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A9 and A96 road improvements needed to make the most of green energy opportunities, says HIE chief executive

An upgrade to the A96 is currently under review.
An upgrade to the A96 is currently under review.

Upgrades to the key A96 and A9 routes are needed to help the north reap benefits from major green energy developments, according to the new chief executive of Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

Stuart Black says parts of the A96 Inverness-Aberdeen road should be upgraded.

He also feels the dualling of the A9 Inverness-Perth route is vital to making the north an “economic powerhouse” in future.

The future of the project to dual the A96 has been put in doubt since the SNP-Greens formed a power-sharing pact last year.

It is now subject to an evidence-based climate review, with the findings not due until the end of this year.

But Mr Black said improvements between Inverness and Elgin, including a Nairn bypass, are particularly needed following the recent ScotWind announcement.

It was revealed last week that 17 offshore wind projects have been offered option agreements for areas of the seabed.

HIE believes offshore wind could have an impact in the region similar to that of oil and gas.

Stuart Black wants to see progress on key road upgrades.

Mr Black said the Highlands and Islands is “front and centre” of opportunities from the developments, with more jobs for areas like Nigg, Invergordon, Ardersier and Kishorn.

He said: “Elements of the A96 are being looked at but I would hope that we make progress in particular parts of the region.

“It will make a big difference to the commuting experience and also for businesses in that Inverness-Elgin corridor which is a potential economic motor for Scotland, particularly if you look at the ScotWind announcement.

“There is potential for jobs at Ardersier and we really need to get the transport infrastructure in and around the Inverness-Elgin corridor sorted out.

Cars are essential in Highlands and Islands

“Importantly, as transport shifts towards low carbon, the issues around pollution from transport decline.

“We have to remember that private cars in the Highlands and Islands are not a ‘nice to have’, they are essential because of the relatively limited public transport.

“If our cars are greener, as they are becoming, then there should be fewer concerns about the environmental impact.

“If we can get the right balance, there is room for environmental improvements alongside new roads.”

A Nairn bypass is included in the transport enhancement programme on the A96.

He said while the A9 upgrade has been challenging for the Scottish Government, it needs to be done as soon as possible.

“We need the main arterial network into the Highlands dual carriageway and to modern standards.

“That’s fundamental to our economy.

“Dualling the A9 will benefit the whole region, not just the Highland mainland.”

Does he expect conflict with environmentalists in pushing for road improvements?

“If the transport improvements are environmentally friendly they are not going to be detrimental to the planet.

Roads are going to be important

“It would be great to have better railways, but a lot of the population lives away from the rail network in our region.

“So roads are still going to be important going forward.”

The Highlands and Islands is well placed to benefit from the 17 locations of the ScotWind lease awards.

He said in the last decade nearly £290 million had been invested in ports and harbours in the region, including £67 million from HIE.

“We have created significant infrastructure in places like Nigg, Invergordon, Scrabster and some island ports.

“All of this activity puts us front and centre of the opportunities.”

The Scottish Government says it remains committed to delivering improvements along the A9 and A96 corridors.

A spokesman said it will take forward an ‘enhancements programme’ to better connect  surrounding towns, tackle congestion and address safety and environmental issues.

Road review is ‘sensible good governance’

“The current plan is to fully dual the A96 route between Inverness and Aberdeen.

“However, we have agreed to conduct a transparent, evidence-based review of the programme which is under way and will report by the end of 2022.

“That is sensible good governance for major investment of that level.

He said work is continuing on the A9.

Dualled stretches have opened between Kincraig and Dalraddy and Luncarty and the Pass of Birnam.

MSP Ariane Burgess.

Preparations for the remaining sections is under way, with the next section between Tomatin and Moy out to procurement.

The construction contract is expected to be awarded later this year.

Highlands and Islands Green MSP Ariane Burgess said:  “Mr Black is right that the ScotWind bids offer huge opportunities across the Highlands and Islands, and we are already seeing infrastructure improvements in the region.

‘We need to reduce traffic’

“But, as laid out in the new vision for transport, we need to reduce traffic, not increase it.

“For example, we will be moving a lot more freight onto rail.

“Mr Black highlights the limited public transport in the Highlands and Islands, which is why improving those services must be the priority, especially because there are many in remote communities who simply cannot afford an electric vehicle.

“It’s time we changed the narrative away from the assumption that the private car is the only way to get about the Highlands and Islands, and built a greener future for all of us.”

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