A Scottish bridge too far

THE row over the new Forth Road Bridge may sound like a spat of no concern to us, but at its heart is the devolution settlement which has left England and the English picking up the tab for Scottish, Welsh and Ulster indulgence.

Graham Dines

THE row over the new Forth Road Bridge may sound like a spat of no concern to us, but at its heart is the devolution settlement which has left England and the English picking up the tab for Scottish, Welsh and Ulster indulgence.

This time there is a difference - Gordon Brown and Alastair Darling are taking a stand against an extravagance under which all their constituents in Fife and Edinburgh would benefit.

When the devolved parliament and institutions were set up in Scotland, Westminster's Labour government gave away all transport policy initiatives and spending north of the border, with the exception of air transport and airports.


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Thus, the Scots are masters of their own destinies, which has worked well up until now because the Scottish executive has made rail schemes a top priority, including the opening of freight routes to passenger trains and the re-opening of the iconic Waverley line from Edinburgh through the Borders to Tweedbank and eventually on to Carlisle.

But now the executive has run out of the cash allocated to it by the Treasury in London and is demanding that UK taxpayers stump up �2billion to build a River Forth crossing to supplement the existing 40 year-old suspension bridge which is in grave danger of being unable to take heavy traffic within the next decade because of corrosion.

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The Treasury has said `no' to the dodgy accounting dreamed up by the Scottish executive, under which Westminster would have advanced the money for the five-year construction project and been repaid over 20 years through a reduced Scottish capital spending budget.

The original plan to demolish the current bridge and replace it in total with a �4billion new crossing has been scaled back, and while the new bridge will carry road traffic, the existing structure will be converted for trains and trams as well as serving buses, pedestrians and cyclists.

Alastair Darling has told the Scottish executive that it should pay for the new crossing with a private finance initiative (PFI) partnership, which is how major capital projects in the rest of the UK are funded.

But PFIs are politically unacceptable to the Scottish National Party which controls the Edinburgh executive, and it is insisting the bridge is paid for by an advance from the capital allocation from Westminster. Without the advance, future road projects in Scotland will be denuded of cash - such as the dualling of the A9 trunk road from Perth to Inverness.

The SNP proposal must have been tempting for the Prime Minister and Chancellor - Gordon Brown's constituency is but a few hundred metres east along the Fife shoreline from the bridge while Mr Darling represents an Edinburgh seat for whose constituents the new crossing would bring enormous benefit.

I've always argued that transport should have remained a reserved power for Westminster, given the number of cross-border rail and road routes, including the East Coast and West Coast main lines and the A1 and A69 trunk roads.

But no, Labour politicians knew best and they carried on with their half-baked devolution settlement without any thought of the impact on the remaining 85% population that is England within the UK.

It's essential Westminster does not cave in to the craven demands of the SNP. If the Scots want to run transport policy, let them find the cash from their already generous allocation from Westminster.

After all, the SNP symbolically abolished tolls on the Forth Bridge as a sign of its macho strength, while down south, our own government has refused to make the Essex-Kent Dartford crossings free and added insult to injury by sanctioning an increase in the tolls and keeping the money for itself instead of funding another Thames road bridge somewhere around Canvey Island.

So my Hogmanay message to the Scots is simple - eat your own cake.

BELL BACKS GREENS FOR EURO POLL

WITH European Parliament elections due to take place in June, the Green Party has stolen a march on the others in the East of England, launching its first campaign video as it attempts to garner enough votes to get an MEP elected under the proportional representation system used in the UK for the Euro poll.

Lead candidate Dr Rupert Read, who serves on Norwich City Council where the Greens are the main opposition party, believes he has a strong chance of being elected to Brussels and Strasbourg.

He and the Greens have even been endorsed by Martin Bell, the former broadcaster for stood as an Independent in the 2004 European elections in protest at the method for electing Euro MPs.

Says Dr Read: “At the time of the 1999 elections, there were just two Green Party principal authority councillors in Eastern Region. There are now 27, with the Greens on Norwich City Council becoming the official opposition in 2008.

“There are also now Green councillors in every county in the region. Since 1999, membership of the Green Party in the region has also risen.

“Now more than ever, Green MEPs are needed to pursue peace, to take serious action to stop climate damage, to help stabilise the economy by investing in good green jobs, and so much more.”

The party's main hope is that enough voters become fed up with the main parties and look for an alternative. The Green Party has consistently secured its highest nationwide vote share at the European Elections, with more than a million people voting Green in 2004.

Under the list system of proportional representation, two Green Euro MPs were elected in 1999 - one each in the London and South East regions - and they were re-elected in 2004.

In the East region - covering East Anglia, Essex and the Chilterns - the party is holding a series of public meetings with the next being held in Wivenhoe, near Colchester on Saturday January 24.

At this stage, it's difficult to calculate the percentage vote needed to elect a Green MEP. Much depends on the vote total for the Conservatives, the leading party in the region, which because of their strength across the six counties, are guaranteed three seats. The more votes the Tories receive, the more likely it is that they will get four seats, with the optimistic believing a fifth seat is within their grasp.

To do that, the total Conservative vote in the region will have to be around the 60% mark, which should be beyond them. My best prediction is the election of four Tories, one Labour, and one Liberal Democrat. The seventh seat could go down to the wire, with a second MEP for either Labour or the Lib Dems, or one for either the UK Independence Party or the Greens.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

“Since Hamas' violent takeover in the summer of 2007, living conditions have worsened for Palestinians in Gaza. By spending its resources on rocket launchers instead of roads and schools, Hamas has demonstrated that it has no intention of serving the Palestinian people” - President George W. Bush, in his weekly radio address.

Rupert Read's campaign video

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