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Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:59 pm on 5th February 2020.

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Photo of Gavin Newlands Gavin Newlands Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport) 4:59 pm, 5th February 2020

I will start in a positive vein by welcoming the Prime Minister’s announcement yesterday of an acceleration in the phasing out of new petrol and diesel vehicles. Of course, he still lags a good few years behind the Scottish Government’s target of 2032, but it is progress none the less and we welcome it.

The Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Michael Matheson, today set out Scotland’s national transport strategy. It is an ambitious and bold strategy that places decarbonisation and our net zero target at the heart of all the Scottish Government do. It also places active travel where it should be—at the top of the transport hierarchy. The benefits to our transport system and the environment are manifold, but the wider benefits are in many ways greater still. Diseases of inactivity are among the biggest killers in western society. Placing walking at the centre of any transport strategy boosts life expectancy and allows our NHS to spend resources and time elsewhere. This debate, therefore, is not just about the environmental benefits for all; it is also about the environment in which each of us lives and how we can improve it to give everyone the best outcome possible for life.

That requires a strategy—something that is missing from the UK Government’s approach. There is no national transport strategy for England or the UK as a whole. There are investment strategies, inclusive strategies, strategic plans for the north of England, and infrastructure skills strategies. They are all important and part of the mix, but there is no overall plan to improve transport in the round. My colleague at Holyrood deserves praise for the work that he and Transport Scotland have done to embed in a national plan of action the principles of fairness, environmental justice and sustainable growth in tackling inequalities and transitioning to net zero.

To achieve those net zero targets, we need a strong lead from the state, with clear-headed policies, not just in terms of our obligations to cut emissions and tackle climate change, but in order to develop our economy and society more generally. Gone are the days when millions of us lived within a short walk of our workplaces and neighbourhood shops. We now need and expect to be able to travel with the minimum of fuss and the maximum of comfort, which is exactly how it should be in a wealthy 21st-century society.

That sort of system cannot focus on one solution alone; we need a basket of policies that fit all our lives and take into account our varying geography and topography. We can look at what works and at what can be done now and in the near future to accelerate sustainability. One example, as both Front-Bench representatives have said, is to improve our buses. In Scotland, nearly 400 million bus journeys are made every year, which is four times the number of ScotRail passenger journeys. More than one quarter of all people use a bus at least once a week, and nearly one fifth of our school students travel to school on a bus. Four thousand buses result in more than 1 million journeys every day, travelling the length and breadth of Scotland, from Shetland to Stranraer.

For far too long, however, the public bus system has been overshadowed by rail. Barely a week goes by without some breathless coverage—often merited, sometimes not so much—of an incident on our railways. Meanwhile, the slow decline of bus services and the drift downwards of patronage and coverage largely goes unreported and is not commented on.

That is exactly why last September the Scottish Government’s programme for government announced a record half a billion pounds of investment in infrastructure designed to improve bus services by reducing and removing the impacts of congestion, giving more priority to buses, and fundamentally increasing buses’ modal share and reducing our use of private cars. That modal share slipped below 10% for the first time in the most recent round of transport statistics, which is just one reason why that £500 million represents a massively positive breakthrough in transport priorities.

Investing in the bus network is not just about reducing emissions and congestion or moving to decarbonisation; it is also about social justice. Put simply, the lower somebody’s income, the more likely they are to rely on the bus. Social mobility is not just a figure of speech. Flexible transport services go hand in hand with ease of access to employment and they improve labour market options for employees. Supporting bus travel is a fully progressive policy that shifts wealth and income to the poorest in society and empowers people to have a much wider choice of where and how they want to earn a living.

I welcome the Government’s announcement of extra funding to reinstate some of the slash-and-burn policies instituted by Beeching nearly 60 years ago, but I am concerned about the “reversing Beeching” programme. How does a series of separate branch lines scattered around the country form part of a system-wide plan for a rail network with a bigger picture for the regional and national level? Whatever people’s opinions of HS2, it is at least an attempt to think strategically about future transport needs.

I know the Secretary of State will disagree with me, as he has done previously, on the £500 million being a drop in the ocean, but that is the truth. The Borders railway, which was a strategic project aimed at massively boosting connectivity and the economy of a part of the world that is too often left to fend for itself with crumbs from the table, and was one of the final victims of the Beeching report in 1969, cost £294 million for 40 miles of single-line track over a distance of 31 miles. With consumer prices index inflation factored in, that is £328 million. By the time the consultants, the press officers, and the hi-vis and hard hats for visiting dignitaries and—dare I say—Secretaries of State have been paid for, the £500 million promised by the DFT will pay for about one and a half Borders railways somewhere in England. That would be 60 miles of track, added to a network of over 16,000 miles in England and Wales—an increase of 0.38%.