Road and rail links between the North East and Scotland are 'vital connections' that should be enhanced, Nicola Sturgeon told the region's business leaders today.
Transport was a key topic of the Scottish First Minister's speech as she addressed the North East England Chamber of Commerce business leaders' lunch, during which she also said that regardless of Scotland's future constitutional status, the 'enduring ties' between the region and Scotland are 'connections that we value very, very highly'.
Speaking at the Hilton in Gateshead, Ms Sturgeon used the opportunity to announce the next stage in plans for reducing train journey times between Scotland and England, confirming that feasibility studies were being commissioned to help improve services between the two countries, rather than 'waiting for high-speed rail to come from the south'.
One of the studies will focus on the East Coast mainline from Dunbar south towards Newcastle with the aim of reducing journey times between Edinburgh and Newcastle by a third, down to just one hour, while there is a long-term goal of a three-hour journey time from central Scotland to London.
But while 15,000 people travel by train between Scotland and the North East each week, more than 50,000 vehicles cross the border every single day and the future of the A1 is a key issue for many on this side of the border, particularly in Northumberland.
Questioned by Alan Ferguson, of Blyth-based Ferguson's Transport, on dualling the A1, Ms Sturgeon said: "I will give an assurance that this is not something we are just talking about, this is something we want to see done. At the risk of stating the obvious, though, that kind of investment from the Scottish Government is only going to have maximum benefit and reach its full potential if it is matched by a commitment on the other side of the border from the UK Government."
So far, £290million of funding has been committed by the UK Government to dual the A1 in Northumberland as far north as Ellingham, but further north to the Scottish Border is only receiving enhancement works to junctions and overtaking lanes. Afterwards, Mr Ferguson described the First Minister's response as a 'political answer', adding that it is encouraging that Ms Sturgeon recognised the importance, but 'we have further work to do to make it happen'.
Earlier in her speech, Ms Sturgeon referenced her family ties to the region - her grandmother came from Ryhope, near Sunderland. "I am just one of many, many Scots who has great affection for the North East of England, not simply because this is a beautiful and welcoming part of these islands, but also because of the enduring ties of family and friendship that we share," she said. "These ties are reflected in the many cultural, educational and economic links that we also share.
"The main message that I want to take the opportunity to put across today is one which would apply regardless what Scotland's constitutional future might be and that is these are connections that we value very, very highly, because we know how much they enrich and enhance the lives of people across Scotland and also the North East, and we want to work with all of you to strengthen and deepen those important bonds."
Giving specific examples, she spoke about the South of Scotland Enterprise Agency, which is being established to focus on the needs of the Scottish Borders and Dumfries and Galloway, and the growth of the Borderlands project, which involves five local authorities, including Northumberland. On the former, she said: "A body like that will inevitably be strongly aware of potential gains for all of us in developing cross-border connections."
Perhaps inevitably, Ms Sturgeon also touched on Brexit in her speech. "I understand and respect the fact that the majority of regions in the North East voted last year to leave the European Union. However, it is clearly essential that even as the UK leaves the EU, we strive to do so in the way that will be least damaging to business interests and interests more generally.
"We have significant concerns, not just about Brexit in principle, but about the process and how that is being taken forward. We think the current approach has the potential, which may quickly turn into the reality, of doing real damage to businesses and others right across the UK."
Responding to a later question, she added that during a meeting with Prime Minister Theresa May next week, she will underline the need to see clarity, at least on the detail of a transition deal, by the end of the year.
Another question came from Newcastle International Airport and tackled the issue of air passenger duty (APD) or air departure tax (ADT), given the Scottish Government's increasing devolved powers, particularly over taxation, which is causing concerns among airports in the rest of the UK over a level playing field.
Returning to another theme of her speech - devolution, Ms Sturgeon replied: "I understand the concerns that are raised in other parts of the UK. I think the solution is not to deprive Scotland of the ability to try to increase our competitiveness, but to give other regions of England the same ability. I would be strongly supportive of any calls for air passenger duty to be devolved to the North East, or Wales."
Concluding her speech, she accepted that there will be times when Scotland and the North East are in competition, but 'I believe, strongly, that there will be many, many more occasions when it makes sense for us to work together and collaborate'. She added: "I look forward to many years of friendships and partnership between Scotland and the North East of England."