2007 - 2021

On the Buses – the SNP and the Greens Budget


THIS week saw a budget deal clinched between the Scottish Government (with new Finance Cab Sec Kate Forbes leading the negotiations) and the Greens.  The deal hinges mainly on extending free access to public transport to those aged under 19. Excellent as far as it goes but could we not have had this in the original budget proposal?  As I wrote here in Bella on 6 February:
“…the SNP government has to find support across the aisle if it is to secure a majority to get the budget passed. That could have been baked in early by offering something more inspirational on climate change. Say, free bus fares for young people. That could have brought on board Labour and the Greens and played well in the country. I’m still flummoxed why Nicola’s team seems reluctant to go in this direction. True we got a scatter of new green projects, but I fear the impact will be lost in the crush. An extra £5m for electric police cars is minor compared to turning the younger generation on to public transport so they lean not to need cars in the first place”.
But let’s not moan. This is progress. It adds to the list of services and goods which the SNP Government has de-commodified over the past 13 years, including medical prescriptions, tuition fees and (with a bit of a shove from the other parties) sanitary products.
This de-coupling of access to basic life-enhancing goods and services from the market (i.e. rationing by access to income) is the road to genuine socialism. I left the Labour Party when Gordon Brown abandoned such universal provision, opting instead for bogus “welfare targeting” – a form of rationing which, as well as robbing the poor of their dignity, is always the first thing cut in a state austerity drive.
That said, we need to be realistic about what is gained from provision of free bus travel for the young.  There is evidence from experiments in other countries that the initial result is to shift young people away from walking or cycling to school rather than persuading parents to reduce morning car journeys.  The real gain is in empowering young people with freedom of movement and inculcating a culture of using public transport – good things in themselves.
However, free public transport for everyone – which I support – does not automatically reduce car journeys per se.  The key issue is the extent and efficiency of the bus network, and the ability of the bus provider to update routes constantly, to match shifting population location.  Otherwise people revert to using their car for reasons of convenience.  Conclusion: the quality of the public transport system is as important as the price of a bus fare.
In her original budget presentation to the Scottish Parliament, Kate Forbes swore blind there was no spare cash, and that the other political parties would have to offer cuts if they were demanding a shift in spending to other priorities.  Of course, nobody believed this and (also of course) they were right.
Where has the extra cash come from?  First, there’s been a recalculation of likely Barnett consequentials from the upcoming Westminster Budget – plus some jiggery-pokery with the forecast underspend in 2019/20.  The cynic in me thinks these permissible accounting fiddles were being held in reserve all along.
There’s another £50m from “reprofiling” the Non-Domestic Rates pool. This is Mekon-speak for bringing anticipated Non-Domestic Rate income forward into 2020/21.  That could leave a gap in later years.  But such annual shifting of funny money is normal.  It’s a form of fiscal “keepie-uppie” that depends on not dropping the ball from one year to the next.
Finally, there is new “anticipated income from the Fossil Fuel Levy”.  No one seems to know what this is about.  Answers on a post card, please!
Surprisingly, the Greens have accepted all these new budget numbers and abandoned their demand for the Scottish Government to scrap its £3bn plan to dual the A9 between Perth and Inverness, as a budgetary quid pro quo.  Of course, this £3bn is capital spend rather than revenue, so you can’t shift one for the other. But £3bn is a lot of dosh and could be better used in de-carbonising existing housing stock, putting in district heating and providing new social homes.
The SNP Government continues to argue the A9 dualling makes economic sense as the costed gains in reduced congestion outweigh the environmental losses. However, if you take a peek at the cost benefit numbers done by the SNP Government’s consultants, the A9 project only meets the official investment guidelines after you add in a cost calculation for the reduced anxiety caused to motorists by having dawdle along behind caravans, as they make their way north.
To be precise, the value of removing driver frustration is assessed as £430 million – £86 million more than the value given to collision reduction. Once the value assigned to removing driver frustration is added, the project is predicted to return £1.12 for every pound spent by the Scottish Government.
However, these bogus calculations on driver frustration depend on adding up those costed swear words and finger gestures over fully 60 years! That is statistical nonsense.  For in 60 years, anyone still driving to Inverness in a single car will letting a robot do the driving.  There are not six decades of driver frustration left, even if you don’t dual the road. Driverless cars will ensure frustrations will be a thing of the past, when it comes to safety, speed and overtaking conducted via AI.
Conclusion: the cost efficiency calculations used to justify the A9 dualling are mince.  The Greens should have stuck to their guns and had the cash shifted to a genuine climate change projects.

Comments (28)

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  1. Wullie says:

    Loads of folk have died on the A9, it was a cart-track when I started driving. What would be a novelty is to see George Kerevan attacking the Tories!

    1. Er … have you read George’s articles?

    2. Jo says:

      Yes indeed, Wullie, many died on it. Obviously a price worth paying for George.

      The death toll and the problems with the A9 were ignored for decades. The SNP made it clear early on that they wanted to upgrade it. I’m glad they did it. I’m glad they’re sticking to it and not caving in to Harvie.

      1. Chris Ballance says:

        Jo the death toll on the A9 has been hugely reduced with the introduction of speed cameras. The problem is not the road, but the folk who ignore speed limits, which they will continue to do whether it is dualled or not. You speak of “caving in to Harvie”. A more rational description would be “accepting scientific evidence on climate change and the need to shift people from cars to rail.”

        1. Jo says:


          I have expressed my view. Please don’t suggest it’s not “rational”. It’s valid.

          There was plenty wrong with the A9. There were problems with junctions coming straight in to it. There were massive problems with the non-dualed sections. The upgrading was vital.

          As I point out in a separate post, the A9 is a major road which is why it merits the attention it waited a long time for.

          What is being done isn’t new road building. It’s improving an existing vital link to the north.

          It you’re serious about climate change why not do something really challenging in Glasgow or Edinburgh….like banning private traffic in the city centre? Build massive car parks two or three miles north, south, east and west of the city centre and run free buses in from there. Let’s see what we townies think of that idea. Let’s find out how serious WE are about climate change! Let’s start tackling it where the effects will really be felt most.

          1. Chris Ballance says:

            Jo, maybe “rational” was the wrong word to use. But a minority government has to come to agreement with another grouping to get anything passed. This is good – it enables diversity, enables other voices to get a look in and prevents the sort of one-party-rules-everything-no-question that we see in Westminster. “Caving in” is very perjorative – “negotiating with” would be accurate, and personally I’d prefer to see the SNP negotiate with the Greens than with the Tories (as has happened at local government level).
            I notice you talk about the problems of the A9 in the past tense – “was plenty wrong with it…. were problems”. Well, the speed cameras have hugely improved the problems. The rail line, however, is single track so is running close to capacity, and it does cause huge delay problems as there are limited number of passing points. Over the last year most rail journeys Perth-Inverness I’ve been on have been delayed, by over an hour on occasion.
            My point being that the best (and quickest) way to improve connectivity to the Highlands would be to dual the rail track, not the road which in my experience is these days working reasonably smoothly. And I agree with you about buses.

        2. Jo says:

          Also Chris, I see you’re focused solely on rail. I think that while trains are great (although expensive) you cannot hope to serve every community that way. By speaking of buses earlier I obviously mean environmentally clean buses.

  2. Michael says:

    Insightful. This is one of the only columns in
    the entirety of the Scottish media that I look forward to and feel more informed after reading.

    1. (on George’s behalf) thank you Michael

  3. Iain Lennox says:

    If you’re as cynical as me, you might argue that had the SNP Government included free bus transport for under-19s right at the start, the Greens may still have dug their heels in, looking for still further concessions to demonstrate to their party-faithful that they’re achieving results in Parliament.

    It may be that Kate & Co. kept this sweetie back from the Budget (Iteration 1), fully expecting such a demand from the Greens and lo and behold it appeared in Iteration 2 !

    I suppose it’s called politics !

    1. Colin MacCaig says:

      That is fair comment, serves both parties!

      “What’s that you’ve got here?”

      “It’s my free bus pass from theSNP mum!”

      Mum thinks – Allow them, hum, Colin can now catch the bus to footie training!

      The three ugly sisters will be bealin they never thought of it!

  4. Jell says:

    First George, the SNP should tell us why the under 26’s should not benefit ftom free bus travel. ‘Widening Participation’ in education is a government policy. Then how does that guarantee travel from places like the Borders to College and University for students; most of whom are late developers and/or have come from unequal economic backgrounds? Then there is the issue of control of the bus network to deliver integrated transport!

    How about ending the charitable status of private schools to help raise the revenue for buses for all under 26s ?

    Why was the £3bn capital plan to dual the A9 between Perth and Inverness not targeted towards track improvement and electrification of the Highland railway ? We may find out way when its too late. – unlike the number of trains issue through Waverley tunnel that nearly became an impediment to the line to Tweedbank.

    1. Colin MacCaig says:

      Under 30’s in the next budget, then cone the day of freedom, public transport passes for all!

      It’s radical and progressive policies like this, that actually work!

    2. Donald McGregor says:

      The bit of me that cba googling just now thinks that relieving private schools of their rates exemption is already a thing ‘in progress’. I may be just wholly wrong though.

      1. Jell says:

        Hopefully your right Donald, there is much more I am sure. From debates on Bella it’s been argued inequaility is ‘hard-wired’ into the education system.
        Keeping free transport to the under 19’s misses those most in need of help. – 20 years plus as under 19’s are mainly at school and use school buses in rural areas. Not giving free transport to over
        18’s and especially 20 plus undermines the ‘Widening of Partication’.

  5. Heartsupwards says:

    I’m sorry George but I do not concede the driverless car inevitability argument now, tomorrow and probably never. Too many reality resource factors involved. I would conclude that we could all be using the A9 for pedalling on in 60 years time before your conclusion.

  6. Roland Stiven says:

    We would never build or improve any roads outside the Central belt if it depended on an economic argument. One way or another we have to keep the whole country connected.

    1. Jell says:

      Have you heard of electric trains? We don’t need to do CBA, Life Cycle Analysis or an Environmental Impact Assessment to prove unwise use of £3bn capital expenditure.

      1. Jo says:

        It’s not “unwise use”. Not remotely. Fatalities on the A9 were horrendous! It’s not a minor route. It’s the main trunk road to the north and this wasn’t a luxury item but an essential link for communities and businesses and the economy. The A96 is the same. The A82 is a mess too, and the A75. These are existing roads, not new ones and it is vital to upgrade them.

        How dare we in the central belt treat those further north with such utter contempt. It’s shocking.

        This, from George, is disgraceful.

        “But £3bn is a lot of dosh and could be better used in de-carbonising existing housing stock, putting in district heating and providing new social homes.”

        What a slap in the face. He’s old enough to remember the carnage we used to see frequently on the A9. Yes, let’s spoil the central belt with motorways but the north? Sod them. They can just pay their taxes and shut up, they don’t count! Unbelievable.

        I want a joined up Scotland. And I want a safe roads network. Public transport runs on roads, including the A9. Harvie hadn’t a hope in hell with that selfish demand of his. I’m very glad the Scottish Government made that clear.

        1. Michael says:

          It’s worth remembering that transport links generally concentrated wealth, speed up wealth extraction from the countryside and allow people with money from the cities to drive up asset prices in the periphery. The British didn’t build the Indian or African rail networks because they loved the natives. Look at what ever increasing transport networks have done to the south east of England. If I was living in the highlands I’d be carful what I wished for!

        2. Hi Jo

          its a difficult balance to strike isnt it – ‘joining up the country’ and responding to climate realities.

          Things like saying “Public transport runs on roads” is a self-fulfiling prophecy – it didnt come about overnight – and its not the same everywhere.
          In fact shifting onto roads from freight rail was a deliberate Conservative policy to destabilise the unions.

          I’m not sure “de-carbonising existing housing stock, putting in district heating and providing new social homes” is a slap in the face? These sound like really good ideas.

          1. Jo says:

            I’m not saying they’re not good ideas. My issue is with thinking it’s a good idea to simply abandon an existing project which is just as important.

            We’re not fighting climate change by seeing the maintenance and upgrading of existing vital trunk roads as “bad”. I’ve said elsewhere on the thread how important it is to me to acknowledge what is needed in order to best serve areas and communities beyond the central belt, and the Scottish economy.

            People are saying that speed cameras sorted the A9. I don’t accept that argument. I nearly came a cropper, not through someone speeding, but because he simply wasn’t happy to sit (on a single lane section) behind a line of traffic. In the end he hadn’t considered the appearance of an oncoming vehicle. His reaction was to just barge in on top of my car! It was down to other drivers ( including me) that there wasn’t a serious accident. This sort of thing was a major problem on the single lane sections. Being stuck behind heavier, slower vehicles or caravans was frustrating for all but plenty of drivers were willing to take dangerous risks.

            I have nothing against rail. I agree the limitations of the Highland line are absurd and that major investment is needed. But I think it’s naïve to suggest that rail meets all requirements, particularly for Scottish tourism. In my own experience the most beautiful parts of Scotland aren’t accessible by rail.

            There are many ways to fight climate change. I think I’ve previously told Bella folk about a wee survey I did locally. Small estate of older semi-detached cottages. Former Council stock, all bought now and beautifully kept. Once, they had “real” front and back gardens, traditional gardens. Now, those gardens are mostly what I call “hard-scaped” and stripped of natural drainage once provided by lawns and borders. My “survey” showed just under 70% of the gardens had been “modernised” like that.

            Elsewhere, I saw three separate reports in the Guardian last week about housebuilding in England. At this moment, permission has already been granted for the building of 11,000 homes…all on flood plain. Another report said that since 2013 10% of all new housing had been built on land at risk from flooding. Doesn’t that tell us a great deal about the reckless approach which exists? How much more obvious can it be, when land is designated flood plain, that it’s not suitable for housing?

  7. Doghouses Reilly says:

    What I find fascinating is that this budget has more than twice as much for peatland restoration than for ending homelessness.

  8. Chris Ballance says:

    Also not calculated in the equation, I assume, is the years of driver frustration, speed limits and traffic queues caused during the 5-10 years of new road building.

  9. SleepingDog says:

    The key challenge and potential benefit of giving free access to public transport to under-19s is to socialize them. At the moment, this group is possibly the most likely to be coughing Coronavirus-19 all over the compartments without a gesture towards covering their mouths so this will be the critical chance to drum some appreciation of the social contract into them. Hopefully, any such travel will be contingent upon following the rules that protect other passengers from such disturbations (and unplugged audio/visual devices, aggressions, various odd screeching noises and so forth) and the culprits will have their free travel revoked, as well as being ejected. Of course it goes without saying: not all youths are like that.

  10. Me Bungo Pony says:

    I’m normally in agreement with Mr Kerevan, but not here.

    The A9 NEEDS to be upgraded. It is the main route into the Highlands and it was scandalous that it was ignored for decades while motorways (never mind dualled A roads) were built in urbanized areas that arguably needed them less. It was a drag on the Highland economy that desperately needed removing.

    And since when did “socialists” require public investment in infrastructure projects to make a profit? I thought the whole point of socialism as to use public money to create the necessary infrastructure that capitalism couldn’t/wouldn’t build. It’s a strange socialist who argues that lack of a profit negates the argument for improving accessibility and opportunity for an isolated, neglected and relatively poor community.

    As to the “green” issues; the Highlands shouldn’t be disadvantaged just because previous Labour and Tory administrations in London and Holyrood never got round to improving the main artery into their region before the climate crisis hit the headlines and the political agenda. That’s like laughing “yah boo -sucks to be you” in highlander’s faces.

    Rail cannot replace road as the main access to the Highlands for obvious reasons. Cost for one. Rail fares are humongous for passengers and would soon impact negatively on the community, economy and visitor numbers …. which would then add to the negative impact on the community and economy. It would only be viable with massive govt subsidies to cap fares at an affordable level for the lower and middle income sections of the community, which rather destroys the “unprofitable” argument against upgrading the A9. Even then, it cannot serve the entire Highland area as it cannot access every town, village and hamlet in the region. Not without a robust road network to connect those communities to their nearest station which may be many, many miles away. Which makes a mockery of the either/or view of the road v rail issue in this instance. Rail NEEDS road to be viable.

    Which brings us to traffic. Electric, hybrid and hydrogen powered cars, buses and lorries still need roads to travel on. They won’t glide across the heather. Again, rail cannot replace road for volume, convenience and efficiency of transport. To force it on an already relatively isolated community could be catastrophic. The Highlands are meant to be the green energy powerhouse of the new low carbon Scotland. That won’t get far if the Highlands remain at the other end of single carriageway road that can be blocked by a tractor …. and if it sheds its load ….. michty me! All that infrastructure requires adequate infrastructure to get it in place in the first instance and service it into the future. Rail cannot provide that.

    Rail is important in delivering a greener society but it is not the only answer. I’ve no problem with road projects being curtailed in areas already well served by them. But isolated areas that have been left behind historically should not be disadvantaged because of that neglect. The A9 upgrading should continue not because it is profitable but because it is fair. I do not agree with the green arguments against it for the reasons given above. That is, renewable energy projects require it and electric/hydrogen vehicles will negate the problem of emissions.

    1. Jo says:


      Wonderful post!

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