They say travel broadens the mind. And we could do with some broader thinking at this time. A narrow-minded Tory Prime Minister has called a General Election right in the middle of a vital local election campaign. That tells you all you need to know about how little the Tories value local council services.
Indeed, you only have to glance at their election literature coming through doors (en route to the recycling bin) to see that they are utterly bereft of local policies, obsessing instead over a national issue that has nothing to do with who our councillors are and what they do. I served as a Highland councillor, and I can tell you it’s a huge privilege and serious responsibility to be a community’s representative on everything from schools and social care to transport and housing. When we cast our votes next Thursday — our first, second, third and other preferences — we are deciding who represents us in council chambers. There’s a clear need to elect councillors who will protect local services rather than cut them back or flog them off at the first opportunity.
Transport is a classic example of where communities desperately need Green councillors to fight to protect and improve local services and infrastructure. Last weekend saw thousands of people attend the latest Pedal on Parliament protest, with satellite events in Glasgow, Aberdeen and Inverness, where I joined over 150 folk. Rebalancing our roads and streets in favour of pedestrians and cyclists is essential if we’re to improve our physical and mental health, reduce traffic congestion, reduce climate change emissions, and tackle air pollution.
Greens have a track record of supporting investment in walking and cycling at both local and national level. Our councillors have consistently supported segregated cycle infrastructure which works for all ages and abilities and we have pushed for cycle parking to be considered as a regular part of the planning process. Our councillors want to see at least 10 per cent of transport budgets allocated to walking and cycling. Meanwhile, my parliamentary colleague Mark Ruskell is planning to bring forward a member’s bill to extend 20mph speed limits in residential areas to improve road safety, reduce air pollution, and give streets back to communities.
Our cities, towns and villages are still suffering the legacy of the Tories’ deregulation of the bus industry, and while I look forward to the forthcoming Transport Bill as a way of rectifying this vandalism, local councillors can bring pressure to bear. Councillors can press for better routes and fares from bus firms, and there’s even a job to do to provide the basics for the travelling public such as timetable information and decent bus shelters and stations.
In Edinburgh, Greens are committed to keeping Lothian Buses in public hands and want to build on its success with expanded routes, greater frequency, express services for commuters and more zero-polluting buses. In the south-west of Scotland, Greens have worked with local communities to resist cuts to rural bus services. Over 14,000 homes in Dumfries & Galloway do not have a vehicle and of these, over 2500 are considered to be remote. A bus service for those without cars is not a luxury; it’s a necessity.
In Highland, there’s some good news with a new Citylink service connecting Fort William with both the university campus and Raigmore Hospital in Inverness, but elsewhere Highland Council’s desire to reduce funding for bus services has led to the retendering of local contracts. As a result, services on the Black Isle have been cut, and there are reductions in Lochaber and on Skye.
The councillors we elect can also speak up for rail improvements. We should be looking to reopen lines and stations, and increase capacity where lines are full. In Edinburgh, colleagues want to examine the case for a south suburban circle, while in Glasgow there’s the long-discussed option of Crossrail, linking Queen Street and Central stations. In Fife, colleagues are continuing to campaign to reopen the line to Levenmouth, the largest urban area in Scotland not directly served by rail. While in East Lothian there’s a dire need to upgrade the East Coast Main Line as commuters are often prevented from boarding services because carriages are full. We have a chance next week to elect councillors who will press for action on these issues on from both the Scottish and UK governments.
Connections within and between our communities really matter. Public transport is a public service and it needs local defenders. With number one votes for your local Green candidates next Thursday, you can help elect councillors who will drive forward the investment we need. While others bang on about national issues that have nothing to do with the council elections, Green councillors and candidates are banging the drum for better connected communities.
This article first appeared in The National.