Patrick Harvie, MSP addressed the Scottish Region's Annual Political Event on the role of the Scottish Parliament's Transport Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee at the Edinburgh meeting on 13 January 2009.
Patrick Harvie began his presentation by briefly outlining the role of the Scottish Parliament and considered it's current composition whereby there is a minority government. He then moved on to look at transport and pointed out that transport relies on a wide range of items, such as engineering, science and economic analysis amongst other components, especially for the "big ticket" expenditure items. Transport infrastructure is not cheap and when considering transport projects the Transport Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee needs to get involved with economics, finance and health as transport impacts on most aspects of modern life, including climate change.
When considering a transport project, the committee will scrutinise the documentation, ask people questions and hear evidence. The Minister will also be questioned. The Minister has powers that can be used whilst the parliament sets the political context within which ministers make decisions. As the present administration is a minority government, ministers need to refer to parliament when taking decisions. In the previous session, major transport decisions included those for Edinburgh's Trams and on the Edinburgh Airport Rail link.
Ministers can take decisions based on the Parliament's political composition and some decisions are made through political advantage, whilst others end up as "political footballs" but there is a need to minimise these in order to get projects delivered. A good example of political compromise was the decision to go ahead with Edinburgh's trams and scrap the Edinburgh Airport Rail Link.
Some countries have a system that, if the government has no majority, the civil service runs the country, but often there is no accountability. We need to recognize that politics is and imperfect system for making decisions. The dynamics of minority means government means that any proposal from ministers is firstly in draft form which will then be subject to change.
At some point we will come out of minority administration and coalition is a new concept for the Scottish Parliament. In such a position, there is a danger that major projects become subject to "horse trading". All parties should get more access to the civil service and not just the party in power, as this would mean that information would be more easily available, enabling decisions to be made by parties before coming into government.
Looking at current projects, Mr. Harvie looked at the controversial plans for the Forth Bridge and the second crossing. He said that in debates on the issue, he has sometimes been in a minority of one. He argued that we should be looking at demand rather than supply and said that consideration should be given to determining how much of the transport demand was due to retaining the Edinburgh Green Belt. There are some suggestions that the existing bridge should be retained only for public transport, but even so the existing bridge will close at some time in the future unless work to keep it open is successful, so we need to sort out the issue sooner rather than later.
Turning to other matters, Mr. Harvie looked at waste and said that we need to do more in terms of recycling, but there needs to be investment in waste disposal and recycling infrastructure. We need to do more in terms of waste reduction and waste minimisation. Energy is another topic that is important as we need to ask how can we use less energy and then decide on how what energy we do need will be generated.
Mr. Harvie said that transport is not yet at the point where we can satisfy our economic needs through less transport, not more and it should not be a question of getting people to move around more, but seeing how we can achieve our needs with less transport. This is especially important given the likelihood that we have reached the point of "peak oil". Infrastructure is being built that will be outdated, for example, the M74 extension. Mr. Harvie posed the question of whether we really need this development, pointing out that in a few years time it might not be worth completing.
The Green Party, of which Mr. Harvie is one of two MSPs' in the Scottish Parliament is disappointed that more consideration is not given to active travel. We need to move away from oil based transport and active travel will save energy, money and at the same time improves health and will assist in reducing obesity, through increased physical activity, i.e. Walking. Sustainable transport needs to have a higher priority.
Looking at electric vehicles, Mr. Harvie thought that they are used as an argument to justify roads, but they do not solve the problem of coping with the increased demand for electricity. Road space is also finite and there should be a charge for it. Recent referendums on charging in Edinburgh and Manchester had resulted in a resounding "no" vote from the public as they do not see the pay-off for the charge that would be imposed. Charging is usually seen as just another way of raising money by the government and is usually considered to be another form of taxation. Despite this, it may still be necessary to price road space in the future and the question will be how to apply this. This is an issue that is still open to debate and will no doubt sustain debates long into the future.
Mr. Harvie then answered questions from the audience and a number of subjects were raised, resulting in some lively discussion. At the end of the meeting, the Chairman thanked Mr. Harvie for addressing the meeting and presented him with one of the Scottish Region's engraved quaichs as a memento of an enjoyable evening.
Report by John Fender.
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