The first meeting of 2004 was addressed by Chris Ballance, MSP who is the Green Party member for the South Scotland Region and he spoke on a number of transport topics.
Chris Ballance, MSP addressing the January meeting of the Scottish Region.
© John G. Fender 2004
He began pointing out that the current transport system is a mess and despite the fact that everyone agrees what needs to be done, nothing is achieved. The roads lobby is extremely powerful with bodies such as the AS, RAC, FTA, RHA, CBI, Chambers of Commerce all geared to demanding more spending on roads. On the other side are the "green" campaigners albeit in small numbers. The transport debate is heavily skewed in favour of the roads lobby and has been so for at least 80 out of the last 100 years.
He thought that matters are now at a point of change where the push for better public transport will gain momentum. He said that the roads debate has been hijacked by the transport lobby and that policies have driven community out of almost all activities.
For example, local producers have been all but destroyed due to the centralized methods of production and control. This reduces locality. People assume they have a right to park anywhere at any time but there is no assumption that people have an equal right to get a bus or take a train at any time. The question is how has this occurred and one answer appears to be advertising.
In the cinema, approximately 25% of adverts are about cars, many giving the impression that driving is "sexy". The roads industry is a large employer and people are safeguarding their own jobs. However, the reality is the opposite with employment reducing. For example, the UK is now not so much a car manufacturer as a care assembler. He pointed out that whilst advertising gives the impression that a car driver is in control, driving on open, deserted roads, the truth is not quite as portrayed. The driver is not really in control as there are speed limits, other road users, congestion. The car is merely a tool to make a journey from A to B and the sense of freedom is an illusion, reinforced by advertising. The car driver is unaware of community, has no contact with others.
There are difficulties in having a society geared to the car. For example, the concern expressed over obese children is one area. This has been identified as inappropriate diets and a lack of exercise. Children are driven to school and they also have less road sense, a fact borne out by the accident figures. Motorway building is also an area of concern and reinforces the skewed vision of transport. An example is the spending on the M74 extension at a time when we cannot maintain the existing road network in a satisfactory condition.
The political agenda itself is set by those with money, i.e. the wealthiest members of society. The establishment accepts that it is better to move those people faster than those less well off. However, there is a need to provided a decent bus or train service to take people to work. This point was illustrated by the case of a worker who lost his job owing to the unreliability of the only bus service that was available. The economy needs to focus on those who are dependent on public transport to get them to their place of work, as this would have a positive effect on production.
Climatic change is an area of concern and pollution is a contributor to this. In the long run no one benefits, yet it is accepted by the Establishment. It many respects is easier and cheaper to have a holiday abroad and this destroys the local tourist industry. Air transport is fraught with difficulties, especially operating in today's environment with terrorism at the forefront of security thinking. The airline industry relies wholly on oil for fuel, yet by 2010 the UK will be a net importer of oil and by 2020 will have used up most of its own oil. Both road and rail transport has alternatives fuels available, but the air industry does not have alternative fuels, being geared to oil based fuel.
Turning to road costs, Mr. Ballance pointed out that there are costs to the non-road user. Prices are lower at out of town shopping centres and if a person has no car, they will pay higher costs for the same goods. Some £44bn is collected annually from road users by the government, but only £5.8bn are spent on the roads. However, the overall total includes VAT on fuel and new vehicles, amounting to approximately £12.5bn. The revenue generated by VAT goes to the Exchequer. Company car tax is levied to compensate the exchequer for income forgone by providing cars as part of employees' remuneration.
The cost of greenhouse gas emissions has to be considered. Some 20% of emissions are generated by road transport, yet renewable energy alternatives are available and not just electricity. In addition, there are minor costs, for example the cost of car crime and the cost of the police in dealing with it. In answer to an MP's parliamentary question, it was stated in 1996, that the amount was "too large to calculate". There are also the costs of damage to utilities, water and gas, gas, sewers etc. The costs of repair of damage caused by road traffic vibration is borne by the utility companies and passed on to their customers. This is in effect a hidden subsidy in favour of roads.
The railways own the land they run on. They have to buy the land for new lines, but it is the exchequer that pays for the land for new roads. Another point is fencing. Railways have to be fenced with the infrastructure provider paying, but where a road is required to be fenced, it is usually the council that pays. The exceptions being where a farmer has to fence in his animals. Another point is that fines for speeding offences detected by camera equipment are now being spent on roads. This poses the question of why fines levied for a criminal activity should be spent on roads.
Possible solutions to the problems are increasing the number of journeys by rail as well as moving freight from road to rail. With regard to planning policies, transport needs to be higher up the agenda. Better public transport is a key element of solving many of the problems experienced in built up areas. Walking and cycling are important parts of green party policy, especially for short trips and much has been done in this regard. For example, the network of cycleways in Dumfries.
Report by John Fender.
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