Brian Monteith: Is Forth fiasco bridge too far for SNP?

Maintaining the crossing is down to Holyrood, not Westminster so the SNP have only themselves to blame, writes Brian Monteith

By Brian Monteith
Monday, 7th December 2015, 2:52 pm
The Forth Road Bridge laden with vehicles before it closed to traffic last week. Picture: Jane Barlow
The Forth Road Bridge laden with vehicles before it closed to traffic last week. Picture: Jane Barlow

It has been a common refrain over the past year or two that in order to focus on winning support for a Yes vote in the first referendum our SNP government has neglected its own responsibilities to a degree bordering on recklessness. Then, not content with abdicating its duties that it has unequivocal responsibility for, as laid out in the various Scotland Acts, it has continued to contest that any wrongdoing or shortcomings of its own are the fault of Westminster in general and the Tory government in particular.

This continued priority towards campaigning rather than administering is clearly intended to build up further grievances so that demands for a second referendum remain simmering until they can be brought to the boil.

The attacks by opposition politicians have not been without justification for the evidence of failure by the Scottish Government is clear, consistent and gathering by the day.

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In the execution of policy, be it education; where English pupil attainment has improved at a greater rate than that of Scottish pupils and has now marched ahead of Scotland’s for a number of years – or healthcare; where cancer clear-up rates and other measures of clinical performance show Scotland being outperformed by England’s NHS – or other examples of public services where the Scottish Parliament has control over budget setting, spending and policy decisions – the SNP record is both scandalous and embarrassing.

Before we hear the excuse that it is all down to “Westminster cuts” or “Tory Austerity” let us recall that the SNP government underspend of public funds was £347 million in the last financial year 2014-15 – including an underspend in the Transport department and a £140m underspend in the capital budget used for infrastructure. In the year before that the SNP underspend was £444m for 2013-14, these and other previous underspends suggesting that had ministers kept their eye on the ball they could have made spending decisions to fit the country’s needs – such as repairing the failing Forth Road Bridge.

The preoccupation of SNP ministers and their cheerleaders for blaming Whitehall, the current Prime Minister and his Chancellor has meant that they are at their desks attending to their official papers far less than they ought to. Instead they can be seen attending at taxpayers’ expense photo-shoots and conferences which offer platforms for party-political advantage but deliver no added value to their ministerial responsibilities.

Thus far the SNP’s failure to meet many of its own targets or deliver so few of its own promises has been forgiven by a Scottish electorate that would far rather punish the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties for sins of the past. Might that be about to change? Could the debacle of the Forth Road Bridge closure at last expose the gross negligence of the SNP government and turn some of the electorate against the SNP?

A better example of the SNP’s bizarre sense of priorities could not be more transparent than First Minister Nicola Sturgeon travelling to Paris today to attend the United Nations climate change conference with all the self-importance of a head of state of a sovereign independent nation – while the closure of the Forth Road Bridge lands the most severe blow to the Scottish economy of recent times. No matter how much Nicola Sturgeon might claim she is able to reduce Scottish carbon emissions it will be as nothing compared to the increase that her government’s failure will generate by the additional and longer road and rail journeys that will belch out copious fumes over the months to come.

Already claims and counter-claims are being made as to how the closure of the bridge has come about, but two things are certain and neither of them absolve the SNP. The first is that the Forth Road Bridge is the sole responsibility of the Scottish Government that has been in power since 2007 and which received a report in 2009 detailing the structural faults that required maintenance.

These were costed at £10m but were then shelved indefinitely. Whatever the reason for the delay in attending to the impending failure of the bridge it is not good enough to pass the blame on to the government’s agency, Transport Scotland.

It is for government ministers to hold these arms of government to account and the SNP ministers of transport over that time, Stewart Stevenson, Keith Brown, and now Derek Mackay, together with their first ministers to whom they reported, Messrs Salmond and Sturgeon, all have questions to answer.

They are quick enough to take the acclaim when Transport Scotland opens a railway line for the government – so they should face up to their responsibilities when dangerous and costly misjudgments are made. The second difficulty for ministers is that it was the SNP which introduced the abolition of the tolls on the Forth Road Bridge and was made aware of the impact on public finances when it passed the legislation to do so.

The Forth Road Bridge tolls generated an annual income of £12m that could have gone towards the maintenance of the bridge. This was an important consideration, some £60m has been foregone over the past five years that could have gone towards contracts of £10m to replace those bearings and joints as well as the suspended span painting costing £65m. Blaming Westminster’s austerity economics will not wash when such key decisions are made in Edinburgh.

John Swinney sets the Scottish budgets and it is a false economy to delay bridge maintenance when it can lead to severe dislocation of the economy – expected to cost £27m a month – that is bound to impact on economic growth and consequently jobs, earnings and public revenues. Notwithstanding the sheer logic of maintaining possibly the most important short section of public highway in Scotland during a period of embarrassing public finance underspends there is the strong possibility that there will now be compensation claims from businesses that will amount to tens of millions.

The credibility of the SNP government must be severely tested by its failure to meet its responsibilities for the Forth Road Bridge, and if the structure stays closed for longer than the end of the year – and one bridge engineer is predicting at least three months – for the public affected in Fife and the Lothians SNP incompetence and indifference must surely be a bridge too far.