Nicola Sturgeon told the Paris COP21 talks that “Scotland punches well above its weight in the international effort to tackle climate change”. Nine days later, SNP finance secretary John Swinney has released a draft budget that cuts from active transport and local authorities as it pumps more money into trunk roads and motorways.
Headline transport figures from the budget
Cash for transport from central government comes from the infrastructure, investment and cities element of the budget, which starts promisingly enough:
In line with the Government Economic Strategy the majority of the portfolio’s spend is focused on investment in transport, including low carbon transport, and water infrastructure. Overall, the portfolio also supports a focus on islands and their specific needs.
Investing in our people and our infrastructure in a sustainable way
The [infrastructure, investment and cities] portfolio plays a significant role in helping achieve the Scottish Government’s Purpose, primarily through contributing to three Strategic Objectives: Wealthier and Fairer, Safer and Stronger, and Greener.
Scotland’s spending plans and draft budget 2016-17, pg 119
However, dig into the numbers and the spin falls apart. Key facts:
- Trunk road investment up 18% to £820m.
- Rail down 7% to £751m.
- The vital “Cycling, walking, safer streets” fund cut 25% to £5.9m.
- A very slight rise in the combined total of the “support for sustainable and active transport” and “future transport” funds from £52.4m to £56.1m.
If you’re concerned that “support for sustainable and active transport” and “future transport” sound a little loosely defined, let me pull out two clarifying statements that will do nothing to reassure you:
[The budget will provide] support for the promotion of more sustainable travel choices, including support for actions to increase walking and cycling for everyday journeys and the take-up of low carbon vehicles.
[The Scottish government will] continue to invest in a range of sustainable transport initiatives that will support a shift to more sustainable transport modes [and] continue to invest in infrastructure and behaviour change initiatives to encourage cycling and walking, working in partnership with local authorities across the country.
Scotland’s spending plans and draft budget 2016-17, pg 130
It would take far fewer words to say “invest in quality cycling and walking infrastructure”. Draw your own conclusions from the fact that Swinney instead talks about support, encouragement and behaviour changes…
This inability to commit to specifics is not shared by the trunk road section, by the way, where “we will: continue construction of the Forth Replacement Crossing as programmed; progress construction of the M8 M73 M74 Motorway Improvements project and the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route (AWPR)/Balmedie to Tipperty project; progress procurement of the A737 Dalry Bypass; progress design and development work on dualling the A9 and A96 and continue construction of the A9 Kincraig to Dalraddy project;…”
The budget does state that £39m of the sustainable and future transport funds will be set aside for active transport (as opposed to low-emission private cars, for example), but that’s still only 1.9% of the overall transport budget; a figure at odds to the target the government set itself in Caps of ensuring that 10% of all journeys were by bike by 2020.
The cuts to local authority fundings will hurt us most
The figures from transport are grim, but the government has consistently said that most walking and cycling infrastructure projects should be funded by local authorities.
Unfortunately Swinney has cut the local authority budget by £573m, a reduction only partly offset by a shift of £250m from the health budget. This equates to a 3.5% cut; down to an overall figure of £7,380m. Councils are blocked from increasing contributions through council tax for the ninth year running.
The local authority group Cosla have suggested this will lead to job losses for 15,000 council staff, with other services cut or severely reduced.
That doesn’t sound like an environment which will encourage councils to find spare cash for new cycleways (even if the return on that investment tends to be astronomical)…
A defensive Scottish budget that will win short term votes, and condemn us to future problems
The Guardian wrote earlier this week that the Scottish government’s addiction to massive infrastructure projects funded by private debt is set to create a liability of £50,000m by 2020. Paying off these debts is likely to be costing us £1,200m a year by that point (around 4% of our annual budget). Admittedly, when the government talks about its targets of “wealthier and stronger”, it doesn’t mention who is getting wealthier…
As we spend vast amounts on expanding trunk road capacity at the cost of the convenience of sustainable alternatives, more people start driving (and are no doubt briefly happy with their wider roads). Congestion then rises to fill that extra capacity, along with pollution, road maintenance costs and the bill to the NHS for our sickly population.
That vicious cycle of spiraling demand and capacity will continue until our government puts enough solid, long-term investment behind walking and cycling infrastructure to make it a genuine alternative to the private car for getting around. A strong lead would then allow councils to be more bold in supporting local initiatives. As the network grows the number of people walking and cycling snowballs, until we reach that critical point where the car is no longer the default mode of transport.
This budget does not take us along that route. It doesn’t even try. It sacrifices our health and the sustainable economic and environmental future of our country in favour of the private car and easy votes at next year’s elections.
It’s still a draft budget. There’s still time to tell your MSP this is not the way you want them to invest in our future.