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The Scottish Region Annual Political Event - Sarah Boyack, MSP: CILT Scottish Region Webinar on 23 November 2020

Sarah's father Jim had campaigned for Labour to support devolution, and she joined the Party at secondary school. A town planner by profession with both local authority and academic experience, her interest was at the strategic end of the planning spectrum, with a particular focus on ensuring that housing had the right linkages into transport networks.

Experience as a lecturer and a member of the Socialist Environmental Resources Association had given Sarah an awareness of the damage such as coastal flooding that climate change would make if we did not get our transport policies right. In 1997 Scottish Office minister Malcolm Chisholm appointed her to the National Transport Forum, and on being elected to the first Holyrood Parliament two years later she found herself alongside party leader Donald Dewar and Labour colleagues Henry McLeish, Sam Galbraith and Tom McCabe in the coalition negotiation team hammering out a programme for government with the Lib Dems under Jim Wallace. A week later when the new First Minister sent for her she learned that her next step would be to join the new Cabinet as Minister for Planning, Transport and the Environment.

There was no depute minister or special adviser assigned to Sarah, so she worked with civil servants, who were very talented but with an inheritance of mainly road-oriented projects. The new Government had a host of aspirations also for rail and bus, but Western Isles MSP Calum Macdonald was keen to see abolition of tolls on the Skye Bridge and the civil servants were clear that she was going to need additional funding to do all that she wanted. So along came consideration of road-tolling, congestion-charging and workplace parking levies, all of which were provided for in the first Transport Act. A visit to Norway revealed that tolls there were to raise money, not to tackle congestion and discourage car travel as had been her aim, and in the face of Opposition cries about highway robbery she was forced to retreat from tolling which had evoked a newspaper headline "On your Boyack" while congestion-charging was to be thrown out by the voters of Edinburgh in a Council referendum.

With hindsight she had been trying to do too much too soon, and the clear lesson was that especially in transport you had to take the voters with you with better alternatives and affordable choices available first. Major investment for rail was given the green light, adding in the benefits for housing of the scheme that she had inherited to reopen Larkhall to Milngavie and developing Airdrie-Bathgate, Stirling-Alloa (which she would have liked run through to Dunfermline) and preparing for the Borders railway: she created a bus priority fund to promote innovative rural and urban networks and promoted free travel for over 60s. Local authorities had to apply for funds promoting walking and cycling, and assistance to ferries was subject to EU provisions on state aid which required careful negotiation. Priorities for the first budget were buses, ferries, potholes and key roads, and her Lib Dem coalition partners were supportive: and the transport budget had overall doubled by the time she left the post.

Through most of the next two decades her views of transport were to be from an environmental perspective, but that was in turn heavily driven by transport. People drove into Edinburgh because the buses and trains were not there for them at times and prices that met their needs. When the Forth Road Bridge had to be closed for emergency repairs, people had to set off early in their cars given the lack of alternatives early in the morning.

Trams have come to Edinburgh but more modestly than congestion-charging would have allowed. Climate change has now grown into a full-blown Climate Emergency where there will have to be a focus on transport (as well as making our buildings more efficient and managing our natural environment), which is responsible for 37% of global carbon dioxide emissions, two-thirds of that from roads (but only 4% from buses). Edinburgh has serious air quality issues that its City Mobility Plan seeks to address - and even in the pandemic the City Bypass and the M8 are jammed with cars.

Acton on climate change is needed globally now since the effects are visible everywhere, and the impact is disproportionately on lower-income groups. The Stonehaven derailment and repeated closures of the Rest and Be Thankful show the need to retrofit our infrastructure, and in a warning of things to come, across the world we can already see climate refugees having to flee their homes.

CoVid 19 has seen a lot of money invested in transport networks to offset the loss of farebox income, and there will be a need to make better arrangements for their future taking account of people's newfound taste for working from home.

Scotland's response will have to include accelerated action against climate change in anticipation of COP 26 while recognising the need to keep public transport going. It is encouraging that the enthusiasm in lockdown for cycling has continued into the autumn, holding out a possibility of promoting places as "20-minute neighbourhoods", but to sustain this trend there will need to be dedicated cycle-routes and spaces rather than consigning cyclists to off-road routes. Cycling will also fare best if there are improved links into public transport, and for now it might be easier to keep travelling actively people who have given up on public transport because of the pandemic.

Getting investment right will have to include wider provision for charging of electric vehicles and for city car clubs, while to win people back to public transport it will have to be made more affordable. Taking rail back into public ownership might reduce rail fares, and learning the lessons from the success of Lothian Buses and extending free bus travel up to the age of 25 could keep young wage-earners in the habit of using public transport. Targeting investment will have to take account of those who are losing out (such as taxi-drivers who have just invested in electric vehicles) and could give support to Scottish suppliers such as Alexander-Dennis, but transport's share will have to be fought for since everywhere there will be competition for investment, with the NHS alone requiring vast amounts of money for its recovery. Winning people back to public transport will require political commitment to continuance of strong funding support but also to improvements in affordability and connectivity so that buses and trains may join with walking and cycling in the fight against climate change.

In response to questions Sarah hoped that railfreight could receive improved infrastructure so that it might ease the impact of Brexit, and saw a role for e-bikes in reviving our town centres after the ravages of the pandemic. The case for electrification of railfreight could do with being moved up the agenda, perhaps by inclusion in manifestos for next year's Holyrood election. On resolving the present potential for conflict between bus priorities and spaces for active travel, it will be important to promote awareness of all the available travel options and to make a careful assessment of which active-travel measures have worked and which had not, while looking also to reinstate those bus routes that have been lost.

Finally, Sarah referenced the publication by SPICE which looks at transport policy in the Scottish Parliament. For Sarah, the issues of transport affordability and longer journey times stand out - with a reduction in the cost of car travel and a substantial increase in the cost of bus and rail use over the last 20 years. Pre pandemic rail use had increased, but bus use had dropped by nearly 15% with an increase in bus fares of 78.3% and increase in journey times as a result of increased road traffic and congestion at peak hours. Sarah as a Lothian MSP is now thinking about how to increase capacity in public transport across her region, with discussions on future investment in the South Suburban Line and better journey times and routes for people using buses being big ticket challenges.

Notes by John Yellowlees


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