Backsliding into the Bushes

Some Edinburgh residents will recently have noticed the increasing length of the grass on Council land, as a reduction in mowing frequency is trialled with a view to promoting the structural diversity of wildflowers, thus increasing the resources available to pollinators. In amongst the long grass, you may soon find a far more important part of the Council’s environmental agenda – the transport policies that are required to make any serious progress on the commitment to make Edinburgh ‘net zero carbon by 2030’. 

In 2019, the City of Edinburgh Council declared a Climate Emergency. The policy documents that flowed from the declaration included the ‘2030 Climate Strategy’ which set out the approach to making Edinburgh a ‘net zero city by 2030’ and the ‘City Mobility Plan’, which outlined the transport policies required in that context. It was agreed that implementation of the latter would require ‘a 30% reduction in kilometres travelled by car by Edinburgh residents’.  

The most recent available data tells us that transport emissions account for 29% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the city, with more than 60% of road transport emissions coming from cars. Inside the reams of policy documents that have been produced since the Climate Emergency was declared, there isn’t a single policy that could contribute more to the city’s net zero ambitions than the ‘30% reduction’. So what has been done to make it a reality? 

The answer is, very little. Plans to reduce through traffic in the city centre have so far been bogged down in design and consultation stages for elaborate and expensive public realm projects such as ‘George Street and First New Town’ and ‘Meadows to George Street’, while political capital has been wasted on the botched implementation of much smaller projects in Corstorphine and the Braid Estate. If you ignore the noisy protestations of the motorist lobby for a moment and look back coldly on the past 5 years, it’s difficult to think of a single intervention on Edinburgh’s roads that has made any serious impact on private car use. Meanwhile, statistics show traffic bouncing back to pre-covid levels. 

The 1st of February this year felt like it could be the day that the Council got serious about the 30% reduction. On that day, the Transport & Environment Committee agreed to progress a Circulation Plan approach, which included a radical enhanced plan for the Edinburgh City Centre Transformation (ECCT). This was done with a fair degree of fanfare, including a guest appearance at Committee from Peter Vansevenant from Ghent, who explained how their own Circulation Plan had led to a 17% reduction in city centre traffic in just 2 years. A majority of Committee members were gushing in their praise of this approach. Transport Convener, Scott Arthur, vlogging the night before, declared his full support for the plans with a rallying call to ‘think bigger, be bolder and go faster’. 

And yet, less than 4 months later, the backsliding has begun. The following update on preparations for the ECCT was issued to Committee members this week: 

“Discussions are on-going on this but as yet there has been no confirmation on available funding. The resulting lack of funding is likely to have a significant impact on delivery timescales.”

None of this makes any sense.

Concerns about funding of the ECCT were swatted away by the most senior Council officers when raised at the February 1st meeting, with Chief Executive-elect, Paul Lawrence, saying “I don’t think a lot of the actions in here will necessarily cost that much”.

One of the favourites to replace Lawrence as Executive Director of Place, Gareth Barwell, struck a similar tone, stating that “a lot of what we heard from Ghent was delivered with traffic orders, and not expensive engineering” and “we can do a lot in terms of disincentivising non-essential journeys without redesigning the public realm”.

In that context, Cllr Arthurs’s reflex of blaming delays on Scottish Government funding cuts rings hollow, particularly as the expensively engineered public realm projects are set to continue. Elsewhere in Thursday’s Committee papers is an admission that the George Street pedestrianisation project is already more than £7million over budget, bringing the bill up to £39.45million and rising. 

That money will be found, just as the comparatively tiny sums for traffic modelling and traffic orders for the rest of the ECCT could be found if the political will remained to pursue the vision that councillors agreed on February 1st. What is clearly absent, is the bold leadership required to implement these policies in the face of increasingly vocal opposition from people who insist that they must be allowed to drive wherever they want, whenever they want, regardless of the consequences. 

When the Council Leader, Cammy Day, is asked to justify the existence of his administration (which on the face of it appears to lack any purpose beyond topping up the salaries of certain councillors), his garbled responses always make reference to ‘Net Zero by 2030’. But it’s impossible to square that ambition with the alliances that Labour have formed to gain power at City Chambers, whether that’s the Tories, who flirt with climate change denial and openly oppose the whole net zero agenda, or the Liberal Democrats who shamelessly pick and choose their environmental commitments according to which parts of the city are impacted. 

After a shaky start, the unionist alliance that controls the Council seems to have stabilised and now looks likely to survive the full 5-year term. But it’s increasingly difficult to see how Edinburgh’s net zero targets can survive with it. It will fall to future generations to pick these policies out of the long grass, if it’s not too late by then.  


Comments (5)

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  1. Satan says:

    A worthy article. But if you want to see what one alternative looks like (doing almost nothing), go to Aberdeen.

  2. Kevan Shaw says:

    The Edinburgh traffic proposals are poor, ill considered and put cycling as the main personal form of transport in a hilly city where cycling is only realistic on expensive electric bikes or by those with a fetish for Lycra. The proposals so far will increase rather than reduce miles driven not just by private car but by delivery vans, taxis, and everyone who can’t walk or who do not live on the tram route. Busses are run on timetables ill suited to main means of transport. We need no more than 15 minute schedules for all routes, reinstatement of recently closed routes and more not fewer bus stops to encourage bus use. We also need timed multi journey tickets not £2 per bus you get on. The Sustrans agenda is not suitable as policy for Edinburgh. We need someone who actually understands people flow and will look at the challenges without defective dogma attached to their thinking.

    1. Mr Alistair Thomas says:

      Not just multi-journey, but also multi-modal. Was recently in Malmö and purchased a 5 day pass which allowed unlimited travel on any public transport mode (bus, train, tram) throughout the whole of Skåne region (basically the south of Sweden). This is what Scotland should be doing.

    2. Ben Seven says:

      It’s extraordinary to see the lengths folk will go to to claim cycling Edinburgh isn’t an accessible or feasible solution for at least some of the population. Here you are with a straight face claiming electric bikes are ‘expensive’ with no mention that they are a tenth the cost of a private motor vehicle and cost a pittance to run, and even manage to check ‘lycra’ off on the ‘irrelevant discussion points’ bingo card. What an absolute travesty of a thinkstorm that was.

      1. David Black says:

        Let me introduce you folks to that great bastion of transport socialism, Alexandria, Virginia, where many of the residents work in the nearby Pentagon, CIA HQ at Langley, or the Federal City of DC – so obviously a bunch of lefties, then. You arrive at the metro station on King Street, head down to the street where there’s a massive provision of mass cycle storage, then step over to the bus-plex where a multi-frequency local Dash bus will take you where you want to go on a no-fare basis. Other cities, like Perth, Australia, offer variations on the same theme. The obvious – so damned obvious our ruling numpties just can’t see it – solution in stinky, polluted Edinburgh is to make the buses free for every citizen, with a flat £2 fare for tourists. Car use will immediately decline. I pointed this brilliant panacea to one of our high heid yins and his bovine response was ‘Oh, but how will we pay for the trams, then?’ Doooh!!!!

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