Fossil fuel and transport dominate the Scottish Borders’ first ‘green hustings’

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All four candidates standing in the Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk constituency, appeared before an audience in Melrose to answer questions about climate change and sustainability.

Organised by Greener Melrose, the hustings was held at Marmions Place on November 27. The panel, headed by Donald McPhillimy, included John Lamont (Con), Calum Kerr (SNP), Jenny Marr (Lib Dems) and Ian Davidson (Labour).

Mr Phillimy got the evening underway 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, which ranged in topic from Scotland’s reliance on oil, the burning of heather on grouse moors in the Borders, and the quality of public transport in the region.

On the latter topic, an audience member expressed their dismay that the Borders Railway runs on diesel, while another asked how they would encourage people to use public transport more often.

Responding, Ian Davidson said: “Bus usage in Scotland in the last ten years has fallen by over ten percent. 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.”

John 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.”

On buses, Jenny Marr said: “Borders Buses is great, and the routes that have started this week with space for the bikes I think as really important.

“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 1pm or 2pm, 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.”

Finally, Calum 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 makes 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, so 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.

“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.”