Queensferry Crossing is a bridge too far for the SNP spin machine

Queensferry Crossing is a bridge too far for the SNP spin machine

by Murdo Fraser
article from Saturday 2, December, 2017

IT WAS all so different back at the beginning of September. On the day of the opening of the new Queensferry Crossing, the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: The Queensferry Crossing is a symbol of a confident, forward-looking Scotland and – as well as providing a vital transport connection for many years to come – it is a truly iconic structure and a feat of modern engineering”.

SNP politicians, and their fellow travellers on social media, joined in the celebration, holding up the new bridge as an indication of the success of an SNP government. “If we could deliver this engineering marvel, what can’t we do?” seemed to be the call, conveniently ignoring the fact that the bridge opening had already been twice delayed.

But the shine has rather come off Nicola Sturgeon’s bright new symbol, and in some fashion. For it emerged on Monday that the Queensferry Crossing would be partially closed for five days to sort out a “workmanship issue” with the road surface at the bridge’s joints. Moreover, it appears that more lane restrictions are likely over the next ten months, meaning yet more commuter frustration.

Not surprisingly, the news was greeted with anger by road users, not least constituents of mine in Fife and further afield who use this vital commuter route on a daily basis. Having endured all the delays in the period of bridge construction (including, notably, the total closure of the Forth Road Bridge for the Christmas period two years ago), and the congestion when the new Queensferry Crossing opened, patience is already in short supply.

Ruth Davidson went on the attack at First Minister’s Questions on Thursday, probing exactly when Ministers were told about this problem, and why they didn’t reveal this to the public. Under the most pressure I can recall seeing her face in the Holyrood Chamber in recent times, the First Minister claimed that all that was happening was “snagging works”, and went on to state, to jeers across the Chamber, “Anyone who has ever moved into a new house knows that snagging is required”.

Now I am sure that Nicola Sturgeon would not need me to tell her that there is a world of difference between the minor snagging works – touching up the paint, and rubbing down woodwork – that might be found in a new build home, and the extensive reconstruction involving road closures that we now face on the Queensferry Crossing. It was put very well by Neil Greig of the Institute of Advanced Motorists, who said that the road surfacing issue was much greater than a snagging issue, but “a real design problem with the protection of the expansion joints that was stopping the road becoming 70mph”. 

When questioned by Ruth Davidson time and time again, Nicola Sturgeon was unable to tell commuters what disruption they were likely to face over the next ten months. So we are still in the dark as to whether there might be further closures as any more “snagging works” emerge.

There is no doubt that this is an issue which has been handled in miserable fashion by the Scottish Government. Transport Scotland officials told a Holyrood Committee on Wednesday that they knew about the need to repair the road surfaces before the Queensferry Crossing opening in September, but decided to defer the works to allow the £1 million opening ceremony to go ahead. 

Surely the sensible decision would have been to get the bridge completed before having the official opening, but this would have meant putting that event back, and the First Minister having to rearrange her day in the sun once more. What it looks like is that officials were put under political pressure to get the bridge open for the end of August, and thus postponed remedying the surface issue so as not to disrupt those plans.

Everyone knows that major civil engineering and construction programmes can run into difficulties and delays. But the issue here is the political capital that the SNP Government tried to make out of the new Queensferry Crossing when it was opened. From the First Minister down, it was held out as a significant achievement of their administration. 

Having taken the plaudits when the bridge opened, the SNP must now own the failures. Nicola Sturgeon’s shiny new symbol has very quickly lost its lustre.

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