Transform director, Colin Howden reports on what we can expect to see in Scotland’s transport sector in the year ahead.
2022 was a tumultuous year for Scottish transport, with the cost-of-living crisis and widespread industrial unrest compounding problems generated by Brexit and Covid, and with the impacts of the climate crisis becoming ever more evident.
At the start of this new year, it would be great to tell the world that everything will be okay. But significant change will take some decisive action, not just by governments, local and national, but by all those involved in delivering sustainable transport.
Decisions needed on financing transport
An early focus this year will be the completion of the Scottish Budget process. The SNP and Greens have a majority in the Parliament, so it’s unlikely that the final version will differ significantly from that published in mid-December.
The Budget was a bit of a non-event for transport, with the only significant new commitment being a six-month trial removal of peak hour rail fares as an early output from the ongoing ‘Fair Fares Review’. While anything to reduce public transport fares is obviously welcome, this was a rather modest response to cost-of-living pressures on passengers, as it does nothing to help bus users, who have suffered the highest fare increases in recent years and tend to be lower socio-economic groups.
Encouragingly, the Scottish Government did show a willingness to use its fiscal powers, with the increased income tax on high earners earmarked for spending on the NHS. But other areas of public policy also require investment, and in transport there are existing powers – not least road user charging and workplace parking levy powers, but also the opportunity to increase air passenger duty in order to tackle emissions from the most polluting form of transport. These can and should be used to both cut climate emissions from transport while opening up new revenue for transport investment.
Much faster progress needed on delivering existing commitments
Perhaps some light can be found in the knowledge that the government’s plans for transport have been clarified by the completion of its long-term investment priorities (STPR2) and the new National Planning Framework (NPF4), building upon the previous year’s National Transport Strategy (NTS2) and Climate Change Plan.
So with all of these in place, there must be less procrastination and more decisive action in delivering the sustainable transport commitments that these policies lay out.
December’s Budget did show movement towards meeting the active travel spending commitment made in the Bute House Agreement between the SNP & the Greens. The commitment here is that £320m (or 10%) of government spending go into walking, wheeling and cycling by the 2024/25 budget year. According to calculations by Spokes, the draft Budget for 2023/24 provides 5.3% of spending. So there’s a long way to go to meet next year’s target. Nevertheless, this is a significant increase in funding, and we look forward to seeing the fruit of this investment: safe pavements, protected cycle paths & car-free city centres.
One of the more hopeful areas may be in bus decarbonisation, a process that will lead to all of Scotland’s bus fleets becoming zero-emission. Research we published in September showed that 16% of Scotland’s bus fleet should be electric or hydrogen by the end of this year. Now while this is a long way behind the SNP’s 2021 commitment that we reach 50% by the end of the year, this actually represents a pretty swift movement from a standing start, and efforts need to be redoubled here in 2023.
Progress has been much slower in other areas of bus policy, with only 5% of the £500m Bus Partnership Fund promised in September 2019 actually spent in the subsequent three years on bus priority. So while this requires concerted local authority action, the stasis is also evident at the national level, with Transport Scotland, three years on, still having failed to take any action to deliver bus priority on the Glasgow motorway network.
But while bus policy seems challenging, the problems facing rail and ferry appear even more deep set. The fundamental problems here can primarily be sourced at decades of under-funding for infrastructure, whether it be the Victorian-era railway that characterises most of the network north of the Central Belt, or the aged vessel fleet which has been trusted to provide Scotland’s ferry services. The 2035 date for decarbonising the Scottish rail network is challenging, and plans are still being forged. Given the ongoing debacle around the ferries that Ferguson Marine were meant to be providing to enhance CalMac’s fleet, it’s anyone’s guess when we can look forward to a modern, low-emission ferry fleet.
And the Government needs to stop making things worse
But beyond delivering on the decarbonisation agenda, government also needs to stop those counter-productive activities which only lead to more emissions – whether that be consenting additional traffic-generating sprawl, handing out tax cuts to aviation, or building new roads.
December saw the publication of the UK Climate Change Committee’s commentary on the Scottish Government’s climate targets, finding these to be without clear delivery plans. We were pleased to see the UKCCC conclude that the Government’s plans for “delivering a 20% reduction [in traffic] is likely to require both measures that support and improve alternatives to car travel and interventions that discourage car use”, and that postponement of action on demand management until 2025 will further diminish prospects for delivery. (Indeed, we had said much the same in our own response to the Government eight months previously.)
But despite the UKCCC’s rather belated recognition that good targets are not the same things as deliverable plans, it still holds to the daft proposition that the Scottish Government’s multi-billion road-building programme is consistent with a credible approach to carbon emission reduction. Now even if one assumes that the £6 billion due to be spent on dualling the A9 and A96 will create no additional carbon emissions – and that is clearly disputed – that is still £6 billion being spent on new roads is money that isn’t going to be spent on sustainable transport.
A clear decision point in the coming months will clarify whether the SNP/Green government are actually committed to decisive climate action – and that is whether the Government will continue with its plan for full dualling of the A96 at a cost of £3 billion. The report squeezed out just before Christmas made no decisions here, punting that into this spring, but it did contain the interesting conclusion that less than half of respondents to Transport Scotland’s road-based consultation process favoured full dualling of the road.
The Scottish Government here has the opportunity to make a transformational change in Scottish transport by significantly scaling back the plans for the A96 and instead using the funds released for tackling the interlocking cost-of-living and climate crises.
Lots to do!
So it’s looking like another busy year. Who knows where we will be at the end of the year. But let’s hope we’re at least not having to bemoan a fourth year of inaction by Transport Scotland on bus priority; let’s hope that Scottish Ministers finally find the backbone to stand up to roads lobby demands; and let’s hope that there’s clarity on the funding, processes and governance that will deliver the zero-carbon investment that is needed for Scotland’s transport networks.