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Report on Transform Platform for the Liberal Democrats

Published 02 March 2016 by Jamie Wylie

John Webster reports:

This was the second of the pre-election events organised by Transform Scotland to allow political parties to explain and discuss their transport strategies prior to the 2016 Scottish Parliamentary elections in May. This event was held in the Raeburn Room at Edinburgh University’s Old College.

Transform Platform for the Lib Dems roundtable

Transform Platform for the Lib Dems roundtable

Jim McFarlane, chair of Lothian Buses, opened the meeting by presenting some facts and figures relating to Lothian Buses, which is the last publicly owned bus company in Scotland and one of only ten in the UK. It is very supportive of the work undertaken by Transform Scotland and is one of five bus companies (First, Stagecoach, Lothian, McGill’s and Xplore Dundee) that are funding a forthcoming project which will make the case for bus travel and why buses are so important to Scotland.

Bus patronage is falling throughout much of the UK but Lothian has seen increasing passenger numbers over a number of years and is profitable, contributing a dividend of £5.7m to The City of Edinburgh Council last year. It operates 24 hours a day on seventy routes and also operates Lothian Country Buses, the Airlink service, and several tour buses, which are all very popular. Lothian Buses is also investing heavily in more sustainable vehicles and has spent £18.5m since 2011 on hybrid vehicles with 60% of buses now Euro 5 or 6 engines.

Stuart Hay (chairing), Jim McFarlane (Lothian Buses) and Liam McArthur MSP

Stuart Hay (chairing), Jim McFarlane (Lothian Buses) and Liam McArthur MSP

He then introduced the main speaker for the evening, Liam McArthur, MSP for Orkney. Liam was born in Edinburgh, but first moved to Orkney in 1977. His career has taken him to Edinburgh University, to London and Brussels (for work in the House of Commons and the European Commission), and back to Edinburgh (to work with then Deputy First Minister Jim Wallace). Since 2007, he has elected to represent Orkney in the Scottish Parliament as its MSP.

Liam McArthur said the Lib Dems had a good record when in government as regards public transport and would continue to press for adequate funding when possible. Looking ahead he saw a clear need for investment in the rail routes between Aberdeen, Perth and Inverness to bring them up to adequate standard and reduce journey times to make rail competitive with road.

He also saw the need to reduce the carbon footprint of travel and illustrated the case of Orkney where 100% of electricity is now from renewables and this is leading to increased use of electric vehicles as charging infrastructure is rolled out. Innovation is also required in ferries, which are the lifeline of the island communities, and better power units are required for the vessels.

The LibDems also recognise the economic, environmental and health benefits to be derived from active travel. Successive governments have given commitments on this issue but failed to deliver with the result that we are where we are with very poor infrastructure compared with many of our European neighbours.

Liam then finished his presentation and opened the meeting up to a question and answer section.

David Spaven (Rail Freight Group) spoke of his concerns as regards freight haulage by rail; its low uptake compared with the environmental benefits from reduced emissions, road congestion and accidents. He compared the £3b being spent on the A9 with the £0.6bn on the rail network and the fact that how this will be spent is unknown. What would the LibDems do – would they shift some of this road spending to rail? Liam responded by repeating his earlier point that the LibDems saw major investment was needed in the Aberdeen/Inverness route and elsewhere. He also pointed out how bad the Inverness/Thurso line was and this all illustrated the lack of investment over many years by successive governments.

Tom Hart (SAPT) made the point that the Scottish Government has put so much money into health and education that there is little for other areas. He wondered if it was necessary to spend so much on free travel for pensioners and if this could be made more selective by, for example, not giving to people over sixty who were still in work. Liam said that it would be a brave political party that would go to an election not prioritising health and education. As regards concessionary travel, it was one of these things that are easy to give but difficult to remove. One way round the funding problem may be to increase income tax by 1p/£ to raise funding for other areas.

Robin Parker (WWF) raised the issue of demand management and why this was not used to reduce congestion in cities along with incentives in favour of low carbon choices. It has been used elsewhere with great success. Liam said, first of all, that he was not in favour of the proposed £125m reduction in Air Passenger Duty; ferries were in greater need of support than air travel. The Lib Dems would like to establish the principal of demand management because the benefits to London from congestion charging have been very significant. So, they are not against its use but would like the case to be made for widespread adoption based on sound environmental and economic considerations.

Stuart Hay (Living Streets) closed the meeting by making the points that we need to rebalance the transport priorities and ask hard questions of civil servants regarding their attitudes towards road and rail projects and why the playing field is so uneven. He then thanked the speakers for their contributions and ended by reminding the audience of the next Platform, which will be for the Green Party in Glasgow on the 9 March at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons when the speaker will be Patrick Harvie MSP.