Scotland’s Finance Secretary has clashed with the Scottish Tory leader after she claimed to have been “completely and intentionally excluded” from talks about investment in cross-border travel projects.
Ms Forbes claimed the Scottish Government ministers had been “cut out” of the UK Government’s Union Connectivity Review that proposes investment in transport infrastructure over the Scottish border.
But Scottish Transport Secretary Michael Matheson reportedly blocked Transport Scotland from engaging with the review, having described it as a “systematic attack on the Scottish Parliament’s powers; a power-grab that fundamentally undermines devolution”.
The claims were denied by the Scotland Office minister, Iain Stewart, who insisted the UK Government had tried to engage with Holyrood over the review – which includes £20 million of funding for cross border transport projects – but insisted they were “rebuffed” by SNP ministers.
Mr Stewart said: “I have to say we have endeavoured to engage Scottish Government at every point of this, and we have met with considerable resistance.”
His comments came after Scottish Conservative leader, Douglas Ross, had pressed Ms Forbes on the issue – with the Scottish Finance Secretary stating: “The Union Connectivity Review was established without any consultation or discussion with Scotland.”
Giving evidence to Westminster’s Scottish Affairs Committee, Ms Forbes contrasted the UK Government’s levelling up programme with the city deals being rolled out across Scotland and in the borders region, suggesting the latter had more “clarity, transparency and mutual respect”.
She said: “I think the city deals are a good example of what I fear is being eroded, and certainly has been eroded over the last year.
“There is a clarity to the city deals, there is a framework to the city deals, and there is a mutual respect within the city deals, which is why I think they have been largely a success to date.”
Ms Forbes added: “City deals have demonstrated an effective way of working because there has been clarity, transparency and mutual respect.
“That is somewhat juxtaposed with the approach that’s being taken now where we are certainly cut out of any of the knowledge about how the processes will work for levelling up or shared prosperity, which I think undermines all of our ability to make wise plans for investment.”
Mr Stewart insisted, however, that “every invitation we have made to the Scottish Government has been rebuffed”.
His comments came as committee chair, Pete Wishart, commented: “There’s huge issues in this. There seems to be massive tensions between the two Governments.”
The Scotland Office minister told him: “I really do think you are overblowing this.”
Mr Stewart added it would be “perfectly proper” for the UK Government to provide cash to councils in Scotland for transport projects as part of the review – even though the issue of transport is devolved to Holyrood.
He said: “There is an appetite there for investment. I think it is perfectly proper that local areas can prioritise what matters most to them, and look at the range of funding streams that are available from many different areas, public and private, about how they can best realise that.”
The minister added: “To regard that as pitching Government against Government I think is completely off beam.
“I think it is perfectly right for a local area to look at all its Governments and say, ‘actually this is what we think can drive forward the development of our area’ and I don’t see any problem with that.”