EXCLUSIVE: A96 review further delayed but Elgin bypass pledge 'cast iron' says First Minister Humza Yousaf
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AN update on the future of A96 dualling has been further delayed, First Minister Humza Yousaf has revealed, and bypasses for Elgin and Keith are "cast iron" commitments regardless of its outcome.
Speaking exclusively to the Northern Scot on Sunday (July 23), during a visit to Speyfest in Fochabers, Mr Yousaf confirmed that the outcome of the A96 Corridor Review will be published after September 3 – more than eight months after the original deadline of December 2022.
He also acknowledged that the A96 was: “one of the, if not the issue, concerning people here in the north east.”
Keith, Elgin and Inverurie were promised bypasses as part of the SNP and Green coalition agreement in 2021, which also launched a review of the A96 dualling project and its climate impact.
The deal pledged that the three north east towns will be bypassed regardless of the review outcome, with dualling between Inverness and Nairn also protected.
Mr Yousaf said the Scottish Government will not move "one inch" on the "cast iron" commitments and blamed the lack of progress on budget pressures.
"The Bute House Agreement is pretty clear around what is agreed," he said.
"The reason why there hasn't been as much progress is because we are in a period where our capital budgets have been cut by the UK government.
"What's in the Bute House Agreement hasn't changed and won't change. That, for me, is cast iron.
"We can't move away from that, not one inch.”
Mr Yousaf said he expects a “further update” on the A96 Corridor Review this autumn, after the Scottish Parliament returns from summer recess.
The delay to the announcement is the latest in a series of setbacks for the review.
Outcomes, including the Climate Compatibility Assessment, were scheduled to be published for public consultation in December 2022, but were delayed until "the first half of 2023", which then became "summer" and, this month: "later this summer".
"The reasons for the delay are, I'm afraid, a number of factors that continue to evolve and change when considering infrastructure projects,” Mr Yousaf said.
"Chiefly amongst them is that none of us could have foreseen the level of inflation and the high costs involved.
"But look, there's no doubting on my behalf, at all, that this is one of, if not the issue, concerning people here in the north east.”
Moray MP Douglas Ross criticised the extended delay and said local people would “wonder what Humza Yousaf saw on his short visit” to Moray, claiming those who regularly travel the road appreciate the urgency of dualling it.
"Yet again Humza Yousaf is announcing more delays to a scheme that is urgently needed now,” Mr Ross said.
"The SNP promised to dual the A96 years ago and failed to make much progress.
"Now they have the Greens with them in government, the future of this much needed upgrade is in greater doubt.
"Local people and businesses will wonder what Humza Yousaf saw on his short visit to the area at the weekend, because people who travel on the A96 regularly know how vital it is for the dualling to be completed, as promised and as a matter of priority."
The First Minister was also asked whether he expects bypasses to be scuppered by the "tough decisions" forewarned by Deputy First Minister Shona Robison earlier this year, following predictions that, in 2025-2026, the Scottish Government will have 16 per cent less cash than required for promised capital projects.
Listen to what the First Minister said here:
"I don't see those [bypasses] as part of those tough decisions," Mr Yousaf said.
"However there are tough decisions that have to be made.
"But I cannot put it in strong enough terms.
“What we have committed to going ahead in the Bute House Agreement - that will go ahead.
"That is not under threat."
The slow rate of progress on both A96 dualling and planned pledged bypasses was down to the UK Government cutting the Scottish Government’s capital budget and high inflation, as well as the ongoing review, the First Minister said.
"We have to be upfront with people about the inflationary pressure on any capital infrastructure projects, from road building to schools to hospitals,” he said.
"So that's why there hasn't quite been the progress – but there will be.
"And there are sections under review at the moment, and we've got to be up front that we have to take into account our climate obligations.
"There are issues around public finances, which is absolutely right and proper, but I think all of us would recognise that the climate emergency, which is looked on as a future event, is happening right now.
"You only need to look at the news at the moment, in terms of the evacuations from Rhodes, extreme temperatures right across Europe and severe climate events such as flooding that are taking place right across the world.
"So it's really important that, for any infrastructure project involving roads right across the country, we have a look at, for example, what the impact on the climate will be.
"But also what we have to look at is safety and connectivity.
"These are all issues in the mix as well.”
Attacking the £3.8 million bill for A96 Corridor Review, Mr Ross said: “People in Moray just want the A96 dualled to vastly improve road safety and to boost the local economy.
“The new SNP transport team – Mairi McAllan and Fiona Hyslop and the First Minister – must guarantee that previous commitments will be met and the views of people in Moray and elsewhere along the A96 will be put ahead of the anti-growth, anti-motorist Greens.”
The First Minister was joined at Speyfest by Moray MSP and Minister for Small Business, Innovation, Tourism and Trade Richard Lochhead.
Mr Yusuf said his own personal link to Moray came from the start of his political career, having spent months working on Mr Lochhead’s winning campaign for the 2006 Moray by-election.
After the dualling of the A96 was announced, in the 2011 Infrastructure Investment Plan, Mr Lochhead described the measure in a 2011 Northern Scot story as “critical” to Moray’s economy.
Asked how he feels about delays and doubts surrounding the project, given his previous statements, he said: "Well, the Government's commitment to the A96 dualling is still there.
"And clearly we are waiting for the outcome of the review, to look at the climate change impacts, which was the agreement between the SNP and Greens.
"The case for the A96 [dualling], of course, is as strong as ever.
"And that's why it was on the SNP’s election manifestos over the years.”
He argued that the Government’s commitment to the project has stayed consistent, despite having to “look at the timing of these projects” which face “big hurdles”.
"As the First Minister explains, we live in a very volatile time in terms of public finances,” he said.
"So we have to look at the timing of these projects, but the commitments are still there.
"That's the important thing, from my point of view as an MSP.
"And it's also worth saying, of course, that the SNP has been the only party down the annals of history to commit to dualling the A96, and indeed to dualling the A9 as well.
"So I'm confident the SNP government will deliver in due course.
"Of course there's lots of big hurdles to go over before that happens, due to the state of the public finances and the world at the moment."