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Have they heard of Stern in the Scottish Executive?

8/11/06 Typical. You wait forever for a fast rail link to Edinburgh and then three come along at once. In fact, as the Herald reported yesterday, there could be four different ways of getting to the Capital from Glasgow. Yes, it’s election time again, and the bribing is easy.

The centrepiece is a new “express” service through Shotts or Airdie or possibly both, which would link through to Glasgow Airport. In addition, the electrification of the existing Queen St. to Edinburgh Waverley line would create, if not a bullet train, then possibly a sling-shot, linked through Edinburgh airport. Then there is the old route through Carstairs and Motherwell which everyone forgets about. Suddenly the commuter is spoilt for choice.

Now, it is good to see the Scottish Executive parties getting excited about rail developments – however, I’m not entirely sure this is all about rail. The new and up-graded routes seem to have rather a lot to do with justifying the cost of fast rail links to Glasgow and Edinburgh airports respectively. Both links are very costly, and currently before parliament. The Edinburgh airlink will cost £600m in order to promote the least environmentally-friendly form of transport known – air travel. Sir Nick Stern would not be impressed.

Morover, the talk of new rail routes doesn’t seem wholly credible when so much of the future Scottish transport budget is to be spent on a new Forth road bridge – or two road bridges if you read some reports. Labour is promising a new billion pound Fife crossing even before the reports on what went wrong with the existing one are completed. They’re not due until May, but Jack McConnell wants action now for the manifesto.

Funny, but I seem to remember that last February, when the Chancellor was demanding action on the Forth bridge on the eve of the Dunfermline by-election he was told that there are procedures that have to be gone through, guidelines, consultation, due process etc. I’m sure Gordon will be pleased that things have loosened up so much.

Now, putting to one side the argument that a new Forth road bridge(s) will only increase road traffic, and therefore render the new crossing obsolete as soon as it is built, there are other questions that need to be answered. Why did the existing road bridge rust away in only 42 years, when other suspension bridges last twice as long? Look at San Francisco, where the Golden Gate Bridge, opened in1937, has just been refitted and is good for decades yet.

Clearly, excessive use was part of the Forth bridge’s problem. Yet we learn that Jack McConnell is also talking about scrapping tolls on the bridge, which will make traffic on it grow even faster. So, much for the Transport Secretary, Alastair Darling’s conversion to “pay-as-you-go” road pricing, which he announced in June.

The last thing that seems to be taken into account is the impact on the environment. Yet, like the airport rail links, the Forth bridge thinking is pre-Stern, and based on the old assumptions about the growth of vehicle and air transport. Assumptions which the government itself has said are unwarranted. In fact, are a threat to civilization itself.

The Stern report was supposed to mark a new era in policy by putting numbers to the cost of global warming and showing that there is no economic alternative to curbing fossil fuel use. Yet BAA is forecasting that passengers at Glasgow Airport will increase from 8 million to 24 million by 2030, which is why it wants the new fast rail link connecting it through Glasgow Central to Edinburgh. Edinburgh Airport is planning for 26 million.

Is this sustainable? No. Either you ignore the Stern report altogether, or you accept what the man says says, in which case air transport on this scale is doomed. The bills for the Edinburgh and Glasgow airport links are going through the Scottish Parliament right now. But Holyrood is gripped by a kind of transport schizophrenia. As soon as they enter the committee room MSPs forget everything they have been saying about climate change.

The transport policy of Scotland is still dominated by the needs of air and road. The M74 extension, the Aberdeen by-pass and numerous other roads projects. Even the SNP, who oppose the Edinburgh air link want to spend most of the money on roads.

Now, I understand the problem faced by politicians. It’s easy for columnists like me to point out the contradictions and expect them to save the planet and boost the Scottish economy at the same time. They have been relentlessly lobbied by business interests who tell them that Edinburgh’s growth will be curbed if there isn’t a fast airport link,that Glasgow’s revival depends on more roads.

But politicians can’t have it both ways. Are they saying that they disagree with the government’s own assessment of the future of oil burning? Do they have some miraculous new fuel which is going to make flying environmentally sustainable? Are we all going to be driving electric cars? Or when they talk about the environment, are they simply mouthing empty platitudes?

Because if they mean what they say, then governments are going to have to learn to say no. No to the air lobby groups who seem to have such a stranglehold on UK transport policy. No, to the roads lobby which continues to demand that the public purse pays for the environmental damage caused by the internal combustion engine. No to commuters who seem to believe they have a natural right to travel to work in mobile living rooms with one occupant.

It has also to learn to say no to advisers like Sir Rod Eddington, whose forthcoming review into UK transport policy has reportedly rejected a fast rail link between Scotland and London. He claims that this would be a waste of money which could better be spent on improved links between northern English cities like Manchester and Liverpool.

This means that Scotland will remain cut off from the 3,000 mile network of fast rail links which is transforming the economy, and geography, of Europe. Eddington clearly sees the future of domestic travel in terms of roads and air. More lorries blocking the M6; more businessmen flying from Edinburgh to London.

But if the Scottish Executive is serious about sustainable transport, and about linking the Scottish economy to the engine room of the South East of England and thence Europe, then it should be demanding – not requesting, demanding – a new fast rail service to England. And it should be building fast rail routes in central Scotland in their own right, and not as feeders for airports.

The parties talk green but they act on the obsolete “project and provide” assumptions of high-carbon transport. I say again: Stern has made them all these assumptions unsafe. The Executive is planning to spend billions on building bridges for a level of car usage which it knows to be unsustainable, and on airport links which it knows are already environmentally redundant. Is that responsible government?

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


One thought on “Have they heard of Stern in the Scottish Executive?

  1. Just read a rather interesing article in the Independant today about the Cairngorms.I live in Ballater (well within the Cairngorm National Park). I`m also interested in climate change so this was doubly interesing to me.Article + My Thoughts

    Posted by Calvin Jones | December 3, 2006, 2:06 am

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