19 September 2009

A Dagger in the Heart?

Much has already been written about the proposal to take the Glasgow Airport Rail Link off the table, as made in John Swinney's initial budget announcement.

Now, in many ways, it's hard to blame Stephen Purcell's cry that this is 'a dagger in the heart for Glasgow'. Well, it's somewhat hyperbolic (the correct term is 'slap in the face'), but otherwise, he's doing what you'd expect any Council Leader to do when they've just found out that a major project in their area has just been cancelled. He's supposed to complain bitterly, he's supposed to try and get the project back on track (no pun intended), and he's supposed to get himself in the papers demanding that it be re-instated. And with Glasgow punching above its weight in terms of its representation in the Labour group at Holyrood (17% of Labour MSPs, when the city comprises 11% of the total Scottish electorate), it's no wonder that they would be in favour of the project. However, for those who see some anti-Glasgow bias at work in the Government, consider this: the last Executive axed bridge tolls on the West Coast but not on the East - was that anti-Fife bias?

(And why are the Greens complaining? I'd have thought that given their hostility to air travel, far from making it easier to get to Glasgow Airport, they'd be campaigning for it to become the most inaccessible place in Scotland!)

All the same, cut Purcell and Labour some slack - they're doing what's expected of them. Nothing more, nothing less.

All the same, is it a project worth saving?

The truth is, I'm not sure. I do know that it can't really be a dagger in Glasgow's heart: like all of these projects, it's only of benefit to those who'll actually use it, and would have had noting in place beforehand. So you'd actually have to get to the railway station - and get to the right one at that (I know well the ridiculousness inherent in tearing around Glasgow City Centre as you cart your luggage between Central Station and Queen Street). The reality is that for most Glaswegians, GARL would make little or no difference to their daily lives. Things like the Council Tax freeze, however, do have an impact.

That said, the Commonwealth Games arrive in 2014 and GARL was a part of the successful bid for them. But again, it's only of real use if it connects the Airport directly with the Athletes' village and the East End, where the event's focus will be.

My point is this: these big projects are never as big or as fantastic as they look. On taking office as Finance Secretary, John Swinney looked at the plans for the Edinburgh Airport Rail Link and was horrified by what he saw, and as for the trams? Well, even when they get up and running (estimated time of completion: approximately the date when the Sun is reduced to a dark chunk of coal the size of my forehead), they're only going to benefit certain parts of the city - and, dare I say it, the some of the better heeled ones at that. The initial proposals called for three lines: one to Victoria Quay, one to the Airport, and one passing the Royal Infirmary. When the congestion charge plans were rejected, it was the third line - to the hospital - that got the axe. Think about it: a line to the airport (when there was also the EARL plan on the drawing board) and the well-to-do West of the City got the nod; the line for Civil Servants and the upwardly mobile Waterfront got the nod; the line serving hospital patients and the less affluent South East of the City got the chop. Wow, what a boost for the City of Edinburgh!

As for Edinburgh, so for Glasgow. Let's be clear: there's only a finite pot of money and in the eyes of the Finance Secretary, it's shrinking. We have to look at some of the fripperies and with the exception of a couple of weeks in 2014, GARL is basically a frippery. Something has to give - and later, I'll be looking at something that maybe ought to give on the SNP side.

In any case, the scrapping of GARL is merely a proposal - not a fait accompli. There is time for it to be saved in future revisions, particularly as the Budget Bill wends its way through Parliament, and particularly with the Glasgow North East By-Election due later in the year.

That's another thought: announcing the end of a major scheme in Glasgow in the run-up to a By-Election in the City surely blows out of the water any further accusations of the SNP chickening out of tough decisions in favour of naked populism. But still, we'll hear moans about that.

It might be possible - though whether it's desirable is another matter - to save the scheme. But we have to wise up to the possibility that it might not. And neither Stephen Purcell nor John Swinney deserve too many pelters on this one: the former is kicking up a fuss for his City when it needs him to; the latter is taking the tough decisions required of a Finance Secretary during a recession. Both are doing what they're supposed to.


Jeff said...

I don't know if the Greens have been complaining about GARL that much, certainly not as bitterly as Purcell has.

And if Purcell (as Glasgow Council leader) is allowed a free pass to jump up and down over GARL, surely Patrick Harvie as Glasgow MSP is afforded the same privilege?

Particularly given he is pushing a more reasonable argument.

Brian said...

I agree it may look better to have a proper rail link to Glasgow airport, but there are other more local, less fancy measures that could be taken. I'm thinking of the bus links to the airport, and I know I'm sinking to the level of toon cooncil here, but why spend millions when something simpler could also work well. To me better sign posting and more frequent buses to and from the airport would work wonders, particularly for tourists and natives trying to get from the city centre or other areas. The first 747 bus to the airport is a great idea but is woefully unreliable and stops everywhere and is subject to first's opaque and unfathomable fares. The number of tourists landing on that bus I've seen having to deal with a first bus and rub shoulders with maw paw and the weans getting on at braehead..

Anyway, a couple of express buses to the west and south with clear fares and easy to find bus stops throughout the city would serve visitors and residents alike well, as well as saving a few bob.

Will said...

Jeff, I take your point about Patrick Harvie being a Glasgow MSP - and being more reasonable - but Glasgow MSP or not, he's still a Green, and still hostile to air travel. Surely, then, something that makes the airport even more conveniently accessible jars with that philosophy?

Brian, spot on. Well-handled bus routes serve airports anywhere and everywhere and Glasgow needn't be an exception.

James said...

As I understand it, there's a few elements to GARL, including signalling and junction improvements, increased capacity to and from Paisley, a "missing link", and the airport spur.

The spur you're right, we never cared particularly for, but the other three are good public transport projects despite the misleading name.

I think some of the first element will be retained, incidentally, leaving this more of a snub to Paisley than to Glasgow.

The Green MSPs voted for this in 2006, and against the Edinburgh scheme, which was a pure and simple airport link (and a daft one at that).