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Is there an election or something happening?: Director’s Notes for March 2021 newsletter

Published 25 March 2021 by Transform Scotland

In his ‘Director’s Notes’ for the March 2021 newsletter, Transform director Colin Howden attempts to keep up.

Is there an election or something happening?

Holyrood Parliament Debating Chamber by VerseVend on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Yes, the blizzard of announcements over the past few weeks signifies the rush to get things finished up prior to closure of the fifth Session of the Scottish Parliament (which ended its five-year stint on Wednesday), and in anticipation of today’s commencement of the election campaign proper.

I hope you’re all keeping up. I’m not sure I am, but here are some of the more prominent things I’ve spotted.

In the past two days, we’ve seen: the Just Transition Commission publish its final report (calling, amongst other things, for roads spending to be switched to low-carbon communities); Scotland’s Climate Assembly publish its interim report (with overwhelming support for public transport); an impressive discussion paper from SPT on the future of public transport in Strathclyde; The Poverty Alliance launch its ‘Everyone Aboard’ campaign; the Parliament’s ECCLR and REC committees publish their ‘legacy reports’, calling for greater scrutiny of climate and transport, respectively, in the next Parliament; and the Scottish Government effectively rejecting all of the 166 recommendations on the Climate Change Plan that the Parliament had prepared (meaning that I really shouldn’t have bothered getting out of bed to give evidence to the Parliament). I’m sure I’ll have missed some other things that came out on Tuesday or Wednesday, but you get the picture.

Heading back to the far-distant past (Monday), this saw one of the more hopeful events of recent weeks: the announcement of £40.5m government cash, with £80m matching contributions from bus operators, for 215 new electric buses. This really is a change of tune from little over a year ago when the message we were getting from government was that this really wasn’t much of a priority. Had COP26 been held in its original date of November 2020 then we doubt that there would have been many electric buses on Glasgow’s roads; with this announcement, a significant chunk of Glasgow’s bus fleet will be electrified, and confidence in Scotland’s bus manufacturing capacity in Falkirk restored. Add in the Greens securing a Scottish Budget commitment to free bus travel for the under-22s (presuming that this has been adequately funded). Now we just need to see some of the long-promised £500m Bus Partnership Fund cash start being invested in bus priority, and for Transport Scotland to stop prevaricating on ‘Managed Motorways’ on the Glasgow motorway network, and we might begin to be getting somewhere on bus policy.

Of course, £40m is an entirely modest amount compared to the funds that Scottish Ministers continue to pour into new road capacity. It equates to only two miles of A9 dualling. And way less than 1% of the overall cost of the A9 & A96 projects.

We have more sympathy for the Scottish Ministers when it decided to take forward the A83 ‘Rest and Be Thankful bypass’ as an “emergency project”. However, shouldn’t the Climate Emergency dictate that the increased prioritisation of one road project bring about the de-prioritisation of others? We already know that the Ministers’ capital expenditure priorities for transport are horribly skewed towards high-carbon infrastructure, and while this project may have more merit than some of the other roads projects, all other things being equal, its new-found “emergency” status will see the Government’s capex skew become even more inconsistent with climate imperatives. At least the Minister has selected what seems to be one of the more proportionate of the options, in preference to some of the frankly deranged options set out by Transport Scotland in its initial consultation. (Or was this just another manifestation of the hoary old road-builders’ tactic of setting out a range of very-bad options in the knowledge that one of the less-bad ones will end up getting chosen?)

Less predictable was last week’s Ministerial announcement that ScotRail will move to state ownership in spring 2022. The right-wing tabloids frothed that this meant we were ‘back to the 1970s’ while trade unions and various left-leaning NGOs reacted as if Scotland’s railways will now move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. Frankly, we can’t get as agitated about this as many others choose to do. The fact is that we’ll have the same infrastructure, the same stations, the same rolling stock, the same staff, the same labour relations, and, very probably, most or all of the same management. Whether it be owned by capitalists or communists, it is difficult to see transformative change on the Scottish railway until there is transformative investment in the aged infrastructure (of the like that Scottish Ministers are instead making to the trunk road network), and it is difficult to see that transformative investment come about while the cost base of the railway remains so prohibitively high. Will state ownership change this? Perhaps. But also remember that it was private capital that led to the construction and development of Britain’s railways in the C19th and early C20th, and the UK state that ran down British Rail in the latter part of the C20th, so who knows how this will play out. Certainly, Ministers will have no-one to blame but themselves if and when expectations are not met, and here they have made a rod for their own backs. But Ministers will also now have to deal directly with the same rail unions who have chosen to pursue strike action during a global health pandemic which has led to the decimation of rail patronage. All this said, state ownership of the railways remains an undeniably popular move. And we certainly won’t be shy of setting out our own expectations of what government must do to make this ‘new ScotRail’ work.

So: some good stuff, some bad, some indifferent — but definitely at least some good news on the Scottish transport front.

Then comes UK transport policy. All bad.

The initial report of the Union Connectivity Review, published a fortnight ago, isn’t particularly awful in itself once one actually has a look through it. But the messaging from the UK Government around it was just horrible. It perpetuated the stupidity of an Irish Sea fixed link despite the lack of travel demand for such infrastructure. It called for new road-building in Scotland (A75 dualling) despite this not being within its powers. And it reopened the idea of cutting Air Passenger Duty, despite aviation being one of the most lightly-taxed transport sectors, and the one with the greatest relative climate impact.

The previous week’s UK Budget saw the freezing of fuel duty for the eleventh successive year, meaning a further cut in motoring costs in real terms.

Entirely absent was any discussion of replacement fiscal measures for fuel duty, the revenues from which will collapse in value as electric vehicles replace fossil fuel-powered vehicles. The Westminster transport committee is studying this matter (our evidence to the committee calls for a road pricing system which covers electric vehicles) but HM Treasury chose to remain silent.

And that freezing of fuel duty came days after the announcement that rail fares in England & Wales would increase by more than inflation.

So, in summary, the key headlines from UK Government transport policy over the past month have been: cut car costs, cut aviation tax, increase rail fares, and hype-up new high-carbon transport infrastructure that’ll almost certainly never get built. And yet this is an administration that has been trusted with hosting an international climate summit, in little over six months’ time, that is charged with securing habitable conditions for human life on Planet Earth. One would laugh if it wasn’t just so terrifying.

Our condolences to the colleagues, friends and family of Ian Findlay.

Finally, I would like to pay tribute to the life of Ian Findlay, Chief Officer at Paths for All, who so unexpectedly died earlier this month. It may seem incongruous to record this at the end of an article commenting on national transport politics, but, having worked with Ian on numerous campaigns over the past decade, I am confident that he would have appreciated my commentary here! Ian could have led Paths for All into a very comfortable position, concentrating narrowly on walking-related project work. But instead he was fearless in signing his organisation up to some quite radical messages on broader transport policy. It’s only a few short months since Ian lent his own name, and that of Paths for All, to a call for Scottish Ministers to fundamentally reassess their transport spending priorities in line with climate imperatives. We hope that his successor at Paths for All, whosoever that may be, will continue this wider perspective. There are far too many tame NGOs out there, who run for cover at the first hint of political disagreement; instead, Ian provided an exemplar of how to balance running a widely-respected organisation while maintaining political coherence. He will be much missed. Our condolences go to his colleagues, friends and family from all at Transform Scotland.

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