In an age of burgeoning technological advancements, digital connectivity is playing an increasingly influential role in Scotland’s economic success, writes Keith Brown, Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work.
In homes and offices, connecting to the web and social media via reliable and efficient broadband is fast becoming essential for success and helps deliver inclusive economic growth. It also helps businesses in rural and urban areas to innovate and grow, prepares young people for tomorrow’s workplace and supports the growth of a skilled workforce fit for the digital century.
Investment is key, and our programme – run by my Cabinet colleague Fergus Ewing – to upgrade Scotland’s fibre broadband network is leading the way, with an ambition to ensure all parts of Scotland are covered. The latest figures are currently being assured but we shortly expect to confirm that our Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband programme achieved its target of extending fibre broadband access to 95% of homes and premises by the end of 2017.
However our job is not yet done, as still too many of our rural communities remain with limited or no broadband access. We therefore announced the single largest public investment ever made in a UK broadband project – some £600 million through the ‘Reaching 100%’ project. This investment is targeted more specifically at rural and remote Scotland, ensuring that every home and business across Scotland will be able to access superfast broadband by 2021.
It is a commitment, and a programme, entirely unique to Scotland. It is a choice the Scottish Government has made – superfast broadband for all. No other part of the UK has matched our ambition. Put in context, the Scottish Government’s £600m investment is more than three times larger than that of Westminster’s Fibre Fund which will cover the whole of the UK, and Scotland’s impressive progress is underlined by Ofcom’s figures showing we have progressed faster in extending superfast broadband access than any other UK nation. Had we not aimed high and chosen a path best suited to our particular broadband needs, swathes of rural Scotland would be left in the economic slow-lane.
Just as investment is important for digital connectivity, the same is true for transport.
Scotland’s economy from north to south, east to west, and urban to rural – demands faster, more reliable physical and digital connections to better link people and places right across the country. The march of technology is at times breathtaking, and envisaging a world even more connected in the years ahead leaves heads spinning.
I believe that not only must Scotland keep up with the pace of change, it must lead it. So investment in both physical and digital connectivity is crucial for our future economic prosperity. Transport is at the very heart of providing the physical infrastructure needed to help support economic growth and we have shown we possess in spades the foresight and ambition to deliver. But that ambition must be married to investment, and we have set the bar high.
Having pumped £20 billion into transport projects over the last decade to help arrest years of under-investment by previous governments, transformative transport schemes have been delivered on our watch that will better connect economic hubs, big and small, with improved physical links.
Urban and rural bottlenecks, so often ignored, have been unblocked. The M74 ‘Missing link’ scheme which lay on a planning table for decades has been delivered by the Scottish Government. So too has the M80 upgrade which has improved strategic road connections between Glasgow and Stirling and beyond. The £500 million improvements to the motorway network around Glasgow which opened to traffic last year is now delivering journey time improvements of up to 20 minutes, with a new interchange at Raith alleviating tailbacks which so often frustrated drivers during peak times. After ten years of planning and construction, our flagship £1.35 billion Queensferry Crossing has been delivered, referred to by the World Economic Forum as a “stunning structure”, the Crossing will bring benefits to road users and businesses around our capital and across the region for generations to come.
2018 will be the defining year for the £745m Aberdeen bypass as it moves into its final phases of construction, with £6 billion of economic benefits and 14,000 new jobs to be realised over the next 30 years. When opened, the north east will finally get the road Scotland’s oil and gas capital deserves – a network of 128 kilometres new dual carriageway, side roads and access roads, 75 new bridges, 70 new culverts, two major river crossings, two wildlife crossings, and a railway bridge – all helping to reduce congestion around the city, and improving journey times around the region.
Critically important rural transport improvements which benefit local communities have been delivered across the country – from the Crianlarich bypass on the A82 which has halved traffic in the town, to a new bypass at Mosstodloch on the A96
which has improved traffic flow along the route. Numerous other smaller road schemes have been delivered right across the country each playing their part in connecting businesses to the marketplace and people to their place of work or leisure, whilst helping unlock Scotland’s economic potential.
Looking to the future and matching ambition with major transport plans, we are pressing ahead to dual both the A9 from Perth to Inverness, and the A96 from Inverness to Aberdeen, collectively some 160 kilometres of upgraded road. The first section of the A9 dualling programme is finished, and this year we expect a major section between Birnam and Luncarty to begin construction. Design work on the A96 is pressing ahead and when work on both dualling schemes is completed, we will
have invested around £6 billion more in our strategic road network, finally connecting all seven of our cities by motorway or dual carriageway.
We want to see more people opt for the train and have invested nearly £8 billion on rail since 2007 to enhance services and upgrade infrastructure. We returned rail services to the Borders for the first time in nearly 50 years, have re-opened the Stirling-Alloa- Kincardine line, and are now operating the revitalised Airdrie-Bathgate line and its new stations. We have increased daily services across Scotland to 2,300 with a further 200 from next year. 160 extra carriages have been added to ScotRail’s fleet with an additional 200 to follow. We are electrifying the rail network across the central belt, and have added 76 kilometres of new track across the country.
Work is progressing well on rail enhancements on the Aberdeen to Inverness line and Highland mainline. The first phase of work on the Aberdeen and Inverness line improvements– the relocation of Forres station, platform extensions at Elgin, and signalling upgrades - are complete, with the next stage on the Aberdeen to Inverurie & Insch section now under way – paving the way for faster journeys and more frequent services. The second phase of Highland mainline enhancements, to be
delivered next year, will see passengers benefit from the introduction of a fleet of High Speed Trains, a new timetable of hourly services in both directions between Perth and Inverness with average reductions of around ten minutes, and more
efficient freight operations that better respond to the demand from freight customers.
Our track record on rail alongside our on-going future investment will truly transform the rail network and give passengers and freight users across rural and urban Scotland the best railway they’ve ever had.
Over £200 million is being invested on the National Concessionary Travel Scheme, with widened entitlement that will allow free journeys anywhere in Scotland – from John O’Groats to Jedburgh, or Stranraer to Stonehaven. We have also doubled our investment in active travel to £80 million, having already delivered over 500 kilometres of new walking and cycling infrastructure and over 150 kilometres more resurfaced - opening up cycling and walking activities to more communities. We’re investing over £180 million this year alone in ferries, and £60 million on lifeline air services - better connecting our island and remote communities with local and national economic centres. Transport makes the physical connections between rural and the urban environments, so our strategic and substantive investment is vital for Scotland’s prosperity.
Our investments in physical and digital connectivity are bringing people and places closer together whilst transforming our economic prospects. Our investments are driving innovation and making Scotland more competitive in the 21st century. They are supporting and creating thousands of jobs and new skills. They are creating opportunity and breeding confidence for others to invest in Scotland and its people. They are also better connecting Scotland when it has never been more important to be better connected.