Falkirk Council: Avon Gorge plans put on hold for M9 junction improvements

Long-awaited improvements to the Avon Gorge are to be pushed back as part of a plan to carry out vital work at a dangerous junction and improve access to the M9 motorway.
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Falkirk and West Lothian councils have agreed to work together to bid for ‘levelling up’ cash that will allow them to upgrade Junction 3 of the M9.

Members of Falkirk Council’s executive heard on Tuesday that any improvements to Junction 3 – which is in West Lothian – will also benefit residents of Bo’ness, Blackness and Grangemouth as it will make it quicker and easier for them to access the motorway network.

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The same day, West Lothian councillors also gave their unanimous backing to the joint £15 million bid to the UK Government’s Levelling Up fund.

Plans to improve the Avon Gorge have been on the drawing board for around 20 yearsPlans to improve the Avon Gorge have been on the drawing board for around 20 years
Plans to improve the Avon Gorge have been on the drawing board for around 20 years

The bid will be submitted for the joint Linlithgow and East Falkirk parliamentary constituency, and the cash will be used to create an all-ways slip road on Junction 3 of the M9 and improve road alignment at Champany – an accident blackspot – in the Falkirk council area.

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However, councillors heard that making a bid for the M9/Champany improvements will mean that a previously agreed plan to make long-awaited improvements to the Avon Gorge will once again be pushed back.

For the first round of the UK Government’s Levelling Up funding, Falkirk Council successfully bid for £20 million to create a new bridge that will allow pedestrians and cyclists to safely cross roads around Westfield Stadium, which will all become dual carriageway as part of the project.

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This project is currently being reviewed to ensure it remains affordable, given soaring costs in the construction industry.

At that time, councillors had agreed that round two of the UK Government’s Levelling Up fund would be a joint bid to continue the Avon Gorge project. This week, councillors heard that the scale and complexity of the Avon Gorge work meant it would be premature to make a funding application at the moment.

Plans that were previously drawn up are now ten years old and out of date. That – along with costs that have risen substantially – mean they will have to be revised.

However, both local authorities have pledged to continue working together and with Transport Scotland on a proposal, ready to seek the £50 million it is estimated to cost.

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While road improvements at Champany have already been approved by Falkirk Council as part of its budget, the newly designed slip road would change the road layout slightly and a successful bid for Levelling Up cash would free up money from the council’s capital budget.

Paul Kettrick, head of Invest Falkirk – who previously worked for West Lothian Council – said the Champany project would not only benefit the two areas, it would establish a good working relationship that would help them deliver the substantially more complex Avon Gorge project.

SNP portfolio holder Paul Garner said the work on the M9 would have benefits for Falkirk district residents in Bo’ness and Blackness and would also alleviate pressure on Junction 5, Grangemouth.

And he said that while some might wonder what this means for the Avon Gorge he was confident that the current joint work between Falkirk and West Lothian “is progress that has never previously been achieved”.

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“The proposed approach is actually a step forward that brings Avon Gorge a step closer to becoming a reality.”

Falkirk Council’s Labour leader, Anne Hannah, said that while they accepted the need to accept the proposal, they were disappointed that the Avon Gorge upgrade has once again been deferred.

She said: “The problem on the A801 has been recognised and plans have been made to improve the situation for over 20 years. People have been injured and people have died. We must prioritise the Avon Gorge upgrade for safety reasons.

“The lack of a safe link at this point between the M8 and the M9 also adds significant costs to businesses with freight having to go the long way round. Additional costs and difficulties for businesses may deter investment in the area and can impact in additional costs to the consumer.

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“This upgrade is important for the local economies in Falkirk and West Lothian, but it is also important for the whole Central Scotland area. We know that our officers are already working on the next stage of negotiation with partners and stakeholders, and we fully support them in this and encourage them to prepare the ground for another bid next year.”

She proposed an amendment to the motion that asking for a further report to come the September meeting setting out an action plan and timescales for progressing the Avon Gorge Upgrade development.

The Labour group also called for more detail on the climate change implications of the Champany Junction and J3 proposal and full information on the equalities and climate change implications of the Avon Gorge project to be made available.

Both Labour amendments were unopposed and the motion put forward by the SNP was approved unanimously, as amended.

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West Lothian councillors also welcomed the fact that the councils were working together to apply for the Junction 3 upgrade.

Linlithgow’s long-serving Labour councillor, Tom Conn said: “I’m delighted that we have put a further application to the Levelling Up fund for the incorporation of the Burghmuir and at Champany.

“I think the junction at Burghmuir is part of a solution to town centre issues as well. Equality it has benefits for Falkirk. Falkirk has been expanding eastwards and this would allow residents of Bo’ness to access the junction without having to meander through the town. It’s joined up thinking.”

The applications will be submitted in early July.