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Scottish Government committee calls for 'radical rethink' of Scotland's approach to transport spending to meet changes of a post-Covid coronavirus world

By Philip Murray

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Highland MSP Edward Mountain is the committee's convenor.
Highland MSP Edward Mountain is the committee's convenor.

A “RADICAL rethink” of Scotland’s approach to transport-related public spending is needed to meet the changing needs of passengers in a post-Covid world, according to MSPs.

Holyrood’s Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee has called on the Scottish Government to review its transport spending priorities in light of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on work and travel patterns and demand for transport services.

They also want to see changes aimed at helping the country meet longer-term climate change targets.

As part of the committee’s scrutiny, MSPs heard evidence from a range of organisations on the financial implications of Covid-19 for the rural economy and transport operators.

As well as possible long-term changes to work commuting behaviour, they believe the mix of home and office working has underlined the importance of good digital connections in remote and rural areas.

On a positive note, the committee also heard that the virus had helped to reinforce local food supply chains and provided an opportunity for some farmers and fishers to sell produce and fish directly to the public.

In a letter to the Scottish Ministers, the committee called for the impact of the pandemic to be reflected in the next Scottish Budget, which will be published in January.

Committee convener, the Highland MSP Edward Mountain, said: “Given the significant changes that have taken place as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic with regard to travel patterns and the use of public transport – some of which may be long-term or even permanentthe committee urges the Scottish Government and Transport Scotland to undertake a comprehensive review of transport-related spending priorities with a view to developing a revised financial strategy for Scotland’s transport sector that continues to meet the long-term needs of passengers and transport users.

“The committee is of the view that a combination of the change in transport use brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic and the level of ambition in the commitment that Scotland should become a net zero society by 2045 will require a radical rethink of future transport spending priorities, including a further prioritisation of investment in active travel, modal shift in freight transport and in favour of the repair and maintenance of existing transport infrastructure compared to construction of new infrastructure. The committee would like to see this change in priorities already starting to be reflected in the Scottish budget for 2021-22.

“In light of the far-reaching impacts the Covid-19 pandemic has had on working behaviours, the committee urges the Scottish Government to create suitable structures to enable much closer policy coordination between transport and digital connectivity with a view to ensuring optimal use of finite financial resources to facilitate an anticipated long-term shift for many people towards a ‘blended work model’ combining an element of home working and an element of travel to work.”

The convener added: “The committee also highlights the significant contribution the agricultural sector can potentially make towards achieving the Scottish Government’s goal of a green recovery and therefore requests that any additional funding allocated in the 2021-22 budget towards achieving that goal should be focused accordingly.”

Responding to his remarks, a Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The pace of change in economic and social activity during this pandemic is unprecedented and has had a significant impact on travel demand across all modes. Given the scale of uncertainty we are already considering the implications for our transport network in some detail.

“The second Strategic Transport Projects Review (STPR2) will determine our future transport investment priorities over the next two decades. Phase 1 is due to be published in the coming months and will make recommendations for investment which “lock in” the positive travel behaviours we have seen during the course of the pandemic, including more home working, walking, wheeling and cycling. This work will be linked to the National Transport Strategy Delivery Plan, the Climate Change Plan update, as well as the Infrastructure Investment Plan.

“To date, we have approved additional support of over £500 million across modes to enable our public transport system to continue running throughout the pandemic, keeping services running for those people that need to use them. We have also made available almost £39 million plus a package of support for temporary active travel measures through the Spaces for People programme. These temporary measures are needed to allow people to physically distance, also keeping them safe from traffic whilst exercising, shopping or commuting.

“Through Programme for Government (PfG), we have committed over £500 million towards active travel projects over the next five years, and are investing an additional £500 million for bus priority infrastructure to tackle the negative impacts of congestion on bus services and encourage the transition away from car use towards public transport.That includes the Bus Partnership Fund, which launched this week and work underway to reallocate road space on parts of the motorway network to high-occupancy vehicles such as buses.”

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