Can the Greens green the SNP on transport?

David Spaven assesses the likelihood of the future of decent, environmentally transport getting better.

Transport is rarely a key factor in national elections in the UK. One has to go back to 1964 – when the Beeching programme of rail cuts was only just getting underway – to find a campaign in which transport was a major source of controversy. And so, the 2021 Scottish Parliament election was no exception, despite transport now being by far the biggest contributor to climate change of all sectors of Scotland’s economy. Not only is our car-centric culture fuelling climate change, air pollution, and the sedentary lifestyles (which contribute to obesity and diabetes epidemics) but the increase in car use over the post-war period has also been a key driver of inequality.

All five main parties flagged up transport problems and opportunities in their manifestos, but there were inconsistencies and omissions almost everywhere. Yes, all were in favour of more provision for ‘active travel’ – the over-used umbrella term which blurs some important differences between the needs of walking and cycling – but in less ‘cuddly’ areas, where hard choices are needed, there was a marked reluctance to make any commitments. Cutting back on road-building and introducing demand management (congestion charging etc) were virtually no-go areas – except in the case of the Greens.

But might the new parliamentary arithmetic lead to delivery of some of the radical changes which are needed to move Scotland towards a fairer, safer and more sustainable transport system? The prospects are mixed.

The Greens can point to their holding the balance of power for the SNP resulting in a number of transport successes in the last parliament: increased investment in cycling and walking, creation of a Local Rail Development Fund, and free bus travel for under-22s. But none of these wins were in ‘difficult’ – and fundamental – areas, like switching investment from unsustainable trunk road building to the long-neglected rail routes north of the Central Belt. And without demand management – strongly supported by the Greens, but studiously avoided by the SNP – there is, as noted by the sustainable transport alliance Transform Scotland, ‘absolutely zero chance’ of hitting the SNP’s target of a 20% reduction in road traffic by 2030.

Strangely, the Green manifesto said nothing specific about rail electrification. The SNP was already committed to electrifying all the inter-city routes by 2035, but this will mean stop-gap provision of expensive ‘bi-mode’ trains after the diesel ‘High Speed Trains’ become life-expired in 2030. Might the Greens press for the latter date as a new target for electrification?

Bus users and pedestrians have long been the ‘Cinderellas’ of transport policy delivery. Yet, 28% of Scottish households do not have regular access to a car. In Edinburgh, it’s 41%; and in Glasgow the figure is as high as 47% (and nearly a third of households, being distant from rail or subway, are entirely dependent on privatised and deregulated bus services).

Re-regulation of local bus services on the continental (and London) model – with franchised operations controlled by local authorities or their agencies – has to be at the heart of rebuilding the bus network post-Covid. But the Greens made no reference to re-regulation in their Holyrood manifesto, and the SNP – past beneficiaries of donations from the Stagecoach boss, Sir Brian Souter – have shown little appetite for upsetting that particular apple cart.

The framework for delivery of transport is crucial to change. Most transport is local or regional, but the regional councils (with their strategic transport and land use planning powers) were scrapped by the Tories in 1996, and the SNP’s period in power has been characterised by emasculation of local authorities and centralisation of decision-making. Could the Greens win an enhancement of the powers and funding of the seven statutory Regional Transport Partnerships? These were established in 2005 to strengthen the planning and delivery of regional transport, but were later drastically reined in by the SNP such that they have spent much of their subsequent history desperately seeking European Union project funds to justify their ongoing existence.

Too often neglected is the importance of reducing the need for physical transport. But improving digital connectivity was flagged up in the SNP manifesto and could link to longer-term land use planning to render motorised transport less necessary. And in the short term there is plenty of scope to create ’20-minute neighbourhoods’ through traffic reduction and re-allocating street space to make walking and cycling easier, safer and more enjoyable.

Perhaps, the most symbolic example of the ongoing Scottish Government bias towards investment in unsustainable transport infrastructure is on the Perth-Inverness corridor. The Highland Main Line (HML) railway is still two-thirds single-track, but public funding is being devoted overwhelmingly to dualling the parallel A9 at a likely ultimate cost of £5,000 million. Yet back in 2008 the Scottish Government’s ‘Strategic Transport Projects Review’ identified upgrading the HML as the third-top priority among 29 road and rail schemes across Scotland. Funding of up to £450m was envisaged – but to date the rail investment has been just £59m, and a significant upgrade has been kicked into the long grass (yet again), to post-2025.

A pessimist would conclude, in the light of long experience, that politicians generally prefer to skim the surface when it comes to transport. They’re unwilling to face up to some hard choices between, on the one hand, consumerism and individual mobility, and on the other hand, equity and the wider public good. But, for an optimist, the Greens engineering a substantial switch of A9 funding to the HML would signify that a fundamental change of transport policy direction was taking shape, at long last.

David Spaven is a sustainable transport consultant and railway author. He a co-author along with Ellie Harrison and Caitlin Doyle Cottrill of the chapter on transport and infrastructure in Gall, G. (2022) (ed.) ‘The Wealth of a Nation: Ensuring Economic and Social Solutions for a Fairer Scotland’ (Pluto).