It has become a wearily familiar story for anybody inclined to follow the progress of construction projects in Scotland in recent years.
There will be the initial glossy pictures of the finished hospital, parliament building, tram project or ferry boat with a price tag which seems reasonable. And then, as surely as night follows day, that will be the prelude to myriad delays, glitches, financial hikes and political spats as the cost of the new venture gradually goes through the roof.
It happened during the creation of Holyrood itself and those who lived in Edinburgh while trams were being restored to the capital still occasionally wake up with a shudder at the thought of a grand vision which was blighted by one problem after another.
Renewed frustration over Baird Family Hospital
In the north-east, this month has already brought renewed frustration over the opening of a new maternity hospital and cancer centre in Aberdeen, which have been pushed back yet again, with authorities in the region accused of “badly letting down” patients.
Both the Baird Family Hospital and the Anchor Centre were originally due for completion in 2020, but NHS Grampian has confirmed it still can’t provide dates on when these much-needed facilities will finally be available to the public.
In the Highlands, the vexed question of the dualling of the A9 has sparked internecine warfare in the SNP, with party stalwart Fergus Ewing almost blowing a gasket at repeated failings to fulfil a manifesto pledge on one of the country’s most dangerous roads, which has already claimed too many lives since former First Minister Alex Salmond spoke to the Press & Journal about his ambitions for the road in 2008.
And we haven’t even talked about ferries yet or the lack of them, despite claims and counter-claims over who is responsible for the debacle in the far west of Scotland.
It’s not just happening in Scotland
These issues are by no means restricted to Scotland. The controversial HS2 rail project in England, which has been beset by severe delays and soaring costs, has been branded as “unachievable” by the Conservative government’s own infrastructure watchdog.
Having analysed plans for the construction of the first two phases of the high-speed line, from London to Birmingham and then on to Crewe, the Infrastructure and Projects Authority argued that the project was not deliverable in its current form.
HS2 was initially scheduled to be finished in 2026, but is now forecast to open between 2029 and 2033 because of construction difficulties and eye-watering costs of upwards of £60bn. And it was noticeable when Prime Minister Rishi Sunak visited Scotland recently that he criticised the Scottish Government for its handling of the A9, but was quiet as a Trappist monk about the unfolding rail calamity in his own backyard.
So what is going on? Why are so many of these initiatives not being delivered?
‘Never ending litany of debacles’
Kenny MacAskill, the former Justice Secretary who quit the SNP to join the Alba party, isn’t convinced that matters have gone to hell in a handcart. But, equally, he doesn’t pretend that everything can be blamed on the pandemic or Brexit.
He told the P&J: “It does seem we have a never ending litany of debacles where increased cost and delays are the least of the issues.
“That’s on both sides of the border because, for every Holyrood building, there was a new Wembley Stadium, and for the ferries, there is HS2. It does seem that our Victorian forebearers simply got on with it and delivered infrastructure which has stood the test of time and was delivered on time and within budget.
“Much of the latter wasn’t true though, even if the quality still endures with Victorian schools and hospitals putting modern PFI/PPP buildings in the shade.
A9 delay ‘unacceptable’
“But there’s also evidence of much that is done now which both works and was done as planned. The Queensferry crossing is one such project and you will find similar examples south of the border.
“However, there’s far too much interference or complexity in management. Scotland once built ships that sailed the seven seas and Scots still build ships that others envy.
“But at home, we have flawed designs imposed by a dead hand of a quango in CMAL (Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd) and a Government that seems incapable of doing what’s needed. The sections of the A9 that have been built [only 11 miles with around 77 miles still to be upgraded] are excellent, but it’s the delay which is unacceptable.
“And when we have an energy crisis, but privatise the national grid, what do we expect?
We can build and we do build what is needed. But it’s the vision, the energy and commitment that is currently missing.”
These are difficult times for those tasked with bringing major construction ventures to fruition, but there’s a sense the worsening relationship between Holyrood and Westminster is doing nothing to build anything positive.
Deputy First Minister Shona Robison told the P&J: “The Scottish Government is firmly committed to infrastructure investment as a key factor in securing inclusive economic growth and projects from major road improvements to new health centres are being delivered across Scotland to provide high-quality public services we all rely upon.
A perfect storm of problems
“The challenging economic conditions of the last few years resulting from Brexit, the pandemic and high inflation have led to delays for some infrastructure projects. Labour shortages and supply chain issues in the construction sector are also having an impact as well as UK spending decisions, such as the real-terms fall in the capital grant allocation from the UK Government.
“Looking ahead, we are having to prioritise infrastructure projects and programmes so the capital spending available can be targeted towards supporting employment, helping achieve net zero targets and underpinning high-quality public services in Scotland.”
39 projects have seen costs increase
The organisation National Highways has confirmed that 39 projects in Scotland have seen costs increase and NH is forecasting delays on 33 of them.
A Transport Scotland spokesman said: “The terms and conditions for our major road projects have been used for over 20 years and have provided a high degree of cost certainty at the date of contract award. However, external market conditions have changed with supply chain impacts causing delays and placing pressures on budgets.
“The global pandemic, Brexit, the war in Ukraine and inflationary pressures have all played their part in changing the procurement landscape and presenting challenging conditions for the construction sector.
“Therefore, in order to attract more competition for contracts, we have been considering a range of factors and how those might be changed in future.
“We remain firmly committed to completing the dualling of the A9 between Perth and Inverness. The £3bn investment (at 2008 prices) to dual the A9 between Perth and Inverness is one of the biggest transport infrastructure projects in Scotland’s history.
“We have already invested over £430m with road users benefiting from the dualled sections between Kincraig and Dalraddy and Luncarty and the Pass of Birnam.”
However, there is no prospect of work on the A9 being completed in the next decade with some campaigners fearing the long haul may drag on until 2040 or 2050.
Scottish Conservative MSP Liam Kerr told me: “So many construction projects have become mired in hold-ups and scandal on the SNP’s watch.
“Critical hospitals, schools, roads, a couple of infamous ferries – you name it, it has fallen by the wayside. And they never accept responsibility despite being in charge of the powers and the purse strings.
Promises teetering on brink
“Right now, it’s obvious the Greens are an albatross round the neck of anything getting done by this Scottish Government. Promises about the A9 and A96 teeter on the brink, much like the future of 70,000 oil and gas workers in the north-east.
“But truth be told, the SNP have been the cautionary Jonah tale of Scottish construction for years. Schools overcrowded before they open, bridges that can’t get cold, ferries with painted-on windows, and now hospitals delayed before a brick’s laid.”
A new public consultation on the A9 has been launched at Holyrood. But some people may feel there’s too much talk and not enough action.