Taking the high road
The completion of the M74 is an opportunity to kick start wider economic regeneration, writes TOM GREATREX
The dubious distinction of being the second most expensive piece of road constructed in the UK (after the notorious Limehouse Link in evil London, in case you are interested) will fall this morning to the five mile stretch of the M74 from Cambuslang into central Glasgow, linking to the M8.
When the Duke of Gloucester (no, I was not sure either – cousin of the Queen, grandson of George V and interested in architecture) opens the so-called missing link, it will have cost £75,000 a yard, or £131m a mile, to plan, construct and finish.
Is this the type of infrastructure project that in these straitened times will never be seen again ? I hope not, and I hope that when he displays his joyous coupon to a grateful public tomorrow SNP Minister Alex Neil will also say not. That this short stretch of road cost so much is less of a surprise when you consider it is largely built raised above ground level because of the severe level of contamination of much of the land it arches over. It also took years to come to fruition – the then Labour-led administration’s decision to give the go-ahead in 2005 following many decades of indecision, procrastination and loss of impetus.
Scottish Ministers will, of course, trumpet its completion ahead of schedule and under budget as good news. It would have been better news for me if it had been opened a couple of weeks earlier, making easier my weekend trips to Inverclyde to which I am growing accustomed. While it won’t help Alex Neil much with his journey from home in Ayr to his constituency in Airdrie, it will be a definite achievement for Holyrood and its frequently beleaguered agency, Transport Scotland. Those who argue it will only encourage traffic, that it is actually years behind schedule and well over original cost when land purchases are factored in also miss the wider significance of completing this road for the area.
The go ahead for the completion of the M74, despite the myriad of legal and logistical challenges, also means the regeneration of an area to the south east of Glasgow that has needed attention for far too long. The M74 extension and the Commonwealth Games preparations have meant, for much of the last couple of years, that the journey by road from, for example, Cambuslang to Greenock via Glasgow has been subject to delay and diversion. That is partly because those projects together have also been the impetus for the regeneration on both sides of the river of the area given the moniker Clyde Gateway. Contaminated land, long abandoned industrial premises and poor roads will give way to new workplaces and amenities, the new HQ of Strathclyde Police, and the first permanent cinema in Rutherglen for decades.
Clyde Gateway is an example of urban regeneration that has kept the focus of what people need and has pulled together both South Lanarkshire and Glasgow councils, as well as Scottish Enterprise and Holyrood, to push lasting improvement to an area that has needed it for many years.
Collaborative engagement and community-led approaches are the type of awful self-justifying yet vague terms I used to get sick of when I worked in local government in Scotland. Clyde Gateway, though, has demonstrated even the most irritating phraseology can sometimes be rendered meaningful. That would not have begun to happen without the M74 project – a point that no doubt the Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure and Capital Investment would see fit to make.
Except that last year, Scottish Enterprise cut the long term investment in urban regeneration projects, including Clyde Gateway and Riverside Inverclyde. The then Communities Minister, with urban regeneration one of his responsibilities, endorsed that position, as did his party in a subsequent Holyrood vote. As, incidentally, did the nationalist candidate in the Inverclyde by-election – although she was then concentrating on being a Glasgow list MSP.
While his post promotion job title may have got more Kafkaesque, Alex Neil is not a fool. He knows the relationship between infrastructure, employment and regeneration – opening up the Isle of Dogs to regeneration is part of the reason the Limehouse Link is not necessarily quite as pricey as the bald construction figures suggest. To finally finish the M74 is to be applauded, to do so while missing the chance to reinvigorate an area would be a missed opportunity. Alex Neil doesn’t often miss opportunities – I hope he does not start with this one. The one after, I am fine with.
Tom Greatrex is the Labour MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West and Shadow Scotland Office minister. Follow him on Twitter at @TomGreatrexMP.