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Winter is coming: Michael Matheson on reducing transport emissions and preparing for winter storms

Image credit: PA

Winter is coming: Michael Matheson on reducing transport emissions and preparing for winter storms

Winter is coming.

Three words that would usually strike terror into the heart of a transport secretary. Snow storms, ice, motorists sleeping in their cars. If the brief can appear a poisoned chalice, winter tends to be the season when things get trickiest in a country with an occasionally troubled relationship with transport infrastructure.

As the brief has grown in recent years, to encompass infrastructure, energy and connectivity, so too have the challenges brought by the days growing shorter, and the nights growing darker. Ice and snow may be typical for a Scottish winter, but recent trends towards more localised events – particularly the increased risk of flooding, storms and high winds – have added another dimension to preparations.

Yet if Michael Matheson is worried, he doesn’t show it. In fact, as winter tends to send the department’s work into overdrive, this year has brought an additional complication. Winter is coming, but so too is a general election.

I’m very conscious that in this portfolio there are a whole range of stakeholders who have an interest in their own agenda

And so, while Matheson continues his work as Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity in preparing for the coming chaos – winter starts in October and ends in May, as far as the department is concerned – he is now also spending an increasing amount of his free time on the campaign trail.

“It’s now taking priority over what I would say is my normal non-political diary,” he explains, speaking to Holyrood in the Scottish Parliament. “My personal time has become much more campaign focused, but I do enjoy election time. I know politicians always say that, but I do.”

Matheson says the election announcement didn’t come as much of a surprise, given the degree of volatility underlying UK politics. “We’ve gone through the looking glass,” as he puts it. But while he spends his spare time hitting the doorsteps, yet again, the business of the Scottish Parliament rumbles on. Political parties have scrambled onto an election footing, racing desperately to get campaign machinery up and firing, while back in Holyrood, work goes on as normal.

But things are no less busy in domestic policy terms. While the strain of preparing for Brexit is being felt north of the border, too, Matheson’s brief is arguably more important than ever. The declaration of a climate emergency, made by Nicola Sturgeon back in April, will bring significant implications for every brief in government. But nowhere is the need for radical change more pressing than in transport. Matheson has made changes of his own – he says his next car will either be a hybrid or an electric – but if Scotland is going to meet new emission targets contained in the climate change bill, change will be needed across the board.

This is one of the most defining issues of our political generation and we have a responsibility to take it forward in a measured, mature, sensible way

Matheson says: “The reality is that to deliver on our climate change targets, there will need to be a significant change in how transport is provided in Scotland going forward. So the declaration made by the First Minister sets us a challenge for how we can change our whole approach. We’ve already started that process, and if you look at our Programme for Government from September, climate change is central to it. If you look at the very ambitious measures we’ve set out – the decarbonisation of our rail network, the decarbonisation of our aviation sector, right through to the reductions that we’re looking for in petrol and diesel cars and moves towards greater use of active travel – that’s now feeding into the draft national transport strategy, through the hierarchy of transport that we’ve set out.”

Yet underlying these ambitions is the simple fact that transport emissions remain stubbornly high. Transport is the biggest contributor to Scotland’s emissions, and, within that, the majority of transport emissions come from car use, which is actually increasing. 

Figures from Transport Scotland show the proportion of journeys made on foot fell between 2017 and 2018, while bus use also dropped. Meanwhile, with cars making up 52.9 per cent of journeys in 2018, up from the year before, campaigners warned that “expenditure plans remain grotesquely skewed towards supporting more car use”.

So while the Scottish Government’s plans – to phase out polluting vehicles and boost use of public transport – are laudable, if car use is actually rising, and bus use is falling, it’s hard to escape the feeling there’s a gulf between the rhetoric and reality involved in these policies.

Yet others will point to the fact that, for decades, our transport system has been designed with the car in mind, and change cannot happen overnight. People in rural areas, in particular, rely on cars. How do you balance that tension?

“It’s a challenge. One of the demands being made in the present moment is that we should, in effect, not continue with any road-building programmes, to put all our resources into developing public transport and active travel infrastructure. It’s not about one or the other. In my view, it’s about taking a balanced approach, and that’s what I’m seeking to do, so that we get the right type of road infrastructure in our rural areas and our urban areas, while at the same time helping to support the infrastructure necessary to help people move to ultra-low emission vehicles, while also, particularly for shorter journeys, encouraging people to use active travel as their first option, alongside public transport. That’s what we’ve set out in the draft transport strategy, that hierarchy of walking, cycling, public transport, before you get to shared car use as well. It’s about creating that behavioural shift, which is really necessary.”

But what about the argument that the current level of investment in road building leads to greater car use? That more roads mean more cars?

“Well, car use has been increasing since the 1950s and 60s,” Matheson says, “and a big part of that is due to someone’s economic ability to purchase a car and to run a car. I don’t necessarily believe that if you provide greater or better road infrastructure, you’ll simply encourage more people to have cars. To me, it’s not one or the other, as I mentioned, it’s about trying to get the balanced approach. In our urban areas, with the right public transport offering, we know we can encourage people to make greater use of public transport. We can look at what they’re doing in Glasgow, [what] they’re doing in Edinburgh, the proposals that Edinburgh have for re-purposing the city centre and reducing car use, the introduction of a low emission zone and what they’re doing with the Lothian Bus fleet and attempts to decarbonise that. Glasgow has the first low emission zone in place, and bus has been the first area they’ve focused on. By 2022, it’ll move to other vehicles as well. To reduce car use in our city centre by having the biggest programme to support bus use, through the bus partnership fund, which will allow road space to be reassigned for bus use, which again will help prioritise public transport over single car use, in particular, in our city centres.”

“As someone who spent years climbing, I never trust a weather forecast much more than 24 or 48 hours ahead

He adds: “It’s a combination of trying to balance all these different things. I’m very conscious that in this portfolio there are a whole range of stakeholders who have an interest in their own agenda – whether from the environmental side, the cycling side, the walking side, the road haulage industry, the rail industry. What we need to do is make sure we get the balance of that right, but manage the transition away from where we are at the present moment because where we are at the moment is not sustainable. We have to change, and that process has started. What we have to do is give priority to the right areas, which can have the biggest impact in helping create that shift.”

But recent policy moves have suggested there’s an extent to which the Scottish Government can’t please everyone. The Workplace Parking Levy (WPL) stands as an  example. If the Scottish Government doesn’t hit emissions targets or take action to reduce air pollution it will be criticised, but when ministers agreed to adopt calls from the Scottish Greens for a WPL – a compromise from budget negotiations – criticism followed almost immediately.

Matheson says the shortened timeframe for getting the plans into the transport bill was not an issue – “one of the benefits I had from being in the justice portfolio for nearly four years is that I am well and truly used to dealing with legislation” – but surely the reaction must have come as something of a shock?

To motoring group the AA, it was “not an exaggeration to say this will become a poll tax on wheels”. To the Scottish Retail Consortium, it was “yet another tax on firms which they can ill afford”.

The Scottish Conservatives probably summed up responses from other opposition parties too in branding the policy a “ridiculous proposal”, with shadow finance secretary Murdo Fraser warning “this knee-jerk experiment has been dreamed up in a hurry, and there’s basically no detail at all”.

Under Scottish Government plans, local authorities would be given a discretionary power to introduce a WPL, through which employers of a certain size would pay an annual tax to the council for every parking space they provide for employees. Matheson stresses that local authorities would need to produce a local transport strategy and have a full consultation on it before they could introduce the levy, while they would also be given an exemption to reflect local circumstances. Yet his frustration is clear.

He says: “I sat in for part of the climate change bill debate, and the demands were very clear, from across the chamber. Across all the different parties – that we need to take urgent action in order to make sure we are taking forward proper measures that could help achieve our climate change targets, to the point where we need to take urgent action.

“If you look at the debate that took place in the Scottish Parliament, it demonstrated to me that there are many across the different political parties who are more than happy to talk a good game on climate change, but what they aren’t prepared to do is step up to the plate and take forward the policy initiatives which will be necessary to achieve that. In my view, if the parliament wants to deal with this properly then there’s an onus on all the political parties to conduct the debate around our climate change targets in a mature and considered way. If it continually gets bogged down in narrow party-political dog fights then the reality is we won’t make the progress which is necessary. This is one of the most defining issues of our political generation and we have a responsibility to take it forward in a measured, mature, sensible way.”

Whether the current generation of political leaders – in Scotland and beyond – is capable of responding to the growing threat posed by climate change, or whether party politics and the competing interests of nation states will continue to thwart action, remains to be seen. But while the response will need to span across decades, with December soon upon us, Matheson has more immediate issues to contend with. The Transport Secretary was part of the Ochils Mountain Rescue Team for almost two decades, and maybe that’s why he seems pretty relaxed about the changing weather. But when will he start nervously checking forecasts?

“As someone who spent years climbing, I never trust a weather forecast much more than 24 or 48 hours ahead. It would be fair to say our weather forecasters are getting more accurate all the time, and for the fifth or sixth year now, we’ve got a member of Met Office staff based in our transport multi-agency team, giving us information all the time. But, of course, although there’s a lot of science going into it, there are still some parts which are unpredictable, which means communicating with people as much as we can when adverse weather is coming.”

He adds: “One thing that has struck me in this portfolio is the amount of work that goes into preparing for winter in the transport network. It will always present us with challenges but we’ve got more gritters this year, we’re using more technology than we have ever done. We’ve also got the world’s first electric gritter, which will be used on the Forth Bridges.”

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