Suggestions the initial 2025 target for dualling the A9 was “aspirational” have been described as “utter rubbish” by a former minister responsible for the programme.
Alex Neil served as the infrastructure and capital investment secretary on the Scottish Government when the plan to dual the road was announced in 2011.
He told Holyrood’s Public Petitions Committee on Wednesday that “realistic” and fully-costed plans were set out by Transport Scotland officials in May 2012, and he dismissed assessments that the timeline was not set in stone.
The committee launched an inquiry into the unfinished project after a petition was submitted to Holyrood urging ministers to address safety concerns on the road – which links Perth with Inverness – and publish a revised timetable for completing the project by 2025.
First Minister Humza Yousaf has previously made it clear work to dual the A9 will not be completed before the next Holyrood election in May 2026, while insisting the Government is still “absolutely committed” to the programme.
Mr Neil told the committee: “I asked them to be realistic, Transport Scotland, and they assured me that both physically and financially it was perfectly feasibly to achieve the dualling of the A9 between Inverness and Perth by 2025, and Inverness and Aberdeen (the A96) by 2030.”
Senior officials, he said, gave him a “detailed plan” in May 2012 setting out the timelines for when each part of the A9 would be dualled.
Addressing the delay, he said: “I think it’s extremely disappointing and very damaging to the Scottish economy, and even far more damaging to the Highlands and islands, that this well-thought-out project has not been completed, let alone on time.”
Committee MSP Fergus Ewing, an outspoken critic of the delay, said Mr Neil’s evidence had been “informative, revelatory and really quite explosive”, and he asked the former minister if he agreed with Transport Scotland’s intimations that the timelines were “aspirational” when it addressed the committee in June.
Mr Neil told Mr Ewing the assessment was “utter rubbish”, adding: “This was not aspirational. A lot of work was done both before it went into the plan.
“Before they could advise me by 2025 was the reasonable date when we could do this financially and physically, they clearly had to do a lot of work themselves to work that out – and they did.
“I think one of the things that may have happened is that with the change in cabinet secretary, that my successors have perhaps not tracked this as well as they could.”
He added he “suspects the foot was well and truly taken off the accelerator”.
Mr Neil also said the Scottish Government had “betrayed a promise” to rural communities by putting the A9 dual project “on the backburner”.
The Scottish Liberal Democrat MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, Jamie Stone, said: “Alex Neil played a central role in plans to dual the A9, so his comments are a scathing indictment of the limp and desperate excuses of his former colleagues.
“Despite a steady drumbeat of road deaths across the Highlands in this year alone, ministers have singularly failed to act with any urgency.
“Dualling the A9 is a matter of essential public safety. It needs to be completed in full and fast.
“If this road led to the First Minister’s Glasgow constituency or his home in Dundee, I doubt it would have taken so long.”
A Transport Scotland spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government remains committed to dualling the A9 between Perth and Inverness, and work is continuing across the route.
“We expect to update Parliament on the programme for completing the remaining sections this autumn.
“We were always clear that 2025 was an ambitious target but also a feasible one.
“The advice provided to ministers in 2012 reflected this and this was the publicly-stated position at that time.
“For example, in the press release of June 26th 2012 Mr Neil said ‘we have always said that delivery by 2025 was challenging but achievable’.”
They added: “As with all major infrastructure projects, the programme was subject to the timely and positive outcome of a range of factors such as the completion of public and stakeholder consultation, statutory approval processes, market capacity, supply chain availability and the availability of funding.”
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