Why the Scottish budget matters

So Glasgow has been building what are (by our very low British expectations) pretty good cycle routes. Far from perfect, but a league above the usual crap cycle lanes. And in the Highlands, routes (primarily recreational) suitable for pootling families and hardcore tourers alike are taking shape. But this progress is under threat from cuts proposed in the budget bill that is currently going through the Scottish Parliament.

The Caledonia Way between Oban and Glencoe is not yet complete (and Sustrans never did get back to me regarding the status of funding for the final third), and patchy bits of a route like this is barely better than nothing: if you were put off by the fifty kilometres of main road, you’ll probably still be put off by the remaining fifteen. Nice to have for the 1% who were already cycling, but no use for growing that 1%. And by ending at Glencoe the route currently misses the trick of linking two railway towns, Oban and Fort William, 20km beyond Glencoe up the A82 trunk road. There is little sign of activity on there, or anywhere else on the Campbeltown to Inverness route, outside of the Oban to Glencoe section.

Glasgow’s routes are also currently incomplete, though somewhat safer as beneficiaries of the Connect2 project — a £50 million National Lottery grant awarded to Sustrans after a public vote (who says the public isn’t interested in funding cycling?). However, Connect2 is a one-off project that will only fund these few routes, and whether to move to the next level — from routes to the network, which the Dutch experiments of 30 years ago demonstrated to be where the really big gains can be made — will be a decision for Scottish politicians.

And politicians in the SNP administration now intend to cut their support for cycling — support that is already mediocre compared to that of the National Lottery, and embarrassing compared to the continent. The budget for “active travel” — cycling and walking — is to be cut from “pocket money” last year to “spare change” next year. At a protest in Edinburgh last month the transport minister in the Scottish government, Keith Brown, tried to blame the Westminster Treasury, who have forced a cut to the overall budget for Scotland. The crowd showed remarkable restraint in the face of such blatant dishonesty. Everybody there already knew that, despite Westminster’s cuts, Scotland’s transport budget is to rise, with additional spending on motorways and other old fashioned road widening projects on a scale that will dwarf the active travel budget.

How Scotland chooses to spend money on transport is obviously important to its residents. Glasgow especially feels the problems of car centric planning and car dependency greater than most of the UK. The city occupies unfortunate positions in league tables of health and deprivation, and while some would like to pin all of Glasgow’s health problems on personal failings involving Buckfast and deep-fried Mars bars, we know that a crucial factor in our health is the environment in which we live and extent to which it allows us to live healthily. For several decades the environment in Glasgow has been one in which choosing to walk or cycle has been made unattractive and difficult, and in which those who do make the choice will spend their travel time stewing in the fumes that drift off the motorways.

That’s not to say that everybody chooses to sit behind the wheel instead. Like the rest of the UK, a lot of people simply don’t have that choice — though you might be surprised to hear it given the reluctance of our media and politicians to acknowledge the existence of people who have never been able to afford to own cars. In fact more than half of Glasgow households are car free — one of the highest rates in the EU. A lot of those households are therefore denied many of the economic, educational and cultural opportunities that arise in this world built for drivers, at the same time as having to deal with all of the consequences of the motorways that thunder through their neighbourhoods. Glasgow’s transport environment has been propping up inequality as well as ill health, and the new budget proposes extending the out-dated policies that created that environment.

In a time of austerity and struggling economic recovery, what Britain generally, but Glasgow especially, desperately needs is a cheap, easy and egalitarian means for people to access economic opportunities, not more motorways on which those who can still afford it can burn wealth in the form of oil.

But how Scotland spends its money on transport is important to all of us, even if we don’t plan on using Scotland’s transport, and for the same reason that the outcome of the upcoming election in London matters to the whole UK. Devolution of power over transport planning and investment enables the sort of radical new policy directions and innovations that transport secretaries at Westminster have been unable to achieve in decades. In Scotland, the previous Labour administration used that power to make some notable reversals of the Beeching Axe. In London, Ken Livingstone used it to introduce the Congestion Charge, with its associated improvements to buses, ticketing and streets. In Wales, a cycling bill is in the current legislative schedule, and it looks likely (though details are not yet available) that if passed this would introduce new responsibilities and tougher standards for Welsh local authorities to provide for bicycle journeys, and may make changes to the law where the law currently stands in the way of quality provision.

The devolved administrations get to invest, experiment and innovate in a way that doesn’t happen in the rest of the country. But the rest of the country will follow eventually, when the solutions are no longer experimental or worryingly innovative. These administrations are the trend setters, so when they choose to squander their opportunities on old fashioned motorways instead of the transport we need in the 21st century, the whole country is waiting behind them doing the same.

What is missing from this graphic?

With lots of little bits and pieces of road and rail infrastructure funding announced in the autumn budget statement, I thought it was about time to get around to assembling the transport costs comparison infographic that has been on my todo list for months. I keep hearing all these millions and billions getting spent, but I’m no good at imagining what that amount of money means.

The format is nicked from the XKCD radiation infographic (subsequently also applied to money). I considered the option of having separate orders of magnitude — millions and billions — but in the end decided it was probably more helpful as a comparison tool with everything on the same scale.

I’ve actually only included a few of the Autumn Statement projects, because they turned out to be a bit boring when compared with a lot of the other projects and numbers I gathered. And I’ve not been very meticulous in my research or fact checking — this isn’t intended to be a perfect scientific dataset, just a quick way to see big numbers in context. The idea is that when Boris Johnson says he’s really doing a jolly lot to encourage biking in the outer boroughs, you can see that his fund for biking in the outer boroughs is about four times the size of the budget for a one day Zone 1 bicycle ride, and a bit less than the budget for a fancy Zone 1 pedestrian crossing. When Norman Baker tells you that the coalition is committed to local sustainable transport, you can see that their fund for it is only slightly larger than the electricity bill for London’s traffic lights.

Indeed, a few of the figures are really quite dodgy — the pavement parking costs, which were extrapolated as a mere thought experiment by Pedestrian Liberation, and of course the estimated costs of crashes, air pollution and obesity, which all rely on all sorts of questionable assumptions and on inventing market values for things that can’t have market values —  but I thought that it might be worth seeing them anyway. The final version would be accompanied by a long list of references and footnotes. (The graphic itself should also be a bit tidier!)

I’ve included all the numbers that were of interest to me and could found within a couple of minutes with Google. What else should I have included? What have I got wrong?

Image below the fold…

Continue reading “What is missing from this graphic?”

Budget notes

It’s flattering and frightening that several people told me that they’re looking forward to my thoughts on the budget.  So here they are, in a crude and hastily scrawled brain dump.

The obvious item to shout about is fuel duty: a 1p cut now and a freeze on previously scheduled increases to help the poor hard-done-by motorist.  Fuel duty is not the problem.  Owning a car is a luxury and it shouldn’t be a problem that it is priced as a luxury.  The problem is that so many people feel they have no option but to buy fuel — that owning a car has become a necessity.  Over the past fifty years people have incrementally lost their railway lines and bus services, their village shops, banks, post offices and doctors’ surgeries; new sprawling housing estates have grown up without any of these services; and employment has moved to car-centric out-of-town developments.

In a recession people cope by giving up a few luxuries.  But this time they can’t give up the luxury of running a car because the alternative options have been taken away.

Fiddling with fuel duty is political pantomime.  Fuel prices are not a problem because they’re especially high — adjusted for inflation they’re not that high.  Fuel prices are a problem because we’re in a recession where people can’t afford luxuries like private motoring — but many find themselves with no alternatives to running a car.  Dropping a penny or two from fuel duty doesn’t change the fact that cars are unaffordable luxuries in recessions.  There is no single quick fix to the problem that we have built ourselves into, but it requires that the government starts putting money and effort into the multiple real solutions now.  The only thing that fiddling with fuel duty does do is send a message to motorists: you don’t need to do anything to change your behaviour or fix this problem; just keep whining and we’ll respond with more tax tweaks.

The chancellor is paying for the cuts in fuel duty with an increase in the levy on oil extraction: ultimately, therefore, the oil companies will be paying for it out of the increased profits that come with higher prices.  (Never mind that this clever scheme can only last as long as Britain’s oil fields, which are well past peak production and in decline.)  He calls the scheme a fuel price “stabiliser”, reinforcing the fantasy that one day oil will be cheap and abundant again: when oil falls back below $75 per barrel (it won’t), fuel duty will rise again, and the extraction levy fall.

Also in the budget there was fiddling with the tax-free mileage allowance for people who drive their own cars at work (rising from 40p to 45p per mile); and to the tax on company cars.  I don’t think there’s anything interesting to say about either — they’re minor tweaks.  There are no changes to the cycle to work (tax free bicycle benefit) scheme.  The budget does abolish tax deductible “cycle to work breakfasts”, as recommended by the Office for Tax Simplification.  I’d never heard of the benefit before and would have difficulty believing it had any importance.

Far more important than any of this headline grabbing tax fiddling, but barely talked about, is the fact that this budget steps beyond its traditional remit and strides into the field of planning law, kicking down many of the safeguards against bad planning that were introduced over the past twenty years.  To aid employment and economic recovery, the chancellor announced the introduction of “enterprise zones”: 21 areas in cities around the UK England where companies moving into the zone could benefit from tax breaks and a streamlined planning process that is weighted in favour of any proposed development.  When done well — with careful consideration of residential, retail, employment and transport needs — planned redevelopment can work excellently.  The Docklands are not a bad example.  But without that careful consideration and planning control, quick-profit companies will build edge-of-town low rise offices and big barn retail outlets in a sea of sprawling car parks — exactly the kind of bad development that helps drive the car-dependency problem.  At the exact moment when action to reverse poor planning is most needed, the government is dropping the guards against it.

The precise details of these zones have yet to be announced, so we don’t know how bad they will be.  The “West of England” zone could be an excellent mixed development of appropriate density with decent architecture and public spaces replacing the harbourside wastelands and scruffy industrial estates near Bristol Temple Meads station; more likely it will be barns and staff car parks amongst the motorways on the northern fringes.  The London zone could be a revived Battersea, but it might be a cloned Brent Cross.  The government has the power to put innovation and employment back into our city centres, where people don’t need to struggle to support a car.  But it also has the option to push existing businesses out into isolated industrial estate zones, sucking life out of cities, forcing people into cars, and moving congestion to the next level.  So far, the signs suggest the latter.