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Report on ‘Scotland’s Roads 2035 Conference’

Published 17 March 2016 by Colin Howden

Tom Hart (Scottish Association for Public Transport) reports on ‘Scotland’s Roads 2035 Conference’, held on 15 March, and organised by the Roads Collaboration Programme within the Improvement Service.

(Please note that this is an initial note on the above Conference. The Improvement Service will be producing a more substantial summary of proceedings and follow-up proposals.)

 

The attendance was around 100 with Transport Minister, Derek Mackay and Stephen Hagan of COSLA as initial speakers

Derek Mackay stressed the immense resource issues facing roads given overall austerity and a Scottish Government preference for education, health and social care. Better sharing of scarce resources was the key to road maintenance and improvement. Roads also served buses and cyclists (walking not specifically mentioned). He noted the Ayrshire Roads Alliance but why was North Ayrshire not participating? An Audit report on roads was due this summer. He was looking for more proposals to share resources with initiatives coming from Local Authorities and was reluctant to impose changes. Trunk road contracts were being reviewed with further review by the Scottish Government (if SNP was returned) of the National Planning Strategy and Planning Framework during 2017.

There had been some bus successes but more had to be done to encourage car users to shift to local buses and support an inclusive network including fares reform. Buses still had by far the largest share of trips by public transport though the average length of trip was considerably below the rail average. Recent trends showed a record rise in rail trips but a worrying fall in bus trips

Stephen Hagan stressed the scale of the funding problem. Choices lay between a reformed public sector with new types of charging or a shift to the private sector – which he did not favour apart from some maintenance contracts. He supported improved local authority management of local roads including exploration of more sources for local funding – but recognised that some transport issues needed to be tackled at a regional level within Scotland.

Separate funding arrangements for trunk and local roads created considerable problems, sub-optimum use of resources and threats to local democracy. Skill shortages were also becoming an issue. COSLA had suggested one trunk road maintenance contract for trunk roads (on a possibly reduced network) with an enlarged local authority/regional role in road maintenance and enhancement. A growing backlog of repairs needed to be tackled and could offer longer-term savings than ‘patching’.

In the Q&A session, Tom Hart, speaking for SAPT, asked what could be done to improve the co-ordination of local public transport services and fares. Did the Minister favour a rise in UK Fuel Duty but with benefits for the Scottish Budget including an earmarking of part of the proceeds for transport and access? Minister replied that he was determined to see smart, integrated ticketing across Scotland by rail, bus and ferry. This could involve cost problems for smaller bus operators who might be helped by small grants towards adapted ticket machines. Smart ticketing was already written into rail and ferry franchises. Introduction on buses had proved more difficult but he expected progress by agreement soon – if there were further delays, legislation and revised funding might have to be considered. In principle, he was not keen on the earmarking of tax receipts but reforms in the structure of funding could influence incentives for change.

The issue of wider use of accessible vehicles in rural areas was raised. Many small operators could not afford such vehicles. Reply was that small grants might be considered. Some local authorities also put vehicle specifications in contracts for non-commercial services. BSOG could be changed to give more support for rural buses. The need for better asset management was raised. The Minister agreed that this could lead to overall savings. Better organised spend on existing roads may offer better value than ‘big shiny projects’

Anne-Marie Conlong, Office of Statistics and Strategic Analysis, Scottish Government. Marie explained work on a shorter list of targets for sustainable growth, moving beyond GDP as a simple measure of success to take account of improved well-being and inclusion. The National Performance Framework (not to be confused with the National Planning Framework) started in 2007 and transport touched directly on 9 of the 16 national outcomes. The Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act had embedded National Outcomes in the legal framework. Questions doubted whether infrastructure schemes in budgets were well-linked with outcomes sought. Reply said that infrastructure issues include road maintenance and a better bus network

John Mundell, Inverclyde Chief Executive, expanded on the scale of present local government problems and the need for governance changes. With 73% of local government budgets protected, there was intense pressure for cuts which could lead to a 38% reduction by 2020 in non-protected areas including roads and pavements. Yet he did feel that such a level of cuts could be avoided while also placing roads and pavements in a better condition, not least for an ageing population still walking for many short trips.

Other problems had arisen from wetter weather and inadequate road reinstatements after utility openings.

He sought a 10 year programme for asset maintenance and a focus of attention on workforce and skill issues. He expected further rises in road traffic but, in the longer term, linked convoys of HGVs with only one driver could ease labour shortage in the road haulage sector. He advocated a shift towards a stronger regional dimension in local transport – with possibly around 12 mainland councils replacing present arrangements and an integrated approach to trunk and local road maintenance. These could arise from accelerated initiatives on joint working within local government rather than through national legislation.

Another way forward was for local authorities to return to the use of ‘private’ legislation to give increased powers, including new sources of funding.

Martin Reid of the Road Haulage Association spoke on the rapid growth in pallet/van deliveries and on the importance of HGV movement within Scotland and on trips to and from England (notably the more northern regions) but noted a very low level of lorry movement on through trips to mainland Europe

Increased use of EURO6 engines and electronic control systems was reducing pollution and improving fuel efficiency but operators still faced a diesel tax much higher than in the rest of Europe. Rail has some potential on longer-distance roads but insurance rates were lower for through trips on which a driver was present and there was no need for interchange. He ended with a plug for Love the Lorry Week in September

A substitute for Charles Oldham of Amey spoke on the progress being made in asset management with this theme also taken up by Geoff Allister (with Irish experience) and with practical examples given of better performance and cost-saving.

Those attending then had the choice of attending 2 of the 7 discussion groups on:-

  • Workforce resilience
  • Investment and priorities
  • Roads and socio/economic outcomes
  • Sustainable transport
  • Gathering the evidence
  • Developing technologies
  • Our changing environment

(I attended the Investment and Socio/economic outcome groups. There was some useful discussion but tended to focus on what I thought were ‘lower-order’ issues rather than the more fundamental issues of changes in budgetary , regulatory and governance. For example, most people felt that there was little prospect of a Scottish Government change of view from a focus on major trunk road schemes to a greater share of funding for rail, local roads, public transport and active travel. There was more interest in finding ways to deliver local authority schemes for efficiency savings and rises in net income from a variety of local and business sources plus other action e.g. for forestry road grants adjusted to give added local value; ‘sponsor a road or junction’ schemes; developer contributions; better control of street works by utility companies; relaxation of design standards; lower speed limits; traffic calming.)

Colin Mair of the Roads Collaboration Programme then presented some views on what could be agreed priorities. He suggested that the main priority options were to decide between mainly local authority initiatives to introduce shared-working OR stronger Scottish Government action to develop regional responsibilities for transport and access within a revised Scottish Transport Strategy and Planning Framework. After some discussion, there was no advocate for the first option and strong support for the second. A summary of the Conference and proposed further action will be produced.