’s being shrouded in secrecy as well.”
Keith Giblett, chair of Queensferry and District Community Council, said he feared current arrangements would change when the operation of the bridge is handed to the private sector.
He said: “We enjoy a very good relationship with the management team at the bridge and FETA. We meet with them regularly and can discuss matters that affect the community as regards maintenance of the bridge.
“We are concerned that once a contractor is appointed, that contractor’s agenda is going to be different. They are going to be doing the job as best they can for a profit and sometimes that changes the agenda.”
Mr Giblett said work on the bridge could often have a major impact on the local community, from noise and nuisance to traffic gridlock.
He said: “The present management will consult with the community about the work they are doing, which gives people an input and a direct contact of who to speak to if they have issues about noise and dust.
“We’re concerned some of that information won’t come out in the public arena and some of it might be withheld.”
Labour’s transport spokeswoman, Elaine Murray, said she was concerned about openness and accountability if the forum was to meet in private.
She said: “How public will the information be? Will people be able to see what is being discussed? Will minutes be available or are these going to be secret talks and no-one is going to see what is discussed?”
Edinburgh West Liberal Democrat MP Mike Crockart said it was unfortunate that when residents were living with construction upheaval, the Scottish Government had seen fit to remove the local representation that was available to them through FETA.
He said: “If they are also serious about the new body meeting in private, then where would that leave the accountability and transparency of any decision-making? Alex Salmond needs to stop his centralising tendencies and allow locals a say in what is going on quite literally in their own back gardens.”
Mr Brown told MSPs last week that the new Forth crossing would be a trunk road and motorway, for which Scottish ministers would be responsible and they could receive representations from the public or councillors.
He said “meaningful engagement with community councils and residents” would be laid down as a condition in the Forth bridges operating company contract.
A Transport Scotland spokeswoman said, unlike FETA, the Forth Bridges Forum was not a legal or independent entity and, like many groups involving officials across government, its meetings were held in private to encourage open discussion.
She said: “Community representatives are involved in relevant sub-groups for specific issues and forum members are considering a number of mechanisms for ensuring the views of the wider community are taken into account on matters surrounding the management and maintenance of the bridges.
“Further options will be presented to community groups and residents over the coming months to ensure that effective mechanisms are developed before the new bridge opens and the Forth Bridge Operating Company is appointed.”
OUT IN THE OPEN
THE proposed new management of the Forth bridges has raised fears that key information will be kept from the public. If such a structure had been in placed in the last decade the full details about the corrosion of cables on the bridge may never have been known.
Concerns over the longevity of the 2ft-thick main suspension cable was a key reason for building the new £1 billion Forth crossing, due for completion in 2016.
Other issues revealed by FETA - the body that currently manages the bridge - included the 58 per cent reduction in Scottish Government funding from £33.1 million to just £13.8m, which led to the postponement of resurfacing, repainting and other work.
It had to use its cash reserves for unexpected major repairs, replacing the nuts and bolts which link the main cable to the bridge’s vertical supports and faced a £2.1m rise in the cost of carrying out an examination of anchorage points.