AMID THE CHAOS of the procedural row at Tuesday’s economic development and infrastructure committee meeting at Moray Council, new hope was given to supporters of the highly controversial Elgin Western Link Road.
Despite the estimated cost of the project rising from £9.2million to £11.8million councillors were asked to approve the plan – and did so but only through the casting vote of committee chairman Councillor John Cowe.
Councillors were reminded that construction and property costs and the preparation of a new planning application following the refusal of the original application had contributed to the increase.
The design of the scheme has also undergone a number of changes in consultation with objectors to the original application. Committee chairman, Councillor John Cowe, seconded by Councillor George Alexander, moved that the matter be referred to the full council with a recommendation that the capital plan be adjusted to reflect the revised costs.
Meanwhile Buckie councillor Gordon McDonald, supported by the SNP leader at Moray Council, Gary Coull, said that the entire matter should be held over until more information was available on the Scottish Government proposals for the A96. In the event the vote was tied six-six – leaving Councillor Cowe to use his casting vote.
Last night Councillor Cowe strongly defended his decision to back the road plans, insisting that the additional funding would be “money well spent”. He argued that the Council had done everything possible to meet the concerns of objectors, but that the importance of the road to the future Elgin and wider Moray economy made it “absolutely essential”.
“In the last few weeks there have been a number of added factors emphasising just how important this road is to Moray,” the Heldon & Laich councillor said, adding: “The upgrading of the rail link between Aberdeen and Inverness will see improvements to Elgin and Forres stations – but that means the level crossing at the Wards Road will be closed more often and for much longer periods.
“That alone could cause chaos in the area. Then only last week we heard of the plans for dualling the A96 between Auldearn and Fochabers – some are using that as a reason to hold off on the link road, but quite the opposite should be the case, it should be a driver for us to press ahead as quickly as possible.
“The link road needs to be in place to complement the dualling, it is essential that we have the infrastructure in place that can deal with the massive population increase that is going to happen in the area.
“Moray will reap huge economic benefit from these changes taking place around Elgin but the link road is essential, really essential, to ensuring we are in a position to meet these head-on.”
The move also received immediate approval last night from Labour councillor Sean Morton, who said: “The new Western Link road plan makes sense of Elgin’s ageing infrastructure, updating roads designed for an Elgin that no longer exists and making them fit for the modern day.
“If we will only invest in our own infrastructure like our neighbours to the east and west have done, we will soon see the benefits.
“It might not be popular to say and it might not be good politics but investing now will give us a strong economy that brings goods schools, well-paid jobs and better housing – that’s my ambition. It should be all of our ambitions and we should get on with achieving them.”
However, last night campaigners against the plan hit out at the decision – and indicated that they would canvas support at the Full Council and, should the proposals return to the planning committee, once again offer up their objections.
James MacKessack-Leitch, convener of the Moray Greens, said that he feared that procedural and legal wrangles at Tuesday’s meeting “will only further undermine trust in the Council’s handling of the proposal”.James MacKessack-Leitch – celebrity support – but was it ever a ‘bypass’?
He added: “At one point the legal advice appeared to say that opposing the Western Link Road proposal would be “incompetent”, although that later changed. There was also great confusion over what could be discussed and what couldn’t – and ultimately many of the key questions around the impact of an A96 bypass, recurring future costs and air and noise pollution were either ignored or went unanswered.”
Mr MacKessack-Leitch insisted that referral to Full Council now gives truly independent councillors an opportunity to “really consider if the extra funding this proposal requires is in the best interests of their own wards”.
He said: “I know many people from outwith Elgin will be watching their representatives closely when the decision is taken whether to spend yet more millions in Moray taxpayers cash on yet another exclusively Elgin project.
“There are plenty of alternatives, as the meeting heard of the need for substantial investment in new flood alleviation schemes across Moray, as well as other worthy projects like rationalising waste services and upgrading our harbours.
“We also know Elgin desperately needs two new Primary Schools, and with the budget so tight, I still find it very difficult to believe that an extra mile or so of road in Elgin can be a higher priority than many of these projects with much clearer benefits and need.”
For some 15 years the arguments for and against a Western Link Road in Elgin has divided local communities, brought thousands to the streets in protest and even, as witnessed in the Council Chamber on Tuesday, brought unseemly and wholly unacceptable accusations of duplicity, cheating and even lying.
When officials at a council meeting are brought almost to the point of tears by heated words then it is surely time to step back from the brink and think about the why, who, where and how.
Why are Administration councillors so determined to see the road created despite the fierce community opposition? Many of the answers came from John Cowe during and after Tuesday’s meeting, where he argued, convincingly, that rather than “wait and see” what happens with the A96, Moray needs to act and act quickly to ensure that and other development in, around and through Moray are matched with an infrastructure that meets all our needs for the future.
Who should take the step back – perhaps Councillor Ross, who is a passionate man determined to create a fair society in Moray – but who at times goes a little further than is necessary to couch controversy? Councillors are in the chamber to work together, personalities must be laid to one side or disaster ensues for Moray, so it is not only Councillor Ross who perhaps needs to take that step back but also those who refuse to listen to him because “he is a bit loud”.
Where do we go now? The issue goes before Full Council next month, it may finally die there – or finally move forward. The arguments on both sides have been clear enough for long enough, the time has arrived to put the entire thing to bed one way or another.
How do they make the right decision? Councillors can rarely know if their decisions are the right ones or the wrong ones, but when the heat rises in the manner it has over this issue, they need to put aside their differences and do what is best for the people of Moray, not their own egos.
So I would urge every Councillor to look again, quietly and alone, at all the facts. Then return to the Chamber in November and vote with a clear mind on what is needed for Moray – then, and only then, whatever the decision, it will be the right one.