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Q&A: Michael Matheson on the new cabinet secretary role for transport, infrastructure and connectivity

Q&A: Michael Matheson on the new cabinet secretary role for transport, infrastructure and connectivity

Michael Matheson - Image credit: David Anderson/Holyrood

The creation of a new cabinet secretary for infrastructure highlights the key role this is expected to play in economic growth. What do you see as the priorities to deliver that?

Scotland’s economy from north to south, east to west, and urban to rural demands faster, more reliable physical and digital connections to better link people and places. The creation of this portfolio highlights the importance that we as a government place on investment in infrastructure as a key driver of economic growth. Infrastructure investment sits at the heart of our strategy for delivering inclusive economic growth, creating and supporting jobs and providing public assets that enhance the quality of public services.

The pace of technological change is rapid, and Scotland must not only keep up with that pace of change, it must lead it too. Investment in physical and digital connectivity is crucial for future economic prosperity. Infrastructure investment provides a boost to the economy through the construction activity it supports, and increasing productivity growth. Investment in broadband, transport networks and utilities provide the foundations that companies require to invest and for new businesses to be established, and that is why bringing this all together in one portfolio is so important.  

And transport is also at the very heart of providing the physical infrastructure needed to help support economic growth. Hospitals, housing, businesses and retail all rely on transport, just as transport relies on infrastructure such as broadband and utilities to function. We’ve put around £20 billion into transport projects over the last decade, schemes that will better connect economic hubs, big and small, with improved physical links. Our flagship road schemes speak for themselves. In less than 10 years since it was first announced to parliament, we have opened a new £1.34 billion crossing on the Forth Estuary, a complex engineering feat that has put our workmanship to the front and centre of global engineering.

In an age of burgeoning technological advancements, digital connectivity is also playing an increasingly influential role in Scotland’s economic success. Our Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband programme achieved its target of extending fibre broadband access to 95 per cent of homes and premises by the end of 2017. We announced the single largest public investment ever made in a UK broadband project – some £600 million through the ‘Reaching 100%’ project. It is a commitment, and a programme, entirely unique to Scotland. It is a choice that the Scottish Government has made – superfast broadband for all, and no other part of the UK has matched our ambition.

You and Humza Yousaf have more or less swapped roles. What advice would you give him from your experience in justice and what will you be seeking his advice on?

The transport, infrastructure and connectivity portfolio brings together a range of policy that was previously spread across three different cabinet secretaries: Keith Brown, Fergus Ewing and Humza Yousaf. So, transport is just one element of my portfolio; cities, city region and growth deals, infrastructure investment policy, town centres and energy also fall within my remit. It also includes digital connectivity, which is absolutely vital to the future economic prospects of Scotland. 

We increasingly expect more and more from our broadband and mobile services, whether it be the ability to stream 4K UHD programmes on the go, transform the way businesses work, or providing digitally innovative public services. The transformational nature of a truly digital Scotland cannot be underestimated, and we have to get ready for the next digital age now – we cannot be left in the digital slow lane.

Both portfolios have their challenges and undoubtedly experience gained in either will stand Humza and myself in good stead as we prepare to take on a different role. That is not to say we can’t learn from each other. Both portfolios have an array of stakeholders, some common and some very different. By listening to our individual experiences, we can share insight and understanding about what makes our key partners, and our biggest critics, tick.

How will the loss of European funding affect future infrastructure plans?

We will continue to press for continued access to the European Investment Bank (EIB). Should EIB investment no longer be available, commercial lending would need to be sought as an alternative, however, this may be at higher rates. The EIB does provide finance to some countries outside of the EU but this is governed by a series of mandates from the EU and the rates for finance may not be as favourable for ‘third country’ access. This provides another example of the damage that Brexit will inflict on Scotland’s economy.

Since 2006, the EIB has provided more than £3 billion for direct investment in Scotland, with additional investment from UK-wide programmes. This includes investment in our NPD programme of over £650 million providing finance for the City of Glasgow College, M8/M74/M73 motorway improvements, Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route, Dumfries & Galloway Royal Infirmary and Edinburgh Royal Hospital for Sick Children.

‎UK projects have signed around €8 billion of finance each year from the EIB/EIF in the last few years, with about €37 billion of EIB loans outstanding and a further €11 billion of loans contractually committed to be disbursed.

Infrastructure investment is central to the Scottish Government’s economic strategy and we are firmly committed to infrastructure investment as a key factor in securing economic growth. We will continue to use all levers at our disposal to maximise investment and support economic growth including capital grant, use of our borrowing powers, revenue finance and other innovative approaches such as the use of guarantees, tax-incremental financing and growth accelerator.

Increased funding is being put towards active travel, but on the ground, it seems the car is still king and walkers and cyclists are an afterthought. How can you change that?

It’s right that we have doubled the active travel budget from £39 million to £80 million a year from 2018-19, but this is just part of over £217 million we have invested in active travel since 2011.

Following our proposals on low emission zones, many papers were quick to suggest that this government is anti-car. That couldn’t be further from the truth. What we have outlined through low emission zones, alongside additional funding for active and low carbon travel, is a future vision for transport I believe we can all agree on. It’s a simple and sustainable proposition. We want more people to benefit from walking, cycling and public transport, and where a car is required, we want electric vehicles to be seen as the economical and greener choice.

In terms of changing behaviour, we know that segregated cycling infrastructure helps people consider cycling and so we are delivering over 200 of those projects across Scotland through Sustrans. We’re providing interest-free loans so people can purchase e-bikes. The provisions in the new Transport Bill on parking will help put pedestrians first on our pavements and improve accessibility and ease of use.

Finally, we will continue to listen and learn both here and abroad. The previous transport minister Humza Yousaf visited the Netherlands in February where he met with active travel leaders. We will continue to bring these lessons home and listen closely to the people of Scotland to bring about the greener and healthier revolution in transport we all want to see.

Rail travel often seems to be lower on the priorities than expanding the road network. Is it, and will that change?

Not at all. Rail is enjoying a renaissance and is now more popular than ever, with almost 97 million passenger journeys made in 2017. This is in no small part down to £8 billion invested over the past decade to enhance the network.

This period has seen services increase to 2,300 daily, with a further 200 in the next 12 months. We’ve added 160 extra carriages to ScotRail’s fleet, with an additional 200 to follow. And, we have 75 new coaches planned for the Caledonian Sleeper.  Once all this is delivered, we will have increased passenger capacity by 50 per cent over 2007 levels.

Services returned to the Borders Railway for the first time in nearly 50 years, and the second anniversary results speak for themselves in terms of the benefits this has reaped for communities along the length of the line. We also opened the Airdrie-Bathgate line and its new stations, enabling more people to connect directly with two of our key cities and across the central belt. We are upgrading the line between Aberdeen and the central belt to speed up journey times.

Over the past 10 years, 76 kilometres of new track has been built. Complementing this is our current electrification programme which, on completion, will transform rail travel by enabling faster journeys across many routes.

We’ve capped fares at or below inflation to make rail a more affordable transport alternative. We’re linking more journeys by making more cycle spaces at key locations on the rail network, and wi-fi is being rolled out around the country. Our substantial and ongoing investment to 2019 is truly helping build the best railway Scotland has ever had.

With the recent city deals, is there a risk that urban areas get all the benefit of targeted growth funding and rural parts of the country miss out?

It is not the case that rural areas will miss out on growth funding. Each city region already includes rural areas and our Enterprise and Skills Review last year made it clear that we are expanding our regional economic policy to go beyond city deals to support the creation of regional partnerships right across the country. The Scottish Government is committed to 100 per cent coverage of Scotland with a growth deal.  The UK Government has made formal commitments to supporting growth deals for Ayrshire and the Borderlands and I will be engaging with them to encourage them to extend that commitment to the remaining parts of Scotland. Put simply, if we are to achieve our ambition of inclusive growth in every part of the country, we need to ensure that everywhere in Scotland can thrive, capitalising on regional strengths and opportunities.

Strengthening Scotland’s economy so that it benefits all is at the core of what the Scottish Government is about. Scotland’s cities and their surrounding regions represent the most significant concentrations of economic assets in our country and cover around 83 per cent of Scotland’s population. That is why the Scottish Government is working with the UK Government and regional partners to unlock the economic potential of our city regions and maximise their impact. The city region deals that we have already agreed – in Glasgow, Aberdeen, Inverness, Edinburgh and Stirling, and are close to agreeing for the Tay cities – will support our plans for inclusive economic growth.

Is a bridge to Northern Ireland a realistic prospect and will you be considering it?

We are keen to explore all potential opportunities for improving Scotland’s transport links, but as with all proposed infrastructure investment, decisions would need to be founded on a robust business case.

If money were no object, what would be your dream infrastructure project?

It would be trite to suggest just one as even the smallest projects can make a significant difference to the communities they serve. While there are many aspirational projects, too, we need to be sure they can deliver for the people of Scotland.

Having an infinite budget may, on the surface, seem like the dream scenario but it would bring with it many problems. If you don’t have the requirement to demonstrate a good return on investment, then how do you plan and, even more so, deliver value to the public purse? The requirement to plan and prioritise works, according to their benefits and available resource, may not always bring about everything everyone wants, but it is the best way to use scare financial resource.

We can see this in practice with the new ‘pipeline approach’ to rail investment in the next control period – CP6. This places emphasis on a whole system approach to investment, ensuring best use of public funds at every stage of project design, development and delivery. It has been developed in response to lessons learned from past experience and the previous control periods. We’ve listened to the views of local communities and the rail industry. This new approach will deliver a framework for rail investment with a sharp focus on the right solutions for passengers and freight users, greater efficiency, oversight and value for money.

What was the best thing you ever built out of Lego?

Over the years, I’ve helped my kids with a variety of building projects involving Lego. However, I have been impressed with the Guinness World Record-holding Lego bridge which is currently on display in Glasgow, having been on a worldwide tour. I also like that it was launched to coincide with International Women in Engineering Day. Anything that raises awareness or motivates young people to get into engineering is a welcome initiative.

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