Outgoing chamber of commerce boss laments ‘clear failure’ on A9 dualling

Stewart Nicol has campaigned for the dualling of the A9 throughout his 15 years as chief executive of Inverness Chamber of Commerce.

As he now prepares to stand down, he fears his successor could come and go without significant progress on the promised trunk road upgrade.

The Scottish Government is under pressure to fulfil its 2007 pledge to dual the A9 from Perth to Inverness.

However it admitted in February the route would not be dualled by the target date of 2025. A timescale update is not due until autumn.

‘We are not connected’

Highland business leaders again stressed the urgency of upgrading the A9 to the Scottish Government’s Richard Lochhead last month.

Mr Nicol, who leaves the chamber on Friday, said there has been a “clear failure” to deliver the pledge.

“Despite the promises, it remains a major issue. The A96 upgrade was announced at the same time and nothing has happened with that either.

“For me, it’s about the aspiration of Scotland having its cities connected by appropriate infrastructure. The outlier in this is Inverness.

“We are not connected by dual carriageway to the rest of Scotland. You have to drive 100 miles to get to the first bit of continuous dual carriage.”

Stewart Nicol is standing down after 15 years as chief executive of Inverness Chamber of Commerce. Image Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

He said pressure must be maintained on government: “We have to keep campaigning, keep holding politicians to the promises they have made because of the difference it will make.

“It’s about trying to get that commitment we thought we had to get basic bits of infrastructure in place.

“But, as I look to my successor coming in, I have a suspicion that the lobbying will still be being done long after they have gone.”

Critical piece of infrastructure

He added: “The A9 is such a critical piece of infrastructure and I don’t think that is recognised. We have no alternative.

“We have got a phenomenal business community that is innovative, resilient and successful despite rather than because of the transport network.

“It should be an enabler for so much of our economic activity that is currently being hindered.”

Mr Nicol will be succeeded by former Eden Court director Colin Marr.

The outgoing chief exec said despite infrastructure deficiencies, Inverness has achieved a “remarkable” amount in the last 15 years.

The A9 dualling has been delayed

He cites the creation of the Inverness Campus, incuding the recently-opened life sciences innovation centre, the West Link and second canal crossing, the Victorian Market revamp and the multi-million pound castle regeneration.

Inverness is now a Gigabit city and there is the prospect of major job creation projects at the Green Port and Ardersier Port.

The wider Highlands will also benefit from space station, offshore renewables and hydrogen technology.

However, the road and rail networks are lagging behind economic development.

What is needed?

“We punch well above our weight and need to keep doing what we do well and keep the place noticed.

“We just need some of the basics, like good road and rail infrastructure, to be what it should have been far too many decades ago.”

Highland MSP and former finance secretary Kate Forbes highlighted the delays in the A9 project during the SNP leadership debate.

So would progress have been accelerated had she become first minister?

“Inevitably”, says Mr Nicol. “There has to be a recognition as to what a sitting cabinet or first minister can do for their own back yard. But I think the Highlands perspective would have been there.

“However, we’ve got really good MPs and MSPs who work hard for the city and region.”

The life sciences innovation centre was opened in April.

Transport minister Kevin Stewart said the government remains committed to the £3 billion (at 2008 prices) A9 project and has already spent £430 million.

He said progress is being made on a new procurement exercise for the Tomatin to Moy section, which failed to result in an acceptable bid.

Design and procurement work is also progressing on the rest of the programme.

Inverness identity and Academy Street future

As he prepares to depart, Mr Nicol sees Inverness facing something of an identity crisis.

He doesn’t think it makes enough of its connections to the River Ness and Loch Ness. It also needs to use its position at the start and finish of the North Coast 500.

“We have not yet figured out what we want it to look like.

“What’s the overarching vision? What do we want the city to be famous for? I don’t think we are there yet on that.”

An artist impression of the future Academy Street in Inverness.

Highland Council is proposing major changes to Academy Street to make it more attractive for local people and visitors.

Under the proposals, through traffic would be banned and the area made more accessible for walking, cycling and using wheelchairs.

The idea has been welcomed by active travel campaigners, but opposed by many city businesses.

“It needs to be resolved as there are strong competing views”, concedes Mr Nicol.

“Inverness is a small city with limited public transport infrastructure so there has to be a place for the car.

“The railway station desperately needs refurbished, the bus station likewise. We’ve got an opportunity to create a travel centre for the city, but we don’t seem quite capable of making that happen either.

“How do we accommodate those competing demands on the city centre, to get it pedestrianised and ecologically in the right place along with the practical challenges of the reliance on cars?

Time for a city authority?

“It’s a complex difficult challenge and I don’t have the answers.

“It’s a process of collaboration and recognising we have to come up with a solution because it will only mean it keeps getting worse. No one wants that.”

He recently floated the idea that Inverness would be better served as a separate city authority. This was at a time when splitting up Highland Council has been mooted.

“We’ve seen it in Aberdeen with Bob Keiler taking on the role of trying to sort out Union Street. We wish him the best with that one.

“But that (idea of a) strong leader who moves things forward has got merit.

“Bristol transformed itself a few decades back by putting in someone to drive forward an agenda that included giving them funding opportunities and resources to bring about a transformation in the city.

“It’s that kind of thinking that I think is really important. I recognise the position in the Highlands and it’s to be built on and utilised to the full rather than seen as a threat.”

New Inverness Chamber of Commerce CEO Colin Marr
Colin Marr will take up the CEO position from Stewart Nicol

But he said the Academy Street challenge, like others facing the Highlands, will need various bodies working together.

“We have got to be able to sit around a table when we don’t agree or don’t know.

“How can we work this through to get the city to be where it needs to be make it more attractive to live in.?

“How do we get that mix of tourism, that is vital, and commerce, that is also critical, blended together, along with other bits of fundamental infrastructure, and put in place as quickly as possible?

Better collaboration needed

“Something we need to do better is collaboration.

“Winning Green Free Port status meant the private and public sectors collaborating in a way they have never done before to achieve a phenomenal result.

“We have to see that kind of hard work and collaboration in future if the city and region is to strengthen and grow.”

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