Derek Mackay: 'I’ll be supportive of 20mph zones but it’s for local authorities to act'
On your bike: words that government ministers traditionally shudder at the sound of. Derek Mackay may well be the exception. For the Scottish Government’s Transport Minister, it’s a case of practice what you preach. “I’ve recovered my bike, which I’ve taken a ribbing for,” he laughs. “This is something like a 15-year-old bike; I think I’ll get an upgrade and as soon as I can afford it I’ll maybe invest in a new bike.
“I have been out, mainly in the local area in Renfrewshire, and yes, I’ve realised I am not fit enough to do anything particularly long. But I’ve actually enjoyed it because you don’t want to just turn up at photo calls on a bike – I want to be on the road on a bike [and] enjoy the experience that other cyclists do."
Even with Mackay’s return to two wheels, a government goal to have 10 per cent of journeys being made by bike by 2020 is some way off. Annual figures released by Transport Scotland a week before he sits down with Holyrood show just one per cent of journeys made by Scots in 2014 had cycling as the main mode of transport, largely unchanged from when the Cycling Action Plan setting out their intent was published.
“It’s not a target – it’s an ambition,” Mackay underlines. Indeed, ever since the document was first released in 2010 ministers have remained relentlessly on message, avoiding the potential trap of setting themselves up for a fall by elevating the 10 per cent figure beyond a ‘vision’. “We can see a Scotland where 10 per cent of people could choose to use active travel to get about and I hope we achieve that, we’ll do what we can to achieve it by way of investment and support,” adds the former local government and planning minister.
It’s also part of a strategy that stresses central government is not the only one that should be left carrying the can. One in five households (18 per cent) have said they don’t cycle to work because of ‘too many cars on the road’, while 12 per cent said that traffic travelled too fast. Mackay, Scotland’s youngest councillor when first elected to Renfrewshire Council, which he went on to lead in 1999, aged just 21, is actively encouraging local authorities to follow Edinburgh’s example on 20mph zones. The capital will phase 20mph in as the default speed for its urban areas from April next year.
Within the transport field, though, there have been calls for ministers to go further. Professor Tom Rye, director of the Transport Research Institute at Edinburgh Napier University, says elsewhere in this issue of Holyrood that government “should give rather more active consideration” to default urban speed limits of 20mph given the problem of serious road injuries within urban areas. “Some people can’t have it both ways – either we’re a big, bad, centralising government that has to deliver every decision centrally, or [we] allow local authorities to make local decisions,” says Mackay. “I am directly responsible for the country’s motorways and trunk roads and local authorities are directly responsible for local roads.
“Now I am not passing the buck here. I am saying I’ll be supportive of 20mph zones but it’s for local authorities, it’s their responsibility to lead, to consult and to act, and I’ll be as supportive as possible. That’s why I’ve issued guidance and I will encourage others to follow Edinburgh’s lead. But there is a run-up to that taking effect for Edinburgh City Council to implement that policy. So I am being supportive of local authorities that want to do it, not issuing an edict ‘it must be this way’. I am supporting local empowerment, but do I want to make local roads safer? Of course I do.”
This persuasive rather than prescriptive approach is one that Mackay takes when the conversation turns to bus provision. Bus re-regulation has been high up the agenda on both sides of the border three decades on from deregulation taking effect. Scottish Labour’s bid to bring forward a bill, which would have allowed local councils to bundle together profitable and loss-making routes for tender, fell before the summer recess after parliament officials indicated they could not draft the proposed legislation in time for introduction before next May.
Mackay, who says local authorities already have the ability to proceed with a quality contract or bus partnership if they wish, intends to make some “imminent changes” to regulations that will mean if bus companies want to change or amend routes, they have to “consult more closely with local authorities and give greater notice”. “But I am not proposing bus re-regulation,” he tells Holyrood, after being encouraged by the Labour MSP to “take up the aims” of his bill.
“I made an offer to work with Iain Gray on his bill, he’s withdrawn it and I’ll do what I can. I think it would be unreasonable with the Programme for Government just being announced that I can squeeze in legislation in this last session at the end of a term of office. But I’ll be watching bus provision very closely to ensure we get quality reliable services and if I believe there is a requirement to legislate then I’ll do it. I have fired a warning shot to the bus companies, the operators, which is that I expect quality performance, I expect engagement with local authorities and regional transport partnerships so that communities are supported and people get access to public transport, and that fits in with national concessionary travel because we pay the bus companies to deliver that every year. So I would only turn to legislation if I felt it was required and right now, I don’t see the case to do that.”
This week, a stakeholder group formed to consider a refresh of Scotland’s National Transport Strategy is meeting for the first time. Mackay has told officials he wants the process concluded by Christmas, with a more integrated transport system and smart ticketing his two top priorities. “Between using contractual obligations, funding initiatives and, if required, legislation, we will make progress on integrated transport and smart ticketing,” he says. “This is a huge job, it involves IT and operators working together in partnership, cutting across the public and private sectors, so it will take time. But I am setting that ambition out there and intend for us to achieve it.”
Conditions put in the recent procurement process for the rail network as well as for the upcoming Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Services (CHFS) contract should help. Neither has been without its controversies in recent months, though. An industrial dispute within a few months of Abellio taking over the ScotRail franchise hit Sunday services, with Kevin Lindsay, Scottish secretary of Aslef, claiming at the time it was “scandalous what Abellio are trying to do to the railway in Scotland”.
“Throughout the industrial dispute, I worked to ensure that we got over it and we got the trains back to business,” says Mackay. “That’s what I am focused on, the trains are running, there’s massive investment coming, and I’m not going to get involved in the name calling or the tittle-tattle.” His timing could hardly have been better, speaking just a few hours after ScotRail unveiled the first of 40 new-look trains with improved seating, better lighting and power sockets for customers to use.
This came the day after the Scottish Government named the revitalised Ferguson yard in Port Glasgow as the preferred bidder for a £97m contract to build two ferries to operate in Scotland. However, the process of determining who will run much of Scotland’s ferry network has been – and will remain – in the spotlight until either CalMac or Serco is named preferred bidder for the CHFS contract next May. Mackay reiterates that not putting the service out to tender would have left government in breach of European regulations and therefore, the law.
That was deemed to be of little comfort to ferry workers, though, who participated in three days of industrial action in June, culminating in a 24-hour strike that saw two-thirds of CalMac routes cancelled. Further strike action was averted a month later, after extensive talks involving the operator, Scottish Government and union representatives.
“I understand public sector unions and public sector workers like working for the public sector, of course I understand their desire to keep working for the public sector,” says Mackay. “My priority as minister is to get the best quality service for the community of Scotland and that’s what I’ll do and I’ve worked very closely with the trade unions over the summer to allay their concerns. It has not been helped by the fact some people have been deliberately trying to toxify the situation with loose talk of privatisation, reduced routes and selling off assets. None of that would happen as a consequence of this procurement exercise, none of it would happen. This is not a cost-saving exercise, this is about continuity of ferry services.”
With trains now running on the Borders Railway and a number of large infrastructure projects, such as the construction of the £1.4bn Queensferry Crossing coming through, Mackay, unsurprisingly, sees the transport and infrastructure as a “real success story in this country”. Still, calls continue for a much larger shift in investment away from large-scale road projects into other alternatives, last month’s report by the Task Force on Low Carbon Infrastructure being the latest contribution.
“Of course, there is more work to be done and some of it’s about behaviour change as well – it is not just about money, it’s about behavioural change and lifestyle choices too, and how people choose to travel,” says Mackay. “There are huge infrastructure investment projects that are necessary and good for the economy, but they’re costly. They would include the Queensferry Crossing – a multi-billion-pound project – or the A9 dualling. These are big commitments [and the] right thing to do, but they come at a price.
“Now we’ve been running these projects competently, on time and on budget, indeed sometimes even under budget. But the transport investment is massive and within that context I’ve been increasing the active travel budget. I understand active travel campaigners will always ask for more, and they’re entitled to do that. But investing in the whole country’s infrastructure is a priority for the government and that’s across road, rail, aviation and ferries.”