The public is being deliberately deceived about the government’s plan to build a new road bridge over the Firth of Forth to make it an easier sell, according to internal documents obtained by the Sunday Herald.
The £2 billion bridge - by far the largest construction project proposed by ministers - is officially badged as a “Forth replacement crossing”. This is despite the fact that it will not replace, but supplement the existing road bridge at Queensferry as part of a “twin crossing strategy”.
The documents reveal that advisers recommended last year that the name be changed to reflect the real role of the new bridge. But this was rejected by the government’s Transport Scotland to protect “political sensitivities” and to avoid “confusion among the public”.
Outraged opponents of the bridge are this weekend demanding that the Scottish government comes clean, and cancels the scheme. In a letter to the finance minister, John Swinney, last night, the Green MSP, Patrick Harvie, accused Transport Scotland of failing to be honest with the public.
Harvie said: “The problems with the crossing are not simply public relations problems. It is now fatally flawed, and I would urge you to scrap it before more money and effort is wasted.”
The internal documents also expose how opponents are being gagged by depriving them of opportunities to object to the new bridge. Officials are privately worried about a legal challenge being launched by environmentalists and landowners - and they admit that another bridge may not actually reduce congestion.
Three “peer reviews” of the proposed bridge conducted “behind the scenes” in 2007 and 2008 by a panel of independent experts have been released by Transport Scotland. They were requested by the Sunday Herald under freedom of information legislation.
The most recent review, in May 2008, recorded the experts’ view that the project’s name was inaccurate. “The title of Forth 'Replacement' Crossing raises a number of issues regarding the future role of the Forth Road Bridge,” it said. “It may be advantageous to change the name at this stage of the process.”
But Transport Scotland’s response to the recommendation was blunt. “It is not judged propitious to do this at this time given political sensitivities,” officials wrote.
A report prepared around the same time by the transport agency’s communications team with the PR agency, the Big Partnership, recommended that the name should not be changed “for the foreseeable future”.
It said: “Any removal of ‘replacement’ from the project identity at this stage could lead to confusion among the public. This could potentially fuel the debate about the twin operating strategy before we are ready to respond to this in any degree of detail.”
The spin doctors were concerned that “a minority view has started to emerge that the decision to proceed with the replacement crossing was premature.” To counter this it was essential “to place renewed focus on communicating the need for the replacement crossing”.
The new road bridge was endorsed again by ministers last Thursday when they published the National Planning Framework giving the green light to 14 major infrastructure schemes. It was still called the “Replacement Forth Crossing”.
The 2008 review also exposed one of the reasons why ministers have chosen to progress the bridge using a parliamentary bill later this year. Grounds for challenging the bill are “more limited than those for challenging ministerial decisions,” it said.
Another peer review from June 2007 highlighted a "significant risk" that the new crossing would be taken to court by environmental groups or local landowners. It also argued that the "political decision" to end bridge tolls removed “one of the most effective means of managing future demand”.
A third peer review in October 2007 accepted that there were "considerable environmental risks" with the project. It also warned of the "difficult issue, politically and presentationally" posed by the likelihood that there would still be traffic queues when the new crossing opens.
Friends of the Earth Scotland has long argued that proceeding with a new bridge was premature. “Now we learn, not only that official advisers raised similar concerns, but that the reason the project is being pursued with such vigour is that it is really part of a secret 'twin crossing strategy' instead,” said the group’s chief executive, Duncan McLaren.
“This clandestine strategy would be clearly incompatible with the government's climate targets for 2020 agreed last week. A 'repair and regulate' approach with smart tolls would be far better - and much cheaper.”
Transport Scotland denied that the public had been deceived. “The new bridge will be a replacement crossing because it replaces the function of the existing Forth Road Bridge which will then, in turn, be a crossing for public and sustainable transport only,” said a spokesman for the agency.
“One of the key purposes of a peer review is to seek out and highlight potential risks but this does not imply they are actual or current issues.” An announcement is expected in the next few days on the procurement of the main works for the bridge.
This story was mentioned during a debate in the Scottish Parliament here. Scans of the documents released by Transport Scotland can be downloaded here: part one (7.8MB pdf), part two (6.1MB pdf), part three (6.1MB pdf), and part four (5.4MB pdf).