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Building back better?: Scotland’s capital expenditure priorities

Published 26 November 2020 by Transform Scotland

Transform director Colin Howden writes about the capital expenditure choices faced by national and local governments.

The next few months promise to be a busy period for decision-making on infrastructure investment, with a multitude of overlapping processes underway. But it remains an open question as to whether governments, central and local, will live up to the ‘Building Back Better’ and ‘Green Recovery’ slogans.

Whether one is looking for pavements to be fixed, cycle lanes built, or public transport services improved, it seems that future months could well be critical. It’s clear that the economic stimulus of increased infrastructure investment will be pursued in order to return economies to growth. But what isn’t clear is whether, in the area of transport, that new investment will be directed to the sorts of ‘Green Recovery’ measures that we’ve been demanding, or whether dirty transport continues to receive priority.

The good news is that most of the advice that governments are receiving has been emphasising this. The Infrastructure Commission for Scotland has made strong recommendations on demand management amongst other things; the Just Transition Commission highlighted the need for investment in bus services; while the UK Climate Change Commission has set out strong high-level principles for ‘Green Recovery’.

The concern is that the Scottish Government has failed its first test in responding to the advice it has received. Its Infrastructure Investment Plan, published back in September, is front-loaded with a bright green sheen of environmental responsibility, promising that future investment will follow sustainable patterns. But the problem is that climate change priorities demand that it is now — not some vague point somewhere off in the future — that decisions need to be made on infrastructure investment.

Tragically, the current version of the Plan retains all of the dirty transport commitments built up over the past decade while setting out no new investment in sustainable transport infrastructure. The Plan unambiguously and overwhelmingly favours high-carbon transport, not zero-carbon. It was this factor that led us, in tandem with Paths for All, RSPB Scotland, Sustrans Scotland, and WWF Scotland to call for a review of the Government’s existing high-carbon investment bias.

The house is on fire, but there’s still no sense of panic here *

In 2019, the First Minister showed leadership in cancelling her party’s foolhardy promise to abolish Air Passenger Duty. This was carried out as a laudable expression of the Scottish Government’s commitment to action on the newly-proclaimed Climate Emergency. (It also didn’t hurt that the decision saved £300m per year.) Now we will see whether it is prepared to take action on its irresponsible road spending commitments. While the UK Government is increasingly being brought under scrutiny for its £27 billion road-building programme, our own government has road spending plans that are vastly more expensive per capita than anything seen in England. And, of course, we will not be shy of pointing this out to in the run-up to COP26 in a period where increased focus will be brought to Scotland’s performance on climate policy.

The next test for the Government will be the revised Climate Change Plan, which is expected imminently, and is due for Parliamentary scrutiny in early 2021. Action by successive Scottish administrations has led to transport becoming the largest source of emissions; this is not a passive, accidental occurrence — it is the deliberate result of decades of Scottish Ministers deciding to prioritise spending on dirty transport and failing to take action to prioritise investment in walking, cycling and public transport. So we look forward to see whether the new climate plan sets out clear and unambiguous commitments to decarbonising our public transport networks, investing heavily in walking and cycling, and implementing road traffic demand management measures. Anything short of this will represent continued failure by Transport Scotland and the Scottish Ministers to tackle the fire that itself set.

And after that, we wait to see the products of the Strategic Transport Projects Review. The first review, away back in 2008, was disastrous on climate and justice grounds, taking a narrow focus on mega-projects. This time the mood music being played by Transport Scotland is that sustainable transport, demand management, and learning lessons from the spring lockdown will be to the fore. But of course, this is a review being led by an organisation, Transport Scotland, whose appetite for road-building remains undiminished. Its modelling conveniently, and archaically, assumes never-ending road traffic growth. Despite its protestations to the contrary, ‘predict and provide’ demonstrably remains its founding principle. It is an organisation which appears to us to be entirely unsuited to the task of ‘Green Recovery’ and the Climate Emergency.

Boris building bridges in Scotland?

An emerging dimension to the discussion over capital expenditure is the apparent desire by the UK Government to invest directly in the devolved administrations. This has been characterised in Scotland as a “power grab” and a threat to devolution. The UK Government, for its part, has framed this as ‘rebuilding trust in the Union’. Whichever it is, it was openly flagged in yesterday’s ‘National Infrastructure Strategy’ document. It will be fascinating to see how this plays out. While the UK Government has been promoting the idea of an Irish Sea Bridge (which, funnily enough, we’re not that keen on), it has been entertaining to see the Scottish Ministers who demonstrate a spendthrift approach when it comes to domestic road-building challenge Boris’s bridge on the grounds of affordability and opportunity cost.

Given the Scottish Government’s high-carbon transport plans, and the UK Government starting to make promises about a comprehensive reversal in Scotland of the 1960s Beeching Axe, could it even be the case that the Westminster government investing in Scotland could even lead to a rebalancing of transport capital investment back towards sustainable transport? Again, we’ll have to see how this plays out. However, this week’s evidence hasn’t been a great start. While last week’s ‘green’ Ten Point Plan committed to 4000 British-built zero-emission buses across the UK, this week’s National Investment Strategy promised only 500 zero-emission buses in 2021/22. There are several thousand buses on the roads of Scotland alone, and hence tens of thousands across the UK — so at this rate one would expect it to take the best part of the next century to get Britain to a zero carbon bus network. This is also not the strategy of a government that is meant to be taking a world leading role on climate negotiations within the next 12 months.

Building back better, or pouring more oil on the fire?

It’s going to be a busy 12 months. We are now less than six months out from the May 2021 Scottish Parliament elections and under a year until COP26 in Glasgow. In domestic policy terms, the next Scottish Budget and Capital Spending Review, the Climate Change Plan, the Infrastructure Investment Plan, and the results of STPR2 will determine whether governments, national and local, will indeed pursue a course of ‘building back better’, or continue the priority for dirty transport which remains at the heart of most existing investment plans.

 

* “I don’t want your hope, I want you to panic”, Greta Thunberg at Davos in January 2019.