Scotland urged to rethink infrastructure priorities


The Scottish government must judge all future infrastructure projects on whether they will contribute both to a more “inclusive” economy and to cutting net climate gas emissions to zero, a commission charged with setting out a 30-year vision for infrastructure development has concluded. 

The first report of the independent Infrastructure Commission for Scotland, published on Monday, calls for a rapid shift away from the traditional focus of using infrastructure investment to raise economic output. It also says public authorities should favour improving and maintaining existing assets over building new infrastructure. 

If fully adopted by the Scottish government, which set up the commission in early 2019, the approach could have a big influence on billions of pounds of infrastructure spending every year and become an important reference for other parts of the UK. 

“The nature, purpose and focus of infrastructure investment over the 30-year horizon is likely to change fundamentally,” the report said.

The devolved Scottish government, which has broad control over infrastructure development, has set a legally binding target of cutting net emissions of climate-change gases to zero by 2045, five years before the target for the UK as a whole.

Ministers have pledged to raise Scottish government annual infrastructure investment from a 2019-20 baseline of £5.2bn to £6.8bn by 2025-26.

“The move toward a presumption [of] future-proofing, maintaining and repurposing existing infrastructure, rather than new-build, is really quite a significant shift in emphasis for us all,” said Ian Russell, chair of the infrastructure commission. 

The commission calls for rapid action by the government to establish ways to assess infrastructure projects for their contribution to an “inclusive net zero carbon economy”. However, this task may be complicated by the lack of clarity on what is meant by “inclusive”. 

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The Scottish government defines inclusive growth as “growth that combines increased prosperity with greater equity . . . creates opportunities for all and distributes the dividends of increased prosperity fairly”. Critics say this definition is too broad.

The commission report acknowledged that the meaning of “inclusive economic growth” was not clearly defined and might be expected to “evolve” in future. It stopped short of setting out any clear way in which infrastructure might be judged as sufficiently inclusive.

There may also be difficulties in simultaneously pursuing inclusive economic growth and climate emission reductions. Mr Russell said that inclusive growth meant not relying on economic expansion in one geographic area to make up for slower growth elsewhere. He said it would be wrong to favour economic growth in cities, even if developing scattered island communities proved to be more carbon intensive, as some studies have suggested.

Policy might have to lean toward one goal or other, although achieving both was also possible, he said. 

“The challenge for us all is to develop methodologies that allow, over the broad sweep of investment, the delivery of both objectives,” Mr Russell said. 

Rapid development of renewable energy has sharply reduced emissions from electricity generation in Scotland. However, the report highlights the need to decarbonise heating and transport, which together account for more than three-quarters of energy consumption. 

The report said public transport should have a “much greater role” and a presumption for investment to improve road reliability and safety rather than to raise capacity.

The Scottish and UK governments should immediately commit to establish a charging regime for roads to replace existing fuel and road taxes, it said.

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