How seriously are we taking climate change in Scotland? More so or less so than ideology?
Transport is one of our biggest sources of carbon emissions and the ‘electric car revolution’ is beginning in earnest. But apart from the high cost of a new electric vehicle one of the biggest barriers to a shift to electric vehicles is consumer concern over the availability of charging.
So putting in place charging infrastructure is a national priority for many governments. For example, the $3 trillion infrastructure package which President Biden is trying to get off the ground in the US includes £7.5 billion of public funding funding for electric car charging stations.
That is what makes a new report by Transport Scotland something of a shock to read. It starts in a way with which everyone could agree:
“Scotland is now at a tipping point… The number of public charge points will need to increase rapidly to accommodate the number of electric vehicles which will be on the road”.
It’s when we get beyond this that alarm bells should be ringing:
“The existence of public funded, tariff free electric vehicle charging provision does not incentivise private investment in public charge points in Scotland, particularly as the commercial case for many charge points will remain marginal in the short-term.”
The official government conclusion is that these free services have to be withdrawn so a profit can be made by private providers with the usual free-market catchphrases “optimising the ability to leverage private investment” and “transition towards a commercial delivery model”.
So who did Transport Scotland turn to to advise it on this report? The Just Transition Commission which is a group focussed on shifting Scotland to a low carbon future in a socially just way? Nope. It wrote this report in partnership with the Scottish Futures Trust which, for purposes of shorthand we could call ‘the PFI people’ or ‘where Big Finance meets the Scottish Government’.
More and more in Scotland we find the same pattern; don’t say ‘privatisation’, say ‘leverage private investment’. Because we’re ‘leveraging private investment’ like crazy, selling off public renewable assets, outsourcing to big businesses, continuing to build infrastructure with private finance.
But in those cases private investment is more than willing to oblige because there is easy money to be made. With charging points the profits just aren’t there, and the Scottish Government thinks this is partly because the public sector is providing this for free. So it plans to undermine those public-good interventions to help speed up private sector market development.
Of course there’s another way look at this; that there is no market-led solution to a problem universally recognised as an urgent and essential transformation and so the collective financial and planning power of the public sector should be brought to bear on the problem. We invest and plan for as rapid as possible a green transition. But this version is losing heavily as the lobbyists’ grip on government in Scotland increases.
Common Weal has created a detailed version of the public model. Yes, private investment is a resource we should tap into, but it must be tamed for the public good. That is what the Scottish National Investment Bank is supposed to be for. It capitalises with private investment and structures it into lending in ways which promote the public good. Why does the Scottish Government never factor its own bank it in to its own strategic thinking?
The second part of the package proposed by Common Weal is precisely to replace the Scottish Futures Trust with a Scottish National Infrastructure Company. The Futures Trust is utterly obsessed with free market doctrine and is highly networked with Big Finance.
What we need is a body which doesn’t start from ‘how can someone make a profit out of this public function so we can flog it?’ but ‘how do we deliver this public function in the best possible way for those that need it?’. The National Infrastructure Company would be a centre of excellence for public infrastructure design and would negotiate funding packages with the National Investment Bank.
And finally, in the Common Home Plan, we explained at length why the way we plan our electric vehicle charging infrastructure is really complicated (in large part because we don’t know for sure where all the technologies are going). For example, is every street going to get charging points so people can charge their cars overnight when electricity demand is low? That would be a massive and very complicated set-up to deliver.
So we proposed a way to go about it and roughly priced the investment needed – not less than £15 billion over 25 years if we’re serious about decarbonisation. That is a lot of cost to pass on to drivers via the free market but can pay for itself if we do it in the public realm.
Scotland is at a crossroads. Everyone agrees that a charging network is crucial and no-one thinks that more of what we’re currently doing is going to deliver it. We could turn left and follow a public-led, public-good model or we could turn right, cut the public out and let the free market rip.
Sadly, the Scottish Government isn’t just turning right, it seems to be ripping up the road to the left so the choice is taken out of our hands forever.
Robin McAlpine, Common Weal