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Q&A: Transport secretary Michael Matheson

David Anderson/Holyrood

Q&A: Transport secretary Michael Matheson

Apart from coronavirus, what is the most significant thing that has happened within your portfolio over the last year? Two of the most significant moments, both related, was when Parliament voted through the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019 in October – and when we put forward Scotland’s new National Transport Strategy (NTS) in February. The Transport Act will help to make Scotland’s transport network cleaner, smarter and more accessible than ever before – supporting the priorities in our NTS of reducing inequalities and taking climate action while helping deliver inclusive economic growth and improving health and wellbeing.

Both the Transport Act and the NTS were the culmination of a huge amount of work involving substantial public consultation, stakeholder engagement and Parliamentary scrutiny. I’m proud that we have set out a Strategy that is a catalyst for change, underpinned by innovative legislation that will protect our climate and improve lives. Achieving Royal Assent for the multi-faceted Bill in November 2019 was a pinnacle moment. During its passage over 400 amendments were considered in Parliament and has resulted in a 10 part Act which reflects the breadth of what we want to achieve on transport and the complexity of the Bill process.  The team working on the Act recently won The Chartered Institution of Highways & Transportation (CIHT) award for Team of the Year which reflects this work.

For me, While the COVID-19 outbreak has created unprecedented pressures on the priorities of government, the shared vision in our National Transport Strategy for a fairer and greener transport system remains just as relevant in guiding our actions through and out of this crisis, as it does for shaping the future provision of transport, forming the basis upon which we take decisions and deliver Scotland’s transport policies going forward.

Lockdown brought an increase in active travel, with people walking and taking to bikes to get around. To what extent do you think that will be a temporary change? It’s been fantastic to see people walking, cycling and wheeling during this period. None of us will be surprised to see rates of cycling decrease again the winter, as is often the challenge – but much has been gained, and in some ways changed forever.

The Spaces for People initiative has been a fantastic success in terms of take-up by local authorities of the £30 million on offer to provide temporary infrastructure to enable physical distancing. Coupled with the reductions in traffic we had seen, this provided an opportunity for communities to reimagine our towns and cities as places not dominated by cars but by people.

There’s a clear appetite for more of this change, which matches our vision for the future of transport as outlined in the National Transport Strategy. Through continued investment in protected infrastructure and behavioural change programmes which incentivise a shift in travel behavior – I’m confident we can build what we call an Active Nation – where more people walk, wheel and cycle in Scotland than ever before.

Will people be scared to use public transport following the pandemic? We’ve been undertaking public attitude surveys and those results have been published. We can’t escape the fact that uncertainty remains over the safety of using public transport – but there are two issues at play – immediate and longer term.

Right now, as a result of physical distancing, we have roughly 35% capacity compared to what we have normally. This capacity issue is a direct consequence of the guidance operators are working to in order to keep people safe. There is also enhanced cleaning, hand sanitiser at key hubs and we’ve made face coverings mandatory – recognising physical distancing may not always be possible.

For those that need to use public transport – every effort is being made to ensure transport is generally safe – but it is important to note that there is no risk free solution here. All we can do is manage that risk appropriately until physical distancing is no longer a requirement.

Because of physical distancing, we need people to leave public transport for those that need it most – and so we’re asking people to stay local, walk, wheel or cycle and to plan ahead in order to avoid peak times. However, the longer term issue is that anxiety around public transport, coupled with the asks we’re making of people across the country could result in a longer term decline in public transport use as people opt for the comfort of their cars if that is an option for them. While this trend is historic, particularly around bus use – we’re working hard to encourage active and sustainable public transport as much as we possibly can.

How can Scotland improve infrastructure for electric vehicles? A wide scale shift to electric vehicles is needed if we are to realise our ambition of a greener and cleaner Scotland.  That said,  we need to go further than replacing petrol and diesel vehicles like for like and our top priority is focused on promoting active and sustainable travel.  Walking, wheeling and cycling provide much greater health and environmental benefits, and importantly reduce road congestion allowing our towns and cities to become more pleasant environments for us all to enjoy.   

Of course, active travel will not be suitable for all journeys and this is where electric vehicles bring profound benefits, along with a wider transport mix including public transport. On electric vehicle charging infrastructure, Scotland already leads the way. Figures from June show that Scottish electric vehicle drivers benefit from almost 40 public charge points per one hundred thousand people, compared to fewer than 30 in England and fewer than 20 in Wales and Northern Ireland – but while we can be proud of our charging network, the future provision of EV charging in Scotland  doesn’t necessarily rest solely with the government. Supermarkets, fast food chains and service stations are increasingly aware that having charge points will be a really important factor in terms of attracting and providing services to customers, as electric vehicles become the norm.

We’ve committed to phasing out the need for new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2032 and so of course Scotland will need more charge points as well as other zero emission vehicle infrastructure such as hydrogen refuelling for larger commercial vehicles.  We will continue to support the expansion of our ChargePlace Scotland network over the next few years to provide a robust core national charging network across all parts of the country.  Beyond that, once the private sector has moved into the space in a serious way, our position will likely change to maintaining, rather than expanding this core network, with Scotland’s electric vehicle drivers benefitting from increasing charging opportunities from the private sector, alongside the provision of our publically owned backbone of electric vehicles chargers across all parts of the country. 

And it’s not just public charging and vehicles that are important. Scotland’s public sector needs to lead the way in switching to EVs. That’s why we’ve also committed to supporting decarbonisation of our public sector fleet through phasing out the need for any new petrol and diesel cars and light commercial vehicles by 2025.  We will continue to work with our public bodies to help them implement workplace or depot charging infrastructure to meet this future demand.

Home working is likely to become more common following coronavirus. How can Scotland ensure it has the digital infrastructure needed to make that possible? The COVID-19 pandemic has underlined digital connectivity as part of the critical national infrastructure of our country. It has been hugely valuable in helping everyone cope with the lockdown, enabling home learning and working, keeping friends and family in touch with each other and helping businesses to keep trading online. It now has a critical role to play in helping people to stay safe as well as forming an important role in our strategic economic recovery from the pandemic, providing opportunities maintain jobs and livelihoods and, importantly, ensure we develop the skills and new job opportunities as we build on the infrastructure already in place.

Broadband and mobile staff, as key workers, carried on throughout lockdown to support essential services, such as connectivity to our hospitals and other health care settings and I would like to take this opportunity to thank them for their contribution to our efforts.   

It’s important to remember that all regulation and legislative powers regarding telecommunications are reserved to Westminster and are the responsibility of the UK Government. Despite this, and recognising the importance of broadband to economic development and a green recovery, the Scottish Government has helped deliver a £400 million Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband (DSSB) programme which has brought transformative results.

The court case being brought by Gigaclear over the R100 contract seems like it could scupper plans for the remaining superfast broadband rollout in the north of Scotland. Are you confident that this will still go ahead as planned? It would be inappropriate to comment on the legal proceedings in respect of the North Lot while those proceedings are ongoing, but what I can say is that it is of course disappointing that we have not yet been able to forge ahead with plans for the North Lot, but we are placing a very high priority on enabling access to superfast broadband services across all of Scotland, at the earliest opportunity - including in the North Lot area. Despite the challenges associated with COVID-19, I am pleased to say that R100 activity will commence in the South and Central Lot areas over the summer. This follows survey and design work that was undertaken in the period since both contracts were signed at the turn of the year.

Delivering on our ambitions for R100, which will bring many economic benefits in our response to COVID-19 and beyond, requires major targeted investment - just 3.5% of the £600 million committed to the R100 contracts comes from the UK Government. As we look to ensure that all premises have access to at least superfast speeds by the end of 2021, in part through our Scottish Broadband Voucher Scheme, it is vital that the UK Government scales up its commitment in order to realise what are mutual benefits.

Has coronavirus led you to rethink any priorities within transport and infrastructure? Our guiding approach is outlined in the National Transport Strategy, and as mentioned this remains as relevant now as it did prior to the COVID-19 crisis. Once restrictions on physical distancing are removed, I’m keen we continue to press initiatives which encourage public transport as much as possible.

A feature of the last Programme for Government was an initiative around bus priority infrastructure to make bus journeys on congested corridors faster and more reliable. This had to be paused as we focused on our response to the outbreak, but will be a central part of our green recovery going forward, as will continued support for active travel infrastructure and rail decarbonisation. In the short term, I recently launched a Bus Priority Rapid Deployment Fund so that local authorities experiencing the worst congestion can get on and put in place temporary measures like bus lanes or gates.  I see this fund as a positive opportunity to trial interventions now as longer term plans are formed – and this applies equally to the Spaces for People initiative.

This is in conjunction with the steps we have already taken to maintain the value of Bus Service Operator Grants and concessionary travel payments at pre-crisis levels, and to the £46.7 million emergency funding package we’re providing to bus operators to ramp up services as demand picks up. We’re also providing up to £9 million of emergency funding for the Glasgow Subway and Edinburgh Trams to help with the financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Of course – the challenge we’ve always faced in reducing transport emissions is the fact that demand for transport is a derived demand. It can be tricky to reduce the requirement for people to get around without undermining economic growth. We’ve had the technology for many years, but as we’ve discussed, the lockdown period forced businesses to think differently about what is possible through remote working. We must capitalise on what we’ve learned and promote a new kind of localism which can support sustainable economic growth.

Other than seeing friends and family, what did you miss most during lockdown OR what did you most look forward to doing after lockdown was lifted? I miss going to watch football on a Saturday afternoon with friends and I particularly miss watching my children playing in games.

If you had to spend lockdown with one other member of the cabinet, who would it be and why? It would be Michael Russell or Roseanna Cunningham as the both stay in beautiful rural parts of Scotland.

Read the most recent article written by Staff reporter - Q&A: Alex Cole-Hamilton on the health of the nation

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