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A bridge too late? Fears new Queensferry Crossing could be delayed

Queensferry Crossing (Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images)
Queensferry Crossing (Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images)

A Sunday Post investigation has exposed potentially-crippling delays to the £1.4 billion project with chiefs admitting work on the towers and vehicle deck are months behind schedule.

The revelations about the biggest-ever construction project in Scottish history come as the country continues to suffer traffic chaos caused by the closure of the current road bridge.

Transport chiefs last night insisted that, despite the delays, the new Queensferry Crossing remained on track to open to traffic by the end of 2016.

But critics said it was time for the Scottish Government to “come clean” on the issue.

Lib Dem leader and Fife MSP Willie Rennie said: “The powerful and concerning evidence unveiled by The Sunday Post raises big questions about the progress of the construction which the SNP Government must answer.

“It is time for them to come clean.”

The Sunday Post trawled through two years of evidence transport chiefs have given to MSPs with responsibility for overseeing the landmark construction project.

We examined what project director David Climie and his officials said about the project’s key milestones in all of their communication with MSPs on the infrastructure committee. We then compared the statements with the reality of where the work was in terms of deadlines.

This revealed targets for completing vital work have repeatedly slipped.

But the official Holyrood report shows the discrepancies were barely picked up on by the committee made up of four SNP MSPs, two Labour members and one Tory.

The worrying disclosure has raised questions about the effectiveness of the Scottish Parliament’s committee system which is supposed to hold the Government to account over major policies and capital projects.

It also follows warnings in the wake of the SNP’s landslide Scottish election win four years ago that the party’s dominance of committees could lead to mistakes being made.

Prof Paul Cairney, of the University of Stirling, said: “The idea is that these committees become specialist and business-like and their members become experts able to hold the Government to account and provide alternative ideas if dissatisfied with the Government’s response. But the reality rarely lives up to the rhetoric.”

Construction of the three huge concrete towers which will support the bridge had already been delayed due to problems with their foundations.

However, transport chiefs told MSPs in February they will be “all be there by summer 2015”.

Then, in June, they said they anticipated the towers “will reach their final height of between 202 and 210 metres in the summer”.

By August, a media tour of the site saw Infrastructure Secretary Keith Brown boast it was now the tallest bridge in the UK.

But the towers were still short of their final height of between 202 and 210 metres.

A press release last week confirmed the towers were now completed.

“Concreting has been completed on the three towers and the towers are at their final heights,” the December 15 statement revealed. The deck section which vehicles will drive over was meant to start in “late spring” but only got under way in September, though Transport Scotland says it is confident it will be completed within the target of one year.

As far back as February its officials said: “Deck lifting for the cable-stayed bridge deck will start in the late spring”. But, by October, it was a completely different tune.

“We had hoped to get going in the summer with the deck lifting,” they said. “But summer didn’t arrive”.

Earlier this month an official update revealed “29.5% of the deck is now in place”.

Meanwhile, the launch of the 6,000 tonne north approach viaduct was described as “quite a technical challenge” by project bosses who told MSPs it would be under way by late summer, before later revising this to autumn, then “late autumn” before last week saying the work was “imminent”.

In September, bosses sounded optimistic regarding work on the viaduct saying, “the north approach viaduct will be launched into its position in late autumn”.

But this position has now been revised, with bosses admitting this month that “final preparations” are only now being made “for the imminent launch of the north viaduct”.

It’s a similar story with the south viaduct.

In spring they said: “The concreting of the south approach viaduct deck will start in late spring and will run through to early 2016.”

But this month they admitted, while the south viaduct is “complete” concreting work is still being carried out, and that is not expected to be finished until “spring/summer 2016”.

Addressing MSPs in September, Mr Climie reflected on how much of the construction operation is affected by the weather, in particular lifting the deck into place.

He said: “Winds of about 30mph are the governing factor in relation to whether we can lift the deck units off the barge and into position.

“Provided that we get what I suppose I would call average weather, I am confident that we are still on track for the end of 2016.”

But speaking the following month, he said: “If we get a really lousy winter then obviously that is going to present a challenge – but we need an average winter to remain on track.”

Our investigator asked Transport Scotland whether, based on the data which is gathered from the crossing’s weather stations, it would categorise the winter to date as an average one.

A spokesman said: “Across the [last] four months we would characterise the wind effects as having been average.

“The Forth Replacement Crossing (FRC) remains on track to open to traffic by the end of 2016. A project on the size and scale of the FRC has a dynamic and wide ranging programme of works and significant physical and human resources are required to deliver it – there are currently over 1,200 people employed on the project and the construction programme has over 20,000 activities.

“The effective and efficient management of the overall project requires a flexible approach to implementing the plan to keep the project on track. While the principles of construction remain the same throughout construction, the order of priorities often change to allow the project to adapt to shifting priorities and resources.

“Our approach is to provide updates on milestones as they happen demonstrating the progress being made to build the new crossing and approach roads. We are transparent about progress on the job and provide regular updates to the Parliament and media, supplemented with a wide ranging outreach programme for local communities, schools and the general public. As well as videos, pictures, facts and project documentation available online across two websites.”

In my view

By Paul Cairney
Professor of Politics and Public Policy at the University of Stirling

“The Scottish parliament’s committees have always suffered from a gap between expectations and reality. When the parliament was introduced, there were high hopes that it would function far more effectively than Westminster.

“The architects of devolution rejected a second chamber in favour of a powerful single chamber with committees at the heart. To make up for the lack of a revising chamber, they front-loaded the legislative scrutiny process, with committees tasked first to consider the principles, then amend, draft bills. They have the ability to hold agenda-setting inquiries, monitor the quality of Scottish Government consultation and initiate legislation. The idea is that they become specialist.

“The reality rarely lives up to the rhetoric.

“The party system still dominates, with MSPs whipped to ensure Government control of parliamentary business.

“The committees are ill-resourced and they struggle to generate the amount of information they need to perform scrutiny well. So, it is no surprise that committees struggle to keep on top of the evidence given to them. They have the ability to do little more than one piece of work before moving on to the next.”

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