Public transport was the issue dominating debate at the first-ever environment-themed hustings to be held in the Borders.
All four candidates standing for the UK Government’s Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk constituency appeared before an audience in Melrose last Wednesday, November 27, to answer questions about climate change and sustainability.
Organised by Greener Melrose, a coalition of environmental groups, the event was held at Marmions Place, in the town’s Buccleuch Street and led by Donald McPhillimy.
The four candidates there to field questions ahead of December 12’s general election were sitting Conservative MP John Lamont, the Scottish National Party’s Calum Kerr, Liberal Democrat Jenny Marr and Labour’s Ian Davidson.
There was standing room only in the small bar, and Mr Phillimy got the evening under way by telling the audience: “I think this demonstrates the fact that the climate emergency has finally climbed up the political agenda and it is something that a lot of people are concerned about and interested in.
“This is the first green hustings, as far as I’m aware, certainly in this part of the world, so I think it’s really significant that we are meeting here tonight to talk about predominantly green issues.”
The panel were asked pre-selected questions by members of the audience, and topics brought up included Scotland’s reliance on oil, the burning of heather on grouse moors and availability of public transport.
One audience member expressed dismay to the panel that the Borders Railway still runs on diesel, and another asked the four panellists how they would encourage people to use public transport more often.
Responding, Mr Davidson said: “Bus usage in Scotland in the last 10 years has fallen by over 10%. That’s because there’s been a lack of strategic vision.
“You cannot expect public transport, such as buses, to pay for itself if it’s going to be a consistent service.
“In Glasgow, we realised that keeping buses on during the night was vital because, although they wouldn’t be used often, when people did use them it would be urgent.
“Now, Scottish Borders Council, in my view, does not adequately fund public transport.
“They say, and I think they’re absolutely right, that they’re inadequately funded by the Scottish Government.
“The Scottish Government say ‘it was a bad boy who done it and he ran away because Westminster didn’t give us enough money’.
“Now that’s an example of where there needs to be a degree of strategic thinking.
“On the question of the train being driven by oil, that, as I understand it, was because it was going to be far too expensive to electrify it.
“They could only get diesel-driven stock, so it was that or nothing. Now, that’s not acceptable.
“It’s also not acceptable, in my view, that the rails the Borders line runs on were actually made in China.
“That didn’t create pollution here in Scotland, but it did across the world and the jobs weren’t created here – they were created in China.”
Mr Lamont said: “Some parts of the Borders are very well connected, but a lot are not.
“If you speak to residents in Newcastleton or Paxton, they do not have a regular bus service to allow them to get around, so it’s wrong to say that buses and public transport are accessible.
“We’re very lucky to have Borders Buses here. I have their exceptionally good app. I don’t know if many of you use it, but it’s a very simple way to get around and very easily find out where your bus is.
“I do use it because it’s a good way to get around and it’s better for the environment.
“But you can’t say that, just because I can use it to get from Berwick station to my house in Coldstream, that other people have access to public transport services. You can’t, because that’s simply not true.”
Ms Marr agreed, saying: “Borders Buses is great, and the routes that have started this week with space for the bikes I think are really important.
“To follow on from what John was saying, at Eyemouth College, they have a high rate of dropout in January and February because of how few buses there are and how difficult it is in the winter.
“I think we need to look at the successes in some parts of the region and then try and apply that to other places.
“I think with Newcastleton, one of the guys from the Campaign for Borders Rail was telling me that if a kid wants to get out of the village on a Saturday, they will struggle to get back after one or two in the afternoon, and I think we need to make sure that our public transport infrastructure is not a barrier to progress and not a barrier to children and younger people having the life they deserve to have.”
Mr Kerr added: “In relation to the points made on the railway, obviously there is a move around electrification and talk about hydrogen as well.
“The Scottish Government has set the target that the railways will be net-zero by 2035, as it stands today.
“In terms of public transport and buses, certainly when I met with bus companies previously, there’s only two bus routes in the Borders which make a profit – the X62 and the X95.
“People just don’t use it, so it becomes self-perpetuating, because then routes get cut, so people have to use their cars.
“If a green new deal means fundamentally resetting aspects of the economy, and included in that needs to be transport, then you have to invest. If you build it, they will come.
“You can’t just hope people will start using it and then you’ll find a way to make the routes work. It does require significant investment.
“There is a £1.7m green bus fund, so it’s about adding green buses continually.
“There is a lot of work going on, but I think we can do more.”
The next general election hustings are set to take place on Monday, November 9, with another following later the same day.
At 10.30am, BBC Scotland will host hustings at the Heart of Hawick, and a second such event, organised by Selkirk Community Council, will take place at the town’s Victoria Halls at 7pm.