No fuss, no fanfare. Without a tweet or a peep from the press, an invisible shift in the Scottish landscape took place in the early hours of this morning.
Indeed the earth will not have moved for many – if any – of the motorists criss-crossing the Forth at all hours of day and night. On journeys north and south, we can see that proud new landmark growing daily as the Queensferry Crossing begins to tower above the water. But who notices the change that has moved management and maintenance of both old and new Forth road bridges from public ownership to private contractors?
For some reason I feel compelled to mark the passing of FETA, the Forth Estuary Transport Authority, which was silently dissolved in the early hours of this morning. Like many millions of others, I’ve been crossing the bridge in all weathers thanks to the diligent work of mostly unseen men and women. Bridges matter. Beautiful in their architectural, often sculptural, spanning of rivers and ravines they are among the most symbolic feats of human engineering. I don’t think it is being melodromatic to say that the way they are managed symbolises the world we live in too.
There’s history, economics and probably more than a little politics in the new regime. Since 2001 the Forth Road Bridge has been the responsibility of FETA a publicly owned consortium of three local authorities: City of Edinburgh, Fife and Perth and Kinross. It was an unusual way of running a company and they were generally regarded as doing a good job.
But just after midnight on 1 June 2015, FETA was dissolved, as decreed by the Forth Road Bridge Act 2013 ‘to pave the way for the most cost-effective and co-ordinated approach… ‘
The councils are not over-happy, since it represents another loss of local accountability and control to the central government, following the much larger losses of influence over the police and fire services, both of which are now centralised. But they don’t have much choice. The old existing bridge represents a liability they cannot afford without Scottish Government funding (remember, council tax has been frozen for seven years). David Hume Inst
Under the 200th Act of the Scottish Parliament, both bridges now officially belong to the Scottish Government but the contract for their maintenance has been transferred to Amey, plc of Oxford. The company – which now has responsibility for ‘every single vehicle crossing of the Forth river’ – is a subsidiary of Grupo Ferrovial SA of Madrid, the Spanish conglomerate that owns both Glasgow and Aberdeen airports.
Amey now manages and maintains every single vehicle crossing of the Forth river, including the Kincardine and Clackmannanshire bridges that we look after as part of our Scottish Trunk Roads South East contract. And, indeed, through our examinations contract with Network Rail we also inspect and report on the asset condition of the world-famous Forth Rail Bridge. Amey plc
Since this morning Amey also employ the 70 or so men and women transferred from FETA. All part of a five year contract worth £40-£60 million, which could be extended to ten years. But that is just a small detail in a much bigger picture, revealed by George Rosie in A Bridge Too Far. His rigorously researched article in the latest issue of the Scottish Review of Books provides astonishing insight into the making of the £1.6 billion Queensferry Crossing.
Amey is just one of an extraordinary conglomeration of international companies who have been awarded contracts for the construction, materials and maintenance of the new bridge. “The harder I looked,” writes Rosie, “the worse it got.”
The army of consultants, sub-consultants, contractors, sub-contractors and big-time suppliers erecting the bridge and building the approach roads are a multinational bunch. All the companies that matter, the ones that make the big decisions, hail from Spain, the USA, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Denmark and England. Plainly, the industrial culture that produced the likes of John Rennie, Thomas Telford and Sir William Arrol is not what it was.
There is both pathos and politics here for a country which seeks to stride the global stage. The new bridge is, as First Minister Nicola Sturgeon acknowledged in her recent talk to the David Hume Institute, the biggest physical symbol of the SNP Government’s second term in power. When it opens next year – with due fuss and fanfare – motorists using the handsome new Queensferry Crossing will be able to admire the historic elegance and strength of the two older bridges built with British and largely Scottish skills and steel. Made from (Scottish) girders.
In contrast, the new construction is, as Rosie succinctly puts it: “no triumph of Scottish engineering” and it is made from materials shipped across the world. Is all of this inevitable for a small country facing the reality of global competition? Rosie is not convinced:
Be that as it may, there is not a Scottish-owned construction firm big enough to tender. We cannot just lay the problem at the door of the EU or console ourselves with the fact that Scotland is a small country with a small population. So is Denmark and there are no fewer than five Danish or Danish-owned consultancies involved in the Queensferry Crossing.
For me, there is one final poignant thought. When the new bridge opens that will be the route for all motorists crossing the Forth. The compensation: we will have a fine view of the old suspension bridge. A monument to British/Scottish engineering – and public ownership.