Climate change: How to close the yawning chasm between Scottish Government’s bold rhetoric and timid delivery – Professor David Gray and Professor Iain Docherty

The centralisation of too much power in Scotland, starting with the loss of powerful regional councils, has played a significant tole in the failure to make good progress on the road to net zero

Speaking at the Scottish Parliament recently, the outgoing chair of the Climate Change Committee, Chris Stark, noted with some considerable understatement that “policy really matters” if we are going to decarbonise in time to meet our international obligations.

Whilst the current Scottish Government is rightly criticised for a record of policy action that falls miserably short of the “world-leading” ambitions contained in its own climate legislation, it is also true that this delivery problem is almost as old as the 1990 baseline used to measure progress towards decarbonisation. The exact date when Scotland could no longer meet its 2030 carbon reduction targets was not April 18, 2024, but rather April 1, 1996, when the old regional councils were abolished, and a hatchet was taken to the country’s ability to transform itself through the effective implementation of radical social and economic policies.

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The increasingly fashionable argument that Scotland’s government and public sector are massively over centralised can also be traced back to this date. Partly by design and partly by accident, the loss of strong regional authorities, from Strathclyde to Grampian and Lothian – whose powers and boundaries were designed to maximise the strategic capability of sub-national government – has seen capacity and local institutional knowledge whittled away. Centralisation was the inevitable response to this as what professional expertise that was left increasingly coalesced in government itself and its agencies.

A 2002 attempt to stabilise levels of road traffic followed a familiar path: set target, fail to implement policies, redefine target as a ‘stretch’, then forget about it (Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)A 2002 attempt to stabilise levels of road traffic followed a familiar path: set target, fail to implement policies, redefine target as a ‘stretch’, then forget about it (Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
A 2002 attempt to stabilise levels of road traffic followed a familiar path: set target, fail to implement policies, redefine target as a ‘stretch’, then forget about it (Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
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Glossy strategy documents

Yet we have now reached the point where central government has both admitted it cannot deliver as promised, and increasing numbers of community and expert voices are arguing that diverse local circumstances are being ignored in the monolithic development and implementation of national policy. We have reached the edge of the Big Gap: the space between bold rhetoric and timid delivery; between (overly) ambitious targets and woefully under ambitious support for those public bodies charged with meeting those targets; and between what is set out in glossy strategy documents and what public sector money is actually spent on. In terms of climate change, the Big Gap is a yawning chasm.

Nowhere is this situation more apparent than in transport. For example, as far back as 2002, the then Scottish Executive committed to stabilising road traffic volumes at 2001 levels by 2021. This policy followed a now familiar path: set target, fail to implement policies or provide and direct funding to allow target to be met; redefine the numbers as a ‘stretch’ and then as an ‘aspirational’ target; eventually quietly forget about the target altogether as the new cycle of policy review, plan and strategy supercedes it. Now, more than two years after it was announced, the Scottish Government has still to set out exactly how it will achieve a 20 per cent reduction in road traffic in practice. An even more ambitious target, but so far without any indication of how it might be met.

Political difficulties

Our slow progress on reshaping the transport system has many causes. It is undoubtedly true that Scotland simply doesn’t have the powers to do many of the things that really matter, such as replacing the current system of vehicle tax with road pricing. Even if it did, the politics of doing so remain horrendously difficult, which is evident in the race to the bottom on fuel taxes and congestion charges in wider UK politics.

Doing carbon reduction is expensive and in the current financial climate, Scotland just simply doesn’t have the cash to move faster on policies such as phasing out petrol and diesel engines more quickly than elsewhere in the UK, or to invest in public transport to the levels that would generate a real shift away from the car.

But there are things we could do more of, do better, and do faster. The old regional councils would have had the capacity and agency to plan for and deliver carbon reduction and pursue net zero more coherently by better coordinating and integrating transport with planning, housing, economic development and the location of key activities. Instead, we are left in the situation where the 1996 reforms work precisely as intended 30 years ago but completely at odds with the needs of the second quarter of the 21st century. Contemporary competition between local authorities manifests itself in renewed efforts to attract carbon intensive, edge and out-of-town business and retail development, and the development of endless housing estates around key road junctions in an attempt to maximise council tax revenue.

Institutions of the right scale

If we are to decarbonise, it is clear that we can’t leave it to either central government or the current structure of local authorities to do so because the friction between them is too great. Instead, we need to rediscover the importance of a regional approach, and devolve responsibility for implementing appropriate policies within Scotland to institutions of scale that are big enough to attract the best people to deliver but local enough to understand the diversity of Scotland’s places. Within transport, regional transport partnerships merely exemplify the issue. While they are effective in facilitating, demonstrating and advocating on low-carbon transport innovation, they lack the mass, powers and agency to undertake the cross-sector heavy lifting on net zero.

All parts of Scotland will have to play their part in achieving net zero, but as the recent furore over wood burners has illustrated all too well, there is a debate to be had about how this is achieved and which policy interventions are appropriate in different places.

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Scotland is very good at writing policy documents. Professionals come here from all over the world to learn how we analyse the problems we face, identify solutions and formulate strategies. Less common now are visitors who come to see how we put policies into action. Policy documents matter, but implementation matters more. And without the system and structure of government to get implementation right, we won’t meet any of the targets we need to reach.

Professor David Gray, Robert Gordon University, and Professor Iain Docherty, University of Stirling



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