CHRISTINE Grahame’s enthusiasm for the £300million Borders Railway project “seems to have slipped over into a blind obsession” that the line should be built at any cost.
That is the accusation levelled this week against the South of Scotland SNP MSP by Dr Gavin Whittaker, chairman of Heriot Community Council, which is fighting a planning bid by the Scottish Government agency Transport Scotland to radically realign the A7 just north of the village.
And Dr Whittaker has also claimed Ms Grahame has shown a “breathtaking lack of courtesy” by issuing a press release – following her meeting last week with Scottish Transport minister Keith Brown – in which she states that forcing a withdrawal of the planning bid “could seriously delay the implementation of the line” and be “a grave mistake”.
Transport Scotland wants Scottish Borders Council, in its role as planning authority, to consent to work which will involve the creation of two raised roundabouts on the former trunk road just north of Falahill Cottages. The route, running east to west between the roundabouts for northbound traffic, will span the new rail track while the existing road to Falahill will become a cul-de-sac.
In support of the bid – submitted to SBC in November – Steve Milligan, Transport Scotland’s project director for the Borders Railway, said the work would “remove the requirement to relocate a major high pressure gas main and the disruption these significant diversionary works would have on A7 users”.
He claimed the proposal was a safer option for motorists with the roundabouts imposing a speed reduction in an area where there had been a number of reported vehicle accidents.
“The proposed development is a significant improvement on the rail and road corridor put forward at the time of the Waverley Railway (Scotland) Act 2006,” added Mr Milligan. However, Dr Whittaker and his community council were among 23 objectors to the plans when the deadline for public responses closed last month. There were four letters of support from residents of Falahill Cottages.
While some objectors believe the work is actually illegal because it involves a 300m rerouting of the rail bed explicit in the Act, the thrust of the dissent is that the road realignment will slow traffic on a busy arterial route and compromise road safety.
“It is going to cause frustration, increase pollution and cost lives: it’s that simple,” said Dr Whittaker, who claimed the road proposal was cost-driven.
TheSouthern understands rerouting the gas main would cost around £4million, making the roadworks a cheaper option and thus more attractive to whichever private consortium is appointed by Transport Scotland to carry out the railway construction: a procurement process due to conclude at the end of this year.
After her meeting with Mr Brown, Ms Grahame issued a press release, headed: “Heriot road realignment proposals should not delay Borders Rail”, in which she stated: “I have urged the minister to make Transport Scotland aware of the concerns local residents in Heriot have about the [A7 realignment] proposals as part of the ongoing work to reinstate the railway to the Borders.
“I believe that thorough robust consideration should be given by SBC to their objections when it comes to consider the application.
“Although I hope a compromise can be reached and perhaps an amendment identified that would satisfy both sides, it would be a grave mistake to force Transport Scotland to completely withdraw the application. That would cause unnecessary delay to the project which I and others have campaigned for 12 years to see reinstated.
“I am pleased that following my discussion with the minister, he will make Transport Scotland directly aware of my concerns, although ultimately this is a matter for SBC to determine.”
Dr Whittaker said he and fellow community councillor Graham Allison had recently met with Ms Grahame to discuss the proposed realignment of the A7 at Falahill.
“At our meeting, we agreed – at her insistence – that the most appropriate way to approach the issue would be for her to put our concerns … to the transport minister directly, quietly and with no fuss or publicity,” said Dr Whittaker. “My colleague and I agreed and kept our part of the bargain.
“It shows a breathtaking lack of courtesy for Ms Grahame to then publish a press release about her meeting with the minister without reporting back to the people she was representing.
“I am dumbfounded that she has chosen to play politics with an important issue, especially after the issues were explained to her. The issue for us is not the Borders railway project; it is an ill-conceived road realignment proposal.
“At our meeting with Ms Grahame, we explained our community’s concerns about the inconvenience, environmental damage and safety of this proposal. She made it clear that she was fully sympathetic with our views, qualified by her not being prepared to let anything delay the railway.
“It seems she really did mean that nothing should delay the railway … what I had previously taken to be her enthusiasm for the rail project seems to have slipped over into a blind obsession that it should be built at any cost – even if ancillary work rides roughshod over the environment, the safety of road users and now, it seems, over the local communities.”
Dr Whittaker said he was most concerned about Ms Grahame’s insistence the planning application should not be withdrawn, but modified with local consultation.
“As an MSP, she knows, or at least should know, that the only way the application could be amended to remove the two roundabouts, which we are all agreed is the problem with the proposal, would be for it to be withdrawn, redrawn and resubmitted. Ideally this would be done through consultation with the Galawater communities … without delaying the Borders railway project. I accept views on this issue vary and my concern is not that our MSP does not necessarily agree with us.
“It appears, though, that it is now the [rail] project that matters and that it must not be delayed for anything – certainly not our community’s needs and certainly not for the users of the A7.”
Responding this week, Ms Grahame told us: “There has clearly been a misunderstanding. I never gave an undertaking I would not raise this publicly. What I did say was I would relay the concerns discreetly to the minister to make him aware of all the issues in this case and that I have done.
“It is no secret that I have campaigned long and hard for this railway which campaigners have waited decades to see reinstated. There may be merit in the objections raised by the community councillors and that is a matter for the planning authorities to consider properly. What I made clear, and this is reflected in the Dr Whittaker’s statement, is that I did not want to see any further unnecessary delay.
“It is wholly inaccurate to claim I do not care about the safety of road users and those who may be near the proposed road layout. Such considerations will be formally dealt with by the planning authority, not by me or indeed Heriot Community Council.”
TheSouthern was unable to obtain a comment from Transport Scotland.
It seems unlikely, however, that Dr Whittaker will get the further consultation which he and his community council craves, a spokesman for SBC confirming yesterday: “We expect the Transport Scotland application to be considered at the next planning meeting on February 14.”