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Climate Emergency must frame new Ministerial team’s priorities for transport

Published 21 May 2021 by Transform Scotland

Transform director Colin Howden reflects on the aftermath of the 2021 Scottish Parliament election, and considers some priorities for the new Ministerial team to prioritise.

So after all that, it’s basically no change at Holyrood. Another minority SNP administration, the Tories still beating out Labour into second, and the Greens pulling further away from the Lib Dems as the fourth largest party. However, the challenges in delivering sustainable transport also remain the same, so it’s time to get back to work.

Alison Johnstone used her appointment as the Parliament’s new Presiding Officer to stress the need for the Parliament to focus on tackling the Climate Emergency, and this will certainly frame our work over the course of this Session of Parliament. We’ve worked closely with Alison on a number of initiatives over the years, and I’m sure she’ll do a great job of directing the Parliament’s business in this Session.

We’re pleased also to see where transport has been placed within Ministerial responsibilities. The grouping of climate, energy and transport is helpful. Transport is the largest source of climate emissions, and an area where there has been no progress since 1990, so decarbonising transport is essential for hitting Scotland’s climate targets. And one of the key tasks in decarbonising motorised transport — including delivering all the electric buses and trains that will be required — is ensuring that the country’s electricity generation and supply systems are sufficiently well set up to meet this demand.

The cabinet secretary appointed to this role (styled as ‘Net Zero, Energy and Transport’) is Michael Matheson. He will be familiar to you all as he held the post of Cab Sec for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity prior to the election. His post now includes the climate policy brief previously handled by Roseanna Cunningham. We hosted Mr Matheson just four weeks ago during our ‘Moving The Vote’ election event, and while we might not agree with all of the positions that he took during the event, I think it’s fair to say that those Transform members present were generally very pleased with his openness to discussing some fairly difficult topics. Helpfully, he did indicate that the days of major road-building will be coming to a close — something that is horribly overdue in our view — and we will certainly be holding him to that commitment.

The new government also sees a junior minister appointed with sole responsibility for transport. Appointed to the role of ‘Minister for Transport’ is Graeme Dey, MSP for Angus South. Transport is a large brief in itself, representing the six largest area of Scottish Government spend, so it is not surprising that the First Minister has decided to provide additional ministerial resources in this area. We will have to wait to see how the specific division of responsibility between Mr Matheson and Mr Dey plays out.

Even with two ministers, they have a lot to tackle. The decision to take the ScotRail franchise into state ownership transfers final responsibility from the franchisee (Abellio) to the Ministers themselves. No longer will the government be able to offshore blame for any operational difficulties to a third-party. The prospects for recovery in rail patronage are currently being hampered by the decision by rail unions to take strike action for increased pay. Upon the cessation of the franchise, it’ll be Mr Matheson & Mr Dey who will have to take the responsibility of dealing with any industrial unrest.

The new ministerial team will also have ultimate responsibility for tackling the reliability issues with ferry services that has drawn so much media attention in recent weeks, and the longer-standing issues with delivering new low-carbon ferries. Of course, the ability of ScotRail and CalMac to successfully deliver public transport services is compromised by the historic failure to made adequate investment in the underlying infrastructure, be that railway tracks or ports & vessels. Our analysis of the Government’s Infrastructure Investment Plan demonstrated that this failure to tackle the infrastructure deficit continues today, with the Ministers, despite the climate rhetoric, continuing to prioritise investment in new road capacity over sustainable transport investment.

While rail and ferry will have an important role in delivering transport decarbonisation, most transport emissions are associated with road transport. December’s Climate Change Plan Update made the welcome commitment to cut traffic levels by 20% by 2030. This represents a massive change from most of the past decade, when the focus has been almost entirely on transitioning the car fleet from fossil fuels to electric. While this change in fuel source is necessary, we have long argued that the greater prizes — for public health, equalities and the economy — are around reducing the need to travel and achieving modal shift to the sustainable transport modes.

We’re now rapidly racing towards the second anniversary of the commitment, in the September 2019 Programme for Government, of £500m for bus priority measures through the Bus Partnership Fund. This was a great breakthrough for investment in bus services, but almost nothing has been delivered in the 18 months since. The excuse given is that the pandemic has got in the way, and there may be some merit in this given the multiple responsibilities of local authorities, not least in delivering ‘Spaces for People’ social distancing programmes. However, there does not appear to be any reason why Transport Scotland has failed to make any progress on delivering bus priority on the Glasgow motorway network (the separate ‘Managed Motorway’ programme, which was committed at the same time). Whatever the reasons, if there is to be a concerted effort in turning round declining bus patronage in the west of Scotland, it will have to be a priority for Mr Matheson & Mr Dey to get moving on this now.

We also need to see much swifter action in delivering better conditions for walking and cycling. The past year has seen new cycling infrastructure delivered at a pace unseen before, but these gains need to be consolidated and reinforced. But schemes continue to face horribly convoluted planning processes, and it’s no longer viable for Ministers to only just sympathise whilst failing to take action to reform the processes that could empower local authorities to deliver new active travel infrastructure.

But while delivering road traffic reduction will require investment in walking, cycling and public transport, this will not in itself be sufficient. Ministers will have to assist local authorities in delivering traffic demand management measures, whether that be car-free city centres, parking management schemes, or workplace parking levies. The move to electric vehicles has had the (presumably) unintended consquence of hollowing out tax revenues from fuel duty; while these matters are currently reserved to Westminster, the failure of the UK Government to set out any credible path here will necessitate a responsible Scottish administration to also show leadership here. That leadership is almost certainly going to take us towards a national road pricing scheme — whether that ‘national’ be the United Kingdom or Scotland alone.

So while the Government’s new focus on traffic reduction is most welcome, we must ensure that Ministers are held to their commitment here. Earlier administrations have let previous commitments slide, often to their eventual abandonment. As we identified in our evidence to the Parliament on the climate plan earlier this year, most of the key transport commitments in the 2011 version of the climate plan — who now remembers the 10% cycle modal share target?! — were never delivered upon, and quietly shelved. We just don’t have another decade to fritter away if there is genuine desire to deliver zero-carbon transport.