Monday, September 05, 2011
A major, mainly self-funding, programme to create new transport links could utterly transform huge tracts of Scotland
Despite finance secretary John Swinney's assurance to Holyrood that a 2km Forth tunnel would cost £6.6 billion (half the cost of the proposed rebuilding of the Panama Canal and about 200 times what an equivalent Norwegian tunnel would be likely to cost), it is possible to build at these prices if we simply do it without spending years on paperwork and lawyers.
We have already done it with the Glendoe Hydro Scheme (£140m), which suggests that the 14km of tunnels must have been cut at about Norwegian prices.
What is needed is simply to hire a tunnel drilling company, possibly a Norwegian one on a fixed-price contract, with the act endorsing it giving the company total freedom to build, with a waiver of any further government or regulatory interference within, say, 500m of the tunnel heads. No involvement needed from Transport Scotland or other Holyrood bodies.
Would it improve Scotland's infrastructure as much as Norway's has been? No. We would gain far more.
However good Norway's roads, the distance from the capital, Oslo, to Tromsø will always be 700 miles, whereas the driving distance from Gourock to Dunoon can be reduced from more than 100 miles to less than two (they do have a ferry but, in another example of Scottish progress, on 30 June it was reduced to passengers only).
The history of human progress is closely related to the history of the reduction in travel times. One thousand years ago the most powerful parts of Scotland were the islands, and roads were little more than cattle tracks. The early Scots kingdom was built around the West Highland's islands and shores.
Thorfin the Mighty, Earl of Orkney, warred on more than equal terms with the King of Scots. Sutherland gained its name because it was to the south of the centre of power.
These small communities could be wealthy because the important lines of transport lay on sea lanes. The sea was a highway not a barrier.
The Highland Clearances happened because the Central Belt had better communications. Time and again development plans for the Highlands and Islands failed because of the expense introduced by poor or non-existent communications. The improvement in tunnelling technology means we can reverse that trend.
Islay (population 2,000) was once the seat of the Lord of the Isles, far more important than the slightly smaller Isle of Man (population 80,000).
Assuming that Northern Ireland, Isle of Man and Orkney (which has an oil fund) would pay for 90 per cent of their connections to Scotland, which would be tunnels going from the south-west of our coast, that leaves us with about 120km, most of them dualled and about the same again in new connecting roads. At £4m per km of tunnel and assuming half that for traditional roads would require a budget of £1bn or less.
Working from formulae used by the Scottish Government to calculate the economic impact of roads being opened or closed, I estimate providing up to ten new routes would be likely to increase Gross National Product by £40bn.
While that estimate looks too good to be true, it is clearly as reliable as other estimates the government bases decisions on - but even if it were out fortyfold, it would still make economic sense.
There are, however, zero-cost options Holyrood could consider:
• The tunnels could be made toll roads, as the Norwegians have done. I think tolls are an inefficient system, though they have the advantage of being transparent. Possibly the civil disobedience of the people of Skye, in objecting to tolls on a bridge, may have scunnered any future use of tolls.
• Land capture tax could be applied, by charging, say, £10,000 on any new-build house beyond a tunnel that has risen in value after the tunnel is completed, and reserve it to the builders. The difference in value between agricultural land and building land is many times that £10,000 per plot.
• A temporary land tax on sales of land made accessible by these tunnels could be introduced. These would be considerably more valuable when they can be reached. A bond issue could then be made with this revenue allocated to paying it off.
• Companies cutting the tunnels and roads could be allowed, as payment, to purchase land beyond the tunnel either from government or compulsorily at fair value; with automatic full planning permission; a waiver on all possible government regulations; and the option on a permanent rates waiver so long as the owner provides all council services. I suggest 1sq km for each kilometre of tunnel cut. This costs us absolutely nothing and could kickstart the building of new communities.
None of these ideas is set in stone, for ground conditions or traffic layout might mean a few should be moved along the coast a few miles.
The Iona link might well be better done by a causeway. I have taken the Arran crossing by the "back door" because it is the shortest way, but a link from Bute or even Ayrshire might, though costing more, provide a better cost-benefit ratio.
I have also made no suggestions for tunnels purely on land, because none of them would have nearly such a spectacular impact as island tunnels. Most Norwegian tunnels are, however, on land and the same potential exists in Scotland. The A90 is a less than straight route because the Grampians get in the way, but they need not be always be so impassable. Technology is progressing, particularly in the strength of materials, so longer, faster and cheaper tunnelling is coming. It is time we gave it full consideration.
• Neil Craig is a policy adviser to ThinkScotland.org