Analysis: the transport brief has been on a journey to higher office

Written by Mark McLaughlin on 5 September 2018 in Inside Politics

Michael Matheson’s move from justice to transport doesn’t necessarily mean he’s in for an easier ride

Edinburgh during 'The Beast from the East' - Image credit: kaysgeog

Scottish transport minister was once a role where understudies honed their skills for elevation to high office, but now it carries the badge of a cabinet secretary.

Nicola Sturgeon’s cabinet reshuffle in June was more than just a game of musical chairs, she rewrote and gilded some of the nameplates.

Previous transport ministers went on to become party leaders or key members of the Scottish cabinet.

Now it has been rolled into the infrastructure directorate that Nicola Sturgeon herself once led.

Michael Matheson is Scotland’s first Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity, and the elevation of transport to the top of the portfolio may be a sign that it is the most pressing priority for the new post.

However, few people interpreted Matheson’s move to transport as an endorsement of his future prospects.

If anything, it was seen as a sideways step following a torrid spell as justice secretary overseeing the relentless challenges of police reform.

The decision to give him the transport job and keep his cabinet post may have been to head off jibes that Matheson had been demoted and replaced by Humza Yousaf, his predecessor in the transport portfolio.

Yousaf’s promotion to justice secretary is a major step up for the young MSP, who admitted to Holyrood in November that he regarded the transport role as something of a poisoned chalice.

Yousaf faced Twitter abuse for every train delays and said he spent much of his time putting out fires.

He took a personal interest in turning around ScotRail’s dismal performance figures, and was probably disheartened to see the company miss its performance targets in 22 out of 34 areas in the first months of 2018 shortly before he was shuffled up to justice.

Yousaf survived the brutal ‘Beast from the East’ snowstorm in March, despite acknowledging that public communication could have been better after hundreds of drivers were stranded overnight on the M80 between Glasgow and Stirling.

He demanded changes to the red and amber weather warning system used to alert the public of an impending weather event, pointing out that a less severe storm in January was ranked as a greater threat than the warning ahead of the ‘Beast’.

He was also scathing about employers who threatened to dock the pay of workers that didn’t struggle into work through the punishing storm.

A similar storm spelled the end of former transport minister Stewart Stevenson in 2010, when he was accused of a lack of communication and overstating the effectiveness of Scotland’s emergency response.

He finally resigned following a barrage of unpleasant tabloid headlines.

While Yousaf survived his tenure as transport minister unscathed, he is not quite free of the transport hoodoo yet as one of his first tasks as justice secretary will be to manage the troubled merger of British Transport Police into Police Scotland.

Yousaf is reportedly sceptical about the merger, which was recommended by the Smith Commission on devolution but is fiercely opposed by rail unions and staff associations.

The Scottish Government is currently laying the groundwork for a public sector ScotRail bid when Abellio’s ten-year contract runs out in 2025, or even sooner if the five-year break clause is activated.

Eyebrows were raised when ScotRail operator Abellio, which is owned by the Dutch government, commissioned a report on the future of Scotland’s railways, called ‘Is Scotland on the right track?’, which, predictably, concluded that nationalisation of the railways is not the answer.

Tom Harris, a former transport minister in the UK Labour government, called nationalisation “expensive, childish and counterproductive” and insisted this view was objective, despite being paid by Abellio.

Yousaf said previously that it would be “hugely ambitious” to have a public sector bidder for ScotRail ready by 2020, if the Scottish Government does activate the break clause, and urged reformers keen to see the railways returned to state ownership not to rush into anything.

The Scottish Government is understood to favour keeping the franchise model, rather than wholesale nationalisation, but has not precluded the possibility of a public sector bid, with publicly owned ferry operator CalMac amongst the leading contenders to run a public railway.

There may also be exciting times ahead for Prestwick Airport as plans proceed apace to grow Britain’s space industry.

The first vertical rocket site has been announced in the Highlands, but Prestwick is still in the running to be Britain’s first horizontal launch spaceport.

Horizontal launch involves strapping a spacecraft onto a conventional aeroplane and transporting it to high altitudes, where it can boost into orbit from a lower gravity zone.

It is the kind of craft that is most likely to take tourists into space in the future, an exciting prospect for any transport minister.

In the meantime, Matheson will have to contend with keeping earthbound travellers happy, and one of the Scottish Government’s proposals to make air travel cheaper is to scrap Air Passenger Duty.

The rollout of the devolved Air Departure Tax (ADT) has been postponed amid concerns it could be “catastrophic” for the Highlands and islands, as Inverness Airport may lose its air tax discount due to complex EU regulations.

The SNP has also drawn criticism from the left for proposing a tax cut for the jet set while discussing an income tax rise for Scottish residents, and backing one of the world’s most polluting forms of travel while painting itself as a climate change champion.

To offset this, the SNP has plans to make Scotland’s longest road, the A9, an ‘electric highway’ with charging points along the way, while there are a number of other high and low-tech solutions going on around the country such as a hydrogen-powered bus fleet in Aberdeen, liquid natural gas-powered ferries, support for the uptake of electric cars and more funding for active travel.

There are also plans to create low emission zones in Scotland’s four biggest cities, by banning gas-spewing cars from Scotland’s city centres.

Climate change was foremost in Matheson’s mind in his first few days in the job this summer, as Scotland baked in record-breaking heat.

Rail travel was disrupted as steel tracks expanded in the heat, and tarmac roads melted, causing traffic chaos.

Matheson lived through his baptism of fire, but the start of a new Holyrood term means winter is coming.

He survived the political storm of police reform — just — but it remains to be seen whether he will be blown over by another unpredictable transport tempest.

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