What is it with infrastructure and large building projects that our governments find so difficult? I think of the Scottish Parliament and memories of huge budget overruns and years of delay come back to haunt me.
Hampden Park’s redevelopment prompted a parliamentary inquiry from which nobody came out of well. I think of the Borders Railway and, yes, another huge budget overrun and years of delay.
Then there’s the saga of Edinburgh’s trams which hardly requires repeating in this paper, suffice to say that our local councillors were no worse or better than members of the Scottish Parliament when it comes to transport infrastructure projects.
It’s not a problem peculiar to Scotland, of course. There was London’s Dome (built for the Millennium) and then Portcullis House (new offices for MPs) that also went well over budget. Now Londoners are up in arms following the announcement that the prime minister’s cast iron guarantee of an announcement about a new airport runway will not be met. Even objectors are tired of the indecision that has dragged on for 20 years or more as fresh environmental considerations are taken into account.
It’s nothing to do with the environment and everything to do with Zac Goldsmith, the Conservative candidate for the London mayoral elections, having threatened to cause a by-election if the decision is made in Heathrow’s favour. Clearly Goldsmith’s word is more honourable and therefore more believable than David Cameron’s. A pretty damning inditement of the Prime Minister.
But Londoners should not feel sorry for themselves for it could be worse – they could live in Fife, Edinburgh or the Lothians where the main strategic artery across the Firth of Forth will be closed until at least early January.
Why the Forth Road Bridge has not been maintained to a safe working condition is the scandal of our age and the SNP government cannot escape the majority share of the blame.
The reputational damage is immense for if there was one thing – and possibly one thing only – that there has been a degree of political consensus about is that the SNP administration appeared to be reasonably competent.
One could complain about many of their policies and the impact they have on especially poor people (and I have) but they at least seemed to deliver their bad decisions with a modicum of efficiency.
Well that’s all in the past now for the dominant narrative is going to become “run an independent Scotland, they couldn’t even keep the Forth Road Bridge open!”
No matter how much the First Minister and the SNP ministers try to duck out of the blame by passing it off to the previous bridge authority or their own agency, Transport Scotland, the fact is that the accountability for consenting to decisions rests with the government of the day.
Nor can a lack of money be blamed for delaying the repairs – for it was the SNP that abolished the tolls just after new expensive tolling booths had been installed. Those tolls took in £12 million a year and could have paid for the necessary repair that would have prevented the bridge closure every year of the five years that it was postponed.
Like the bridge, the SNP is now displaying its own signs of stress. The performances of the First Minister and the Transport Minister, Derek Mackay, have been remarkably nervous and gaffe-prone. A sacrificial resignation will be resisted to avoid acceptance of any blame so it will take another transport catastrophe for that to happen.
Where could the next one be? A tram extension, the dualling of the A9 or maybe something could yet go wrong with the new Forth crossing? Maybe a combination of all three? One thing is certain, all those photos of SNP politicians in front of the Forth bridges will only serve to remind us of the government’s incompetence.
There is a depressing irony in that even though we have a parliament, teeming with staff, researchers, press officers and politicians – as well as all their accompanying committees of inquiry – there is no more accountability by the ruling government than there was before devolution.
Think of the shambles of the Scottish Qualifications Agency and the disastrous introduction of the new exams, think of the continual disasters of the Creative Scotland quango in its various guises and think now of Transport Scotland and the road bridge failure – and each time it is the agency that takes the blame and the ministers get off Scot free. That’s not how it was meant to be and it has to change.
Our politicians are well paid and well looked after and need to take the criticism as well as the praise. There needs to be a full judge-led inquiry into the shambles that has been the repair of the Forth Road Bridge, a shambles that will lead to people losing there jobs throughout the city and surrounding towns from a drop in business.
Only through that process can we hope to establish the truth and gain the accountability over the politicians that devolution was meant to deliver.