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Report on ‘Transform Platform for Labour’

Published 11 February 2016 by Lotti Lancaster

The first of Transform Scotland’s election events was held on Thursday 28 January, and featured David Stewart MSP for Scottish Labour. Over sixty people attended the event at Edinburgh City Chambers to hear what Labour are envisioning for sustainable transport in Scotland. John Webster reports.

Cllr Andrew Burns at 'Transform Platform for Labour', Thursday 28 January 2016

Cllr Andrew Burns

The event was hosted by Cllr Andrew Burns, Leader of City of Edinburgh Council (CEC). After the welcome, Andrew highlighted the fact the CEC was a founding member of Transform Scotland and had supported many of their campaigns over the years. The outcome of the forthcoming Scottish Parliament elections will decide transport strategies and funding for years ahead. He is proud that the CEC is the only Scottish council so far to have allocated 9% of its transport budget to active travel. As capital city, Edinburgh has to lead by example, given that 60% of visitors go on to visit other parts of Scotland. The Scottish Government will be the prime force in moving national transport policy in a more sustainable direction by funding infrastructure developments that will allow for the achievement of a modal shift from car to public and active travel. Andrew is pleased that the tram has been such a success and believes it is an example of how modern, green and comfortable transport systems can help achieve modal shift. The increasingly obvious dangers to society from climate change were another factor mentioned that will help to shift spending priorities from road to rail and public transport.

Top table at 'Transform Platform for Labour', Thursday 28 January 2016

Stuart Hay (left) introduces the event

Chairing the event, Stuart Hay, Transform Scotland vice-chair and Living Streets Scotland director, then spoke of Transform Scotland’s aspirations for a transport strategy laid out in the document ‘What We Want for Scottish Transport’. There needs to be a sustainable transport system to match a sustainable Scotland. The recent success of the re-opened Borders Railway to Tweedbank and the first section of Edinburgh Trams show that the public will flock to use good quality transport systems that give attractive alternative choice. Transform would like to see more spending on walking and cycling infrastructure; investment in buses, ferries and trams; and a complete upgrade of the rail network between the central belt and Inverness.

David Stewart MSP at 'Transform Platform for Labour', Thursday 28 January 2016

David Stewart MSP at ‘Transform Platform for Labour’, Thursday 28 January 2016

David Stewart MSP is the Scottish Labour Party Shadow Minister for Transport and Islands, and sits as a member of the Scottish Parliament’s Infrastructure and Capital Investment Committee. David represents the Highlands and Islands constituency as well as being the Scottish Parliamentary Diabetes Champion.

David stated the principles that he felt should drive transport policy at the current time, which included meeting carbon reduction targets; creating affordable public transport to address health as well as accessibility issues; and to help prime the local economy by creating jobs in infrastructure development and associated supply industries. He highlighted the anomaly in the present situation where the Scottish Government’s priorities are in the order – walking/cycling/public transport/car, and the actual expenditures in the order – trunk roads/rail/bus/active travel. The result of this skewed spending is that car use is rising and public transport use is falling.

Comparison with other European countries shows how lacking the UK is in long-term vision as regards infrastructure development and funding projects that can lead to real reductions in GHG emissions and improvement in inner city air quality. David gave the example of the Amsterdam Consolidation Centre that takes freight from all over then transfers it to smaller vehicles that can deliver locally with resulting reductions in congestion and other factors. Another example was the project underway to build a rail line from Rotterdam to Germany for freight transfer, thus taking thousands of HGVs off the road with massive GHG reduction as a result. This was partly funded with EU money but where in the UK do we see such long-term commitment to taking action to reduce our freight and other road vehicle emissions? So much of our freight in Scotland could go by ferry or rail if investments in infrastructure were to lead the way but, instead, we are to spend £6bn upgrading two roads.

Main Council Chamber at 'Transform Platform for Labour', Thursday 28 January 2016

Main Council Chamber at ‘Transform Platform for Labour’, Thursday 28 January 2016

David then spoke of the need to invest in our rail infrastructure by extending electrification, improving signals and eliminating many of the long runs of single track rail that limit passenger and freight services as well as making the journey times unreliable. We really need equivalent expenditure on rail to match that of roads if we are to have any hope of meeting Scotland’s climate targets. Similarly, there needs to be a massive increase in expenditure to boost cycling and walking in our cities. Again, a visit to our continental neighbours highlights what can be done to make cycling safe and attractive. Cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen are a delight to visit and the numbers of people cycling, of all ages, puts us to shame.

David’s interesting talk touched on many other important issues such as the need to have a road fund to spend on pothole repairs and to give local authorities a greater ability to invest in transport infrastructure, including that for active travel. We need to invest in greener public transport such as electric and hydrogen buses, or on trams, and in cycling infrastructure if we are to meet our climate change targets. What about Low Emission Zones, 20mph zones, and road charging? We will need a blend of all these things if we hope to reduce congestion, improve air quality, and increase the active lifestyle of our citizens so that many health issues can be improved.

Audience at 'Transform Platform for Labour', Thursday 28 January 2016

Q&A at ‘Transform Platform for Labour’, Thursday 28 January 2016

A Q&A session followed David’s presentation with questions covering a range of issues such as:

  • The better planning of cities to promote active travel.
  • An active travel budget for Scotland sufficient to allow real progress.
  • Better integration of rail developments with active travel so they can go hand in hand.
  • The need to get more freight on rail as there are huge traffic movements associated with distilling etc., but management rarely even consider rail as an option as it is “too much hassle” as things stand.
  • The need for a ‘philosophical shift’ in transport investment compared to road spending.
  • The need for road pricing in view of the space taken up by single occupancy cars at rush hours and their deleterious effect on public transport.
  • The fact that much expenditure on rail or road is aimed at getting people from outside the city into the centre faster but little thought on how people living in the centre get around. This has the bad effect of encouraging people to move out and commute in. Just look at the excellent public transport systems in London and the vast sums spent on rail and underground compared to what other cities are able to access.
Stagecoach's Steve Stewart at 'Transform Platform for Labour', Thursday 28 January 2016

Stagecoach’s Steve Stewart at ‘Transform Platform for Labour’, Thursday 28 January 2016

Steven Stewart from Stagecoach Group, and a Transform board member, ended the event by looking at the unbalanced spending by the Scottish Government on road-building and rail compared with the limited sums invested in buses, despite the fact they are the main mode of public transport and are suffering as a result of the unequal competition. He reported on a forthcoming campaign by Transform Scotland which will report on the beneficial role of the bus in communities and how it helps relieve road congestion as well as contributing to workforce mobility.