`Vital' new Forth road bridge faces public inquiry

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The Independent Online
The Government reaffirmed its support for a second road bridge across the Firth of Forth yesterday as ministers announced a public inquiry into the £300m project.

Ian Lang, the Secretary of State for Scotland, said a new road link between Edinburgh and Fife would be needed by 2005 to cope with projected increases in traffic. But he said he had ordered a statutory inquiry "to air all the arguments" before a decision was made.

The Government's plans for a new crossing to be built alongside the existing road and rail bridges spanning the Forth estuary near South Queensferry have provoked strong opposition from environmentalists and local councillors, including some Conservatives. Objectors argue that with less than 20 per cent of travellers using the rail bridge, the Government should invest in public transport, cutting pollution and reducing congestion on the roads.

Ministers, including Mr Lang, counter that projected increases of up to 50 per cent in road traffic in the next decade make a new toll bridge vital. Labour councillors in Fife argue that the biggest privately funded infrastructure project since the Channel Tunnel could attract badly needed new investment to the area following the Government's decision to scale down operations at the Rosyth naval dockyard. Fife already has the highest unemployment rate in mainland Scotland.

Mr Lang had been expected to give the go-ahead last month. He denied yesterday that opposition from organisations including the National Trust for Scotland and Scottish National Heritage had forced the Scottish Office to delay approval. Neither had the decision been influenced by last month's publication of a report that new roads generate more traffic. Ministers had simply decided "to reorder the process" by holding the public inquiry before inviting tenders from contractors, he said.

The hearings, to be conducted by the Scottish Office, are unlikely to start until next year. The inquiry could last up to a year, with a decision after the next general election.