Green Recovery Inquiry

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 9th February 2021.

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Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

I thank the committee for its report and the work that has gone into it. I am not a member of the committee and have come to the report somewhat late in the day, so I will focus on a few particular aspects.

One is transport, which members, including Sarah Boyack, have mentioned. I was particularly interested in that section of the report, not least because of my involvement in the cross-party group on rail. During the current lockdown, and in contrast to last spring, I have heard several people noting how busy the roads are. In contrast, the trains are incredibly quiet. The packed commuter trains are gone, at least for now, and people no longer pour out at Glasgow Queen Street or Edinburgh Park.

That raises a few questions in my mind. First, will we see a permanent switch to more home working and therefore less commuting as we leave the pandemic behind? Or will the social aspect of work and the opportunity for less-formal interaction with colleagues draw people back to their offices?

Secondly, people clearly feel safer from the virus in their cars than they do on public transport. Can we turn that around and get people back on to trains and buses? If so, how long will that process take? We have got into the habit of keeping our distance from other people. Will that change back, or will that habit become permanent?

Thirdly, on a related subject, what will happen to our city centres? In recent years, office workers have come in from 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, then others have come into city centres for shopping and leisure in the evenings and at weekends.

I would not like to predict the answers to those questions, but they are fundamental and will guide our budgetary spending and our policies on planning and in other areas. I note that the committee suggests changes to the coming year’s budget, but I wonder whether it is too soon for major changes in direction when we are still in a period of lockdown and are uncertain about the future. Last summer, when things opened up, some people did return quickly to restaurants, the cinema and such, but others did not. It might be too early to say what the long-term changes in behaviour—if there are any—will be.

Our short-term investment decisions will need to change in the light of those long-term trends. If we want people out of petrol and diesel cars and into electric ones, we should focus on installing charging points, improving roads and using car batteries as storage for excess electricity. That would, in turn, impact on the national grid. However, if we want people out of all cars and on to public transport, we should invest more in bus development and rail infrastructure, including by reopening closed lines as we have been doing. Then again, if we want people to live and work closer to home, should we invest in transport infrastructure at all? I hasten to add that I am not arguing against investment in transport infrastructure, but it is a question that we must ask.

Those are just some of the questions that come to my mind, and I suspect that the answers will not be black and white. We will probably make compromises on most of them.

I note the references in the report to the Scottish National Investment Bank. In its response, the Government points out that the primary mission of the SNIB is the transition to net zero. I also note the committee’s desire to increase the finance that the bank has available to invest. That is a laudable aim, but Westminster’s financial transaction money has been key to the bank’s funding, and that particular source is being severely cut back in 2021-22.

The new UK shared prosperity fund was also mentioned, but the indications seem to be that Westminster wants to use it as something of an advertising tool for itself, so the chances of any investment from there being aligned with the Scottish Parliament’s desire for a green recovery are probably reduced, sadly.

I thank the committee for the report and for touching on such a wide range of issues.