Jamie Greene: What Thatcher could teach the SNP about thinking big
A core component of any country’s economic growth is the viability of its transport infrastructure. Linking people to communities and communities to markets is common sense. The transport pioneers of bygone era took huge, at times quite bonkers, financial risks and dedicated their lives to lay the foundations of everyday things like the London Underground and cross-country railways.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel was looking beyond 1900 when he drew up plans for the Clifton suspension bridge at Bristol. Just as Sir Charles Bressey was looking beyond 2000 when he proposed a ring road round London. Margaret Thatcher eventually opened the M25 in 1986, when I was just six years of age. It’s also why the aforementioned Prime Minister and French Premier François Mitterrand set about linking Britain with the Continent through the ambitious Channel Tunnel project. Some thought them both mad as a box of frogs.
David Cameron’s Government gave London’s east-to-west CrossRail the green light and laid plans to link the North and South with a high-speed rail link. Admirable and ambitious, if a tad expensive and controversial.
The key to all of this was an acceptance that what was right for today might not duly serve the people of tomorrow, an acceptance that such decisions might be unpopular and invariably prove to be costly headaches to deliver – but deliver they must.
Britain is home to some of the world’s greatest transport infrastructure but it often it feels that as we step across the border from England into Scotland we also step back in time.
The truth is that successive Scottish Governments paid little attention to tomorrow’s world. We see that in the sticking plaster approach so evident today. The odd by-pass here, the odd dual-carriageway there. Turning a two-lane motorway into a three-lane one before it goes back to two again. Playing catch-up with burgeoning infrastructure, creaking at the seams and leaking productivity like a Dickensian water pipe.
There is no doubt that the new Queensferry Crossing is a visual masterpiece. It would be churlish of me to suggest otherwise. The (partially) Scottish project is no mean feat of engineering and has captured the attention of Sydney Harbour lovers and Golden Gate aficionados. The difference of course being that the Golden Gate bridge has closed just three times in 80 years. The new Forth crossing barely reached 80 days before it had to close for “snagging” work.
At a cost of £1.35bn and with a lifespan of 150 years, it is replacing a bridge that was built just 53 years ago which failed to withstand the test of time. They both in turn sit next to a rail bridge built in 1890, which peers down its spectacles at them with a sense of Victorian smugness. “Rusted in colour I may be, but I’m still standing” says the Grande Dame of the Forth. You can stick a Saltire on the top of something but vision is not just delivering on a previous government’s earnest sweat and toil. Nor is it about delivering a project which you opposed.
Take the Edinburgh Airport Rail Link as a prime example; Holyrood gave approval for it in 2007. Then the SNP came to power and canned the project. They also tried to scrap the now iconic, if controversial, Edinburgh Tram project but were defeated in Parliament. The end result was a tram service which sits largely on Edinburgh’s own capital debt and at arm’s length from central government. Unless we see real leadership, the Glasgow Airport Rail Link could suffer a similar fate. The current solution looks set to impact commuters on the Inverclyde and Ayrshire lines as we
push high volumes of traffic into already busy mainline interchanges. Such is the frustration over a lack of progress, inventors are mooting ideas like floating travellators and high-speed pods as almost viable alternatives. Edinburgh Gateway station is indicative of the short-sightedness that encompasses central government’s transport strategy. A poor man’s alternative to a real mainline airport link.
When faced with a similar question around Schiphol airport connectivity in the 1980s, the Dutch – ever imaginative in their interpretation of progress – went for a fully fledged rail link connecting its largest airport to its major cities. You get off the plane and within minutes you’re underground in an affordably priced, Wi-Fi-enabled train whizzing you to Eindhoven quicker than you can say Stroopwafel. You even get a seat. While we got an over-priced and misunderstood “Connectivity Hub”, the Dutch got one of Europe’s foremost transport hubs. The SNP recently proposed their “Programme for Government”, a somewhat glossy affair, which was meant to be a vision of a future Scotland. Far from bold or visionary, I pulled out half a dozen transport policies which do nothing more than tinker round the edges of infrastructure.
The Scottish National Transport Strategy “refresh” is due out 2019. I suspect it will be nothing more than that, a refresh. Like a quick spray of Lynx on the way home from the gym because you don’t have time or energy to do otherwise.
Before the financial crash, Spain started construction on a world class high-speed rail linking Madrid and Barcelona, covering the 386-mile distance in two hours 30 minutes. Travel to Berlin and you’ll experience how an integrated transport system (linking city trains, metro systems, buses and trams) enhances the city experience. With strong visions these countries efficiently and successfully connect their cities to cities, markets to markets and people to people. The key difference between SNP Government in Scotland and Merkel’s Germany, Zapatero’s Spain or the Netherlands under Ruud Lubbers, is that these projects were all about future proofing.
The SNP in Scotland is simply paying lip-service to the idea of a good transport system, in the face of a downward ride on the wrong side of a cyclical, tidal curve of political vogue, limping through five-year parliamentary terms instead of proposing projects that are delivered over several parliaments.
Had the SNP started work on long-term infrastructure plans a decade ago we would now be seeing tangible economic and social fruits of that labour: rural repopulation, environmental benefits and rises in productivity. Instead we are entering 2018 with a transport network playing catch-up with the needs of 1998. And all of this matters. It really matters. I make no apologies for saying that the Scottish Government should be talking less about a five-year refresh and more about a 50-year plan. Just like our many train lines, we are on a single-track road to stagnation. I could pun all day, but the message to Government is a serious one: think big, think vision, think long-term.