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Coming to terms with spatial change – transport and devolution in Britain

S’adapter aux mutations spatiales – transport et dévolution en Grande-Bretagne
Iain Docherty
p. 151-161


La dévolution qui qualifie le processus de décentralisation en Grande-Bretagne, est le plus important changement survenu dans les modes de gouvernance britanniques depuis 300 ans. La dévolution des pouvoirs, processus complexe et asymétrique soutenu par les partisans de l’union du Royaume-Uni comme par les nationalistes pour des raisons différentes, offre des opportunités d’innovation politique mais se révèle également source de conflits entre administrations autonomes et État central. A travers l’étude de l’émergence d’une politique de transport dans le contexte de dévolution des pouvoirs, cet article souligne comment la modification des cadres territoriaux s’est traduite par un changement de cap des politiques publiques. Si les phases initiales de dévolution ont révélé un processus de rattrapage, les changements survenus sont tels qu’ils pourraient précipiter de nouvelles réformes constitutionnelles et de gouvernance.

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1Devolution – the term used to describe the particular process of governmental decentralisation in Britain – is perhaps the most important change in the systems and structures of British governance in 300 years. Highly complex and asymmetric, devolution is supported by both unionists and nationalists for different reasons, and offers the potential both for real policy innovation and significant conflict between the central state and the devolved administrations. In this sense, devolution is a profoundly spatial process, with the creation of new formal political territories opening up the potential for distinctive cultures and identities to colonise. This is as true for the institutions of devolved governance themselves as it is for the communities they govern, with new means of developing public policy, and of negotiating political change and balancing competing political priorities, in evidence.

2This paper traces the development of transport policy under devolution in order to demonstrate how changing spaces of governance have created different (spatial) priorities for this important area of public policy. Transport is an important case study because it exemplifies how the new spaces and institutions of governance have played out in practice, but also because as an important means of recreating and recasting space through public investment, transport policy has much wider lessons for the politics of devolution and relations between tiers of government. The paper concludes that the early phases of devolution have been something of a ‘catch up’ process for Britain, but that the pace of change now evident is likely to lead to further governmental and constitutional reform.

Britain, devolution and spatial change

3Britain has long been regarded as one of the most centralised countries in the world, with the British state able to translate this stability into domestic and international power, perhaps best typified by the height of Empire in the 19th century. This centralisation and stability masks significant political tensions, however, most notably the rise of nationalism in Wales and especially Scotland, and increasing demands for autonomy in the English regions (Keating, 1998).

4Although not confined to the UK, these tensions have (re)emerged and developed at a rate not generally seen elsewhere in Europe. In 2007, Scotland elected a nationalist government only eight years after the re-establishment of its parliament, suspended for 300 years following the political union with England in 1707. Such is the pace of change now apparent that Scotland is now (arguably) closer to independence than other stateless nations such as the Basques, Catalans and Quebecois. At the same time, Wales continues to travel down a similar path, albeit at a much slower rate. Finally, the historic rapprochement between nationalist and loyalist communities in Northern Ireland has permitted the establishment of a genuinely power-sharing government between former enemies, both arguing for more autonomy from London even if their ultimate political goals remain diametrically opposed.

5British devolution, like other decentralisation processes seen across the world since the 1970s (Rodriguez-Pose and Gill, 2003), was introduced in response to pressures on the nation state both from ‘above’  - i.e. supra-national organisations such as the European Union (Peck and Tickell, 2002) – and ‘below’, largely from the geographically-defined communities at a variety of scales for whom a single identity based on the current national state is problematic. In Britain, debate about the future stability and existence of the central state dates from the modern, post-imperial and post-war exchanges of the 1960s, which were given renewed impetus by the discovery of North Sea oil and the deep recessions of the 1970s and 1980s (Nairn, 1977; Tomaney, 2000).

6Despite actually implementing the policy, many senior figures in the ‘New’ Labour UK government elected in 1997 – especially the Prime Minister Tony Blair himself – were sceptical or even hostile to devolution. Themselves British ‘nationalists’, many ministers were persuaded to support devolution only out of a sense of obligation to Scotland and Wales given their traditional support for the Labour Party, or that the idea could be conceived as another plank of New Labour’s crusade to ‘modernise’ the country.

7With no written constitution, devolution in Britain is based on a formal division of powers between the Westminster Parliament and the devolved administrations, achieved through legislation. This means that the UK government remains entirely sovereign, with the devolved assemblies holding powers over matters that Westminster chooses to either devolve or ‘reserve’ for itself (Table 1). The upshot of this is that devolution in Britain is highly uneven or ‘assymetrical’, with each of the different territories having been granted different powers and institutional arrangements (Hazell, 2000). For Scotland, the devolution legislation lists a range of ‘matters’ or powers that are ‘reserved’ to the UK government, that is those powers (such as over foreign affairs, the constitution and the macro-economy) that are critical to the overall maintenance of the UK as a nation state. This means that the Scottish Parliament can legislate on any issue that is not explicitly listed as reserved. For Northern Ireland, there is a similar yet subtly different list, the so-called ‘excepted powers’ that the UK Government regards as central to its sovereignty, with a second list of ‘reserved’ powers that Westminster expects to devolve to the Province in future. The Welsh Assembly, which currently does not have the power to pass its own legislation, can only debate and amend a much more constrained set of issues explicitly devolved to it.

Table 1 List of ‘Reserved’ and ‘Excepted’ matters in Scotland and Northern Ireland

Table 1 List of ‘Reserved’ and ‘Excepted’ matters in Scotland and Northern Ireland

8This highly complex situation stands in stark contrast to several continental countries that have introduced political decentralisation in recent decades, notably France and Italy, having more in common with the cases of Spain and Canada. Another similarity with the latter two cases can be seen in the largely diffident attitude of the largest ‘partner’ in the state – England in the British case – towards devolution, since although England is a highly distinctive nation in itself, English Nationalism is the ‘dog that refused to bark’ (Kumar, 2006).

9One of the other defining characteristics of British devolution is the fact that the devolved administrations have almost no revenue raising powers of their own: the Scottish Parliament has the power to vary income tax levels in Scotland by +/- 3%, but this is marginal and for various political reasons is unlikely to be used. This stands in total contrast to practice in many other devolved or federal states such as the US, Germany, Italy and Spain, in which the national and lower tiers share responsibility for both the raising and spending of public funds. In Britain, an annual block grant based on a complex allocation formula is given to each jurisdiction by Westminster, which means that the devolved administrations have almost total freedom to allocate funds to the different policy areas as they see fit (Adams and Schmuecker, 2005). However, the lack of responsibility for raising revenue has led to charges of fiscal irresponsibility against the devolved governments (see Hallwood and MacDonald, 2004 ; Trench, 2005).

10Whilst there is general agreement that devolution is the most important change to the fabric of the British state for three hundred years (whilst acknowledging Irish independence), there is no clear consensus on its long-term significance (Gamble, 2006). This is because support for devolution comes from two directions, which whilst agreeing on the utility of governmental decentralisation in terms of its beneficial impact on public administration, hold diametrically opposite views on the ultimate fate of the British state. Some, who could be termed ‘localists’, see devolution about fostering ‘good governance’ and promoting ‘local solutions to local problems‘ (Jeffery, 2002) as a means to maintain and even enhance the British state. Others, especially nationalists, see devolution as a stepping stone to complete independence, or at least very advanced autonomy within a truly federal United Kingdom. Nationalist political sympathies derive from the complex history of the constituent countries of the UK (Figure 1). The ‘Celtic Nations’ of Ireland, Scotland and Wales have very different linguistic, cultural and social histories to those of the largest UK country, England, which accounts for over 80% of the United Kingdom’s population. The Celtic nations are much smaller – the largest, Scotland, having just over 5 million inhabitants – and have retained coherent national identities and institutions including important sectors such as the law, education and the church. The independence achieved by the Republic of Ireland in 1921/22 also provides a model for the secession of a smaller nation from the UK state, with that country’s recent prosperity providing a model for economic success looked upon enviously by many in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Figure 1 : Constituent countries of the United Kingdom

Figure 1 : Constituent countries of the United Kingdom

Devolution and transport policy

11Transport is a key area of policy responsibility, in which the new devolved institutions quickly asserted themselves. The case of transport is also particularly interesting because it is one of the most striking examples of asymmetry in terms of the powers devolved to each jurisdiction. For example, whilst Northern Ireland has complete control over its railways, Scotland has fewer powers and Wales is even less able to determine its own policy in this area. In London, the Greater London Authority (GLA) controls the Underground, although it inherited from the central government a financial management regime for the system that it did not want, and has turned out to be highly controversial (Wolmar, 2002).

12This is important because one of the underlying rationales of devolution is to enable the devolved administrations to develop policies that better reflect the economic and social conditions of their areas (Greer, 2003; Hazell, 2001). In this sense, they can be seen as a ‘laboratories’ for the introduction of new policy initiatives and directions (Adams and Schmuecker, 2005; Jeffery, 2002), with the potential for devolved administrations to learn from one another. Equally, however, there are pressures from the central state to retain a degree of control and to minimise the challenge to the policies of central government (Smyth, 2003). Analysing these competing pressures towards policy divergence and convergence is one of the central questions for devolution research (Adams and Robinson, 2002 ; Keating, 2002).

13At first glance, transport appears to be rather divorced from many of the larger theoretical questions underlying devolution and constitutional change summarised above. Yet mobility is a critical facilitator of economic and social development and although the rather prosaic tasks of policy delivery – such as making the trains run on time – suggest that transport is an unlikely starting point for political arguments in favour of greater regional autonomy, the reality of transport policy making in the devolved Britain has neatly highlighted how powerful the devolved institutions can be in practice, and how they might increase this power in future, as will be developed below.

14Reflecting its ‘domestic’ function, the main transport responsibility of each devolved territory is the development and management of roads infrastructure, and other generally local issues such as bus policy and concessionary fares for older and disabled people. Rail is much more complex, being a mix of local, regional and inter-regional services and subject to a strong regulatory regime controlled from London. For Scotland, a compromise – the so-called ‘McLeish Settlement’ – was devised at the outset of devolution, which gave Scottish Ministers a limited advisory role with regard to the rail network. This has quickly changed, however – by 2001 the Scottish Parliament had become responsible for the specification and funding of Scottish domestic rail services (in a similar manner to that of the French regions and German Laender), and in 2005 power over rail infrastructure was transferred to Edinburgh in “the most significant transfer of powers since devolution” (Scottish Executive, 2005). Pressure to move even further is now apparent - economic regulation of the system remains reserved to Westminster – which is important since it determines the engineering cost base and economic assumptions on which future investment decisions are made – and the retention of a single operating company, Network Rail, for rail infrastructure across Great Britain limits the direct influence Scottish Ministers can exert on a day-to-day basis.

15In London devolution and the creation of the Mayoralty and Assembly has enhanced longstanding tradition of autonomy in transport matters dating from the 1930s. The Mayor of London and Greater London Assembly (GLA) now have very substantial transport powers, controlling the Underground, London Buses, taxis, river boat services and light rail. Added to these powers are responsibility for strategic transport planning, which enabled the introduction of the congestion charge despite central government hostility, and the capacity to raise bonds on the market to finance capital investment. This latter point is important, since the cultures and conventions of decision making that become established in a decision making body that simply spends money allocated by another institution can be problematic. Put simply, the argument is that without direct revenue raising responsibilities, the devolved administrations are prone to regard money as cheap, spending it on projects with marginal economic cases, often with very little consideration of the wider impacts or opportunity costs of the decisions themselves. An example is the provision of ‘concessionary’ (free or reduced rate) bus fares, which cost over £180 million per annum in Scotland alone, over longer term capital investment in infrastructure development (see Docherty et al., 2007, for an exploration of this argument in the Scottish context).

New cultures of policy making

16The role of the civil service has changed considerably under devolution, requiring (much) more active involvement in policy formulation in an environment of greatly increased political and media scrutiny. As one civil servant said during an interview,

“The job is completely unrecognisable (to before devolution). Obviously my interface with the politicians is pretty intensive, pretty continuous, the diversity and range of issues that you are having to deal with. The media interest, I mean it’s incessant… And that is very demanding, because… you are no longer just in the business of delivering programmes and doing the job, you are also on a day to day, minute by minute basis trying to manage the media interface as well... And their [Ministers’] expectations are so much higher, I mean they are continually focused on the political issues, the presentation issues, the media issues, and they expect us to be focussed on them at all times as well. And it is hugely demanding, very stressful, and very demanding, far more so than it ever was before.”

17As this quote reveals, one of the fascinating unintended consequences of devolution is the way in which ostensibly mundane areas of public policy – such as transport – have become highly politicised. The politicisation emerges in two domains – first, new geographies of public spending have been created, with competition for investment now more visible than ever between different places inside the devolved territories. Second is the extent to which the devolved administrations have sought to highlight the inconsistencies in the sets of powers afforded to them, so that they can extend these powers. Here, the example of railways in London is an important one – despite controlling the underground and bus networks, the London Mayor originally had no control over the heavy rail network. This was particularly important since the Underground has very little coverage south of the River Thames, and so the Mayor’s ability to develop a coherent transport strategy for the whole of Greater London was substantially undermined by different levels of control over the transport network as a whole in different parts of his own territory.

18A highly skilful political operator, Ken Livingstone recognised this (and other) paradoxes from the outset of devolution in London:

The history is pretty clear that in 2000 Ken Livingstone did run in opposition to the government and all other parties, he ran specifically on transport issues...  So… maybe as a first step on the paved walk of devolution, the first elected mayor in London, transport issues figured very prominently. (Official, Transport for London).

19Such was the success of Livingstone in raising the profile of transport issues, and most importantly in implementing the congestion charge, that power over local rail services in London has also been devolved, enabling Transport for London to launch the first of its new ‘London Overground’ rail services in late 2007. But the effectiveness of Livingstone in the early period of devolution stands in contrast to the situation elsewhere, especially Scotland, where Scottish Ministers had trouble adjusting to the new environment of intense political and media scrutiny brought about by devolution. When interviewed, one transport policy advisor reflected the views of many observers that Scottish ministers had been generally timid,  “frightened” of media criticism – “the bloody Daily Record” (the most popular Scottish tabloid) – in stark contrast to Ken Livingstone who refused to let his agenda be dictated by the Evening Standard (London’s influential evening newspaper).

20This difference in approach means that London’s has unquestionably been the most radical and high profile transport policy agenda in the devolved Britain. Less than two years into his first term, The Mayor’s Transport Strategy (GLA, 2001) stated that “the biggest single problem for London is the gridlock of our transport system” and, drawing on his favourite rhetoric on London’s economic importance to the UK as a whole, argued that this problem “threatens London’s economic prosperity and… [t]hat is of concern to the entire country because London is both the powerhouse of the British economy and the international gateway to the UK” (GLA, 2001: i).

21In Scotland (as in Wales and Northern Ireland) transport simply did not enjoy such prominence in the early period of devolution because it lacked a high-profile political champion, a situation made worse by the succession of different transport ministers appointed from 1999 to 2004. This was important because, as for any system or structure of governance, the acid test for devolution would be the difference it made to the effective and efficient implementation of public policy. Whilst high level debates about devolution and nationalism continue, most voters usually judge the governments they elect on the basis of their ability to deliver better services that make a positive difference to their everyday lives.

Real politics and hard choices?

22Deciding which specific transport policies and projects to support has become a difficult issue under devolution. This is partly due to changing political geographies, brought about by the establishment of the devolved territories as electoral units in their own right, but also by the introduction of proportional representation and in the case of the Celtic countries, the entry into official opposition (and then, in 2007, into government) of nationalist parties. In Scotland, for example, this generated new inter-regional competition for investment between different regions – the West of Scotland, the Edinburgh area, the North East and Highland and Islands (MacKinnon and Phelps, 2001).

23Transport policy delivery in Scotland in the first two terms of devolution (1999-2007) became particularly susceptible to charges of favouring projects for political rather than sound economic or technical reasons (Docherty et al., 2007). One of the first examples of this was the re-emergence of a strong east-west (i.e. Edinburgh-Glasgow) rivalry. One Glasgow MSP said during interview that:

“I think the (first) Executive was very firmly an East of Scotland Executive, the West of Scotland influence was slight. Virtually all the Edinburgh MSPs were ministers… I think the thinking… the whole Transport Bill for example was debated in terms of Edinburgh. It was all about city congestion charges, it was all we must do something about Edinburgh. And Glasgow was saying we don’t want congestion charging, go away! We don’t want to toll the roads, it was all about Edinburgh, Edinburgh, Edinburgh.”

24In addition to reinforcing this longstanding traditional division, devolution brought additional politicisation of transport in terms of calls for investment in areas where the coalition parties had, or were seeking, electoral support. In 2006, one urban-based official noted that investment was being skewed towards rural areas in which the then Labour-Liberal government and SNP opposition were engaged in the most direct competition for electoral support:

“Devolution has actually been a very good means of the cities of Scotland cross subsidising the rural hinterland. And I have no problem with that as a policy objective, but… it is skewing decision making and I think the nature of coalition politics is certainly… contributing to all of that because you have one coalition partner whose power base is almost entirely in the rural areas” (Local government official, Scotland).  

  • 1  Despite this, Livingstone lost the May 2008 Mayoral election to his Conservative challenger, Boris (...)

25These issues were different in London, given the very much more constrained city-region scale of governance involved. But this is not to say that they do not exist. The lack of an all-London tier of government since the abolition of the former Greater London Council (GLC) in 1987 energised the 33 lower tier borough councils, and fearful of losing more powers over time, many were keen to test the Mayor’s (and Greater London Assembly’s) mandate and resilience. Well aware of this, Livingstone focused on establishing Transport for London as a world-class professional delivery-focused organisation which emphasised the importance of a strong research and evidence base to justify its decisions so as to avoid charges of local political favouritism, as had become commonplace in Scotland. This was not because there was anything fundamentally unique in terms of policies or prioritisation methods applied in London, but rather that TfL mobilised this knowledge effectively to make its case for particular policies over others, support its bids for funding and hence deliver effective projects. The second factor at play was undoubtedly the political skill and leadership of the Mayor himself (Borraz and John, 2004). In contrast to the inexperience of Scottish Ministers (most of whom had never served in positions of responsibility in any tier of government) Livingstone was strategically and tactically adept, having been both the leader of the earlier incarnation of London government, and an MP for 13 years. As a result, he knew that gaining wide public support for his transport policies was critical to bolstering the position of the Mayor more generally1.

26There are other very clear comparisons between the way London developed a transport policy that made the best of professional transport planning expertise and the political vision of the Mayor, and Scotland, where transport policy became substantially more politicised according to short term partisan and local demands (Docherty and Hall, 1999; Docherty et al., 2007; although see Shaw, 2004). The first of these examples is road user charging. Warning signs first appeared in Scotland less than five months into the life of the Scottish Parliament, when the Scottish Executive’s first Transport Minister, Sarah Boyack, presented to Parliament the results of the Strategic Roads Review to Parliament she had commissioned shortly after taking office (Scottish Executive, 1999). Whilst superficially appearing as true to Labour’s policy position that new roads should be built “as a last resort rather than a first” (DETR, 1997, p. 1), interviews with various officials and others close to the discussions reveal that the minister simply played ‘pick and choose’ with the project list generated by the Strategic Roads Review according to her own political agenda.

27Most important was the way in which her decisions on which projects to approve were at odds with the technical findings of the Strategic Roads Review itself, which was strongly rooted in more ‘rational’, evidence-based approaches. Table 2 lists the projects considered in the Review in descending order of their benefit cost ratio (BCR) performance. Those schemes that were approved are shown in bold. The schemes in italics are those for which the Minister decided that local authorities should assume responsibility. It is immediately apparent that there is no link between the economic benefits of a particular project and its likelihood of being funded. was to have ramifications that affected transport policy in Scotland throughout the first two terms of devolution.

Table 2 : Benefit:cost performance of Scottish road schemes, 1999

Table 2 : Benefit:cost performance of Scottish road schemes, 1999

28Most important was Boyack’s desire to limit the role played by traditional transport economic appraisal. In making her decision, Boyack took full advantage of the fashionable focus on ‘soft’ appraisal popular at the time, which include (highly subjective) criteria, such as those of accessibility and transport integration, alongside more traditional economic measures such as time savings. Whilst these approaches arguably represent a broader, more open-minded approach to investment appraisal than traditional economic techniques used in isolation, they also afford ministers very substantial ‘wriggle-room’ to approve projects with weak economic justification.

29There is little doubt that the handling of the Strategic Roads Review was an important failure of early devolution in Scotland. Not only did it discredit decision making by revealing the depth of local- and partisan political intervention in a key area of public policy: it actually cost lots of money. The most important example of this was the M74 completion project in Glasgow (Figure 2). Boyack did not actually cancel the road, but to leave it up to Glasgow City Council and its adjoining authorities to fund a large part of the cost, which was clearly impossible. Strong lobbying ensued over a period of years to have the motorway reinstated in the transport capital programme; by the time the new SNP government signed the final contract for the road in February 2008, its total cost had increased by a factor of three, even although its capacity had been reduced by around a third.

Figure 2 : M74 Completion project, Glasgow

Figure 2 : M74 Completion project, Glasgow

30Two years after the Strategic Roads Review, the Transport (Scotland) Act 2001 was passed in an attempt to move Scotland’s transport even further towards sustainable alternatives (Scottish Parliament, 2001). It was to turn out to be another missed opportunity, however, with Scottish Ministers displaying the timidity and lack of vision noted earlier, at precisely the same time as the London Mayor was pressing ahead with congestion charging there. Most important was the (very late) decision not to include powers for charging on the trunk road network, which were seen as too politically dangerous. However, local councils were given the power to implement their own schemes, which many of them regarded as ‘passing the buck’ on the issue.

31In practice, only one authority, the City of Edinburgh, was a likely candidate for charging in the short to medium term (Gaunt et al., 2007; Figure 3). Edinburgh’s economy had grown strongly, generating substantial congestion and placing severe pressure on its limited public transport system, based almost entirely on the bus. Envious of other comparable cities (including many in France) that had transformed their transport networks by constructing tram systems, Edinburgh formulated a strategy to implement a congestion charge, with the revenues used to finance a new tramway system for the city, and other associated improvements such as bus priority lanes and park and ride facilities (Halden, 2002).

Figure 3 : Proposed Edinburgh Congestion Charging Zones

Figure 3 : Proposed Edinburgh Congestion Charging Zones

32Unlike London, Edinburgh was not strong enough to resist the inevitable opposition to congestion charging given the lack of government support. Worse, Scottish Ministers panicked – as senior coalition partner, the Labour Party was keen to rescue the Labour local administration in Edinburgh – promising funding for the Edinburgh tramway irrespective of whether or not charging was introduced, in effect “trying to buy themselves out of trouble” (authors’ interviews). Further concessions were made, including the offer of significant exemptions, but these further weakened the overall financial and policy case (Ryley, 2005). The charging proposals were eventually defeated in February 2005, after a referendum resulted in an overwhelming vote of 74,4 % against, on a turnout of 61,7 % (Gaunt et al., 2007; Scottish Executive, 2006).

33The comparisons of congestion charging in London and Edinburgh are instructive, not just in terms of the ultimate outcomes, but also in terms of wider politics of transport policy under devolution. First, the public will only begin to accept the notion of road pricing if they can see genuine improvements in the alternatives before charging is introduced. Livingstone made sure to implement a massive expansion and upgrading of the bus network in London before the introduction of charging to sufficiently convince people there that the benefits of congestion charging were real. Second is the issue of political leadership, which is especially important when radical policies are being implemented in the face of populist opposition (see Hambleton and Sweeting, 2004). Although central government leadership was lacking in both the London in Edinburgh cases, in London, the Mayor’s political skill more than compensated. In Edinburgh, however, there was no alternative champion once government ministers had abandoned the idea.

34Railways policy again provides a significant example of how transport issues have stimulated both policy innovation and political tension under devolution in Scotland and London. In Scotland, the promotion of rail investment in terms of new stations and reopened routes was quickly seen as a way of marking out the difference devolution had made in promoting a more sustainable transport policy. A number of projects were approved, including the reopening of a branch of the Glasgow commuter network (the largest in Britain outside London), the reopening of the stretch of line from Stirling to Alloa to give more flexibility for freight in central Scotland; reopening and electrifying the line between Airdrie and Bathgate, which would give a fourth rail route between Glasgow and Edinburgh and greatly increase intermediate commuting opportunities in these two critical and (relatively) fast growing urban economies; and building a new Glasgow Airport Rail Link (GARL) to provide for the first time a rail connection between the airport and Glasgow city centre. But it was two larger projects in the east of Scotland that came to dominate the rail policy agenda, not only revealing important methodological and political issues for transport policy, but also for the progress of devolution itself: the Edinburgh Airport Rail Link (EARL) and the Scottish Borders Railway, commonly known as the ‘Waverley Line’.

35The airport rail links issue neatly highlights the inter-regional politics of devolution (MacKinnon and Phelps, 2001), and the lack of any coherent project prioritisation methodology in Scotland. The project must first be seen in terms of wider east-west politics. Nervous of Edinburgh’s increasing share of Scottish air traffic – it has recently overtaken Glasgow as Scotland’s busiest – politicians and other interest groups in the west of Scotland have long been keen to secure a rail link to Glasgow Airport to improve its competitive position. Partly in response to this, the Executive agreed to explore the potential of rail link to Glasgow as well as to Edinburgh in its technical study. The final report came out very positively in favour of an Edinburgh link, recommending the most ambitious project of all, a sub-surface station with tunnel under the airport runway and various connecting links, being the preferred option. All Glasgow options scored very poorly, although this was at least in part due to the costs of other associated improvements being included in the project calculations, whilst the benefits to other rail services from the GARL project were not.

36Aware of the political sensitivities of the issues involved, the Executive made the decision in 2003 to approve both projects, on the basis of geographical equity. In arguing against its own economic research, just as it had done for the Strategic Roads Review, the Executive set a precedent to approve major rail projects despite significant uncertainties regarding their economic case. Perhaps even more importantly, there was never any attempt to compare the relative costs and benefits of other projects competing for funding:

“…the problem we then face is if it does all come down to the public purse then does that put into question other projects in other parts of Scotland that have got considerably you know better prospects in terms of over all economic contribution. It might just mean that they are delayed; it might mean that they don’t happen at all. But I think we need to get into an honest debate as to all the pressures in the transport budget and then what are the key priorities” (MSP, Scotland).

37But this was not the end of the story. The potential global cost of EARL – given that the gradients of the tunnels required would be beyond the capability of any trains available in Scotland and therefore new rolling stock (and probably electrification of much of the network) would be required to implement the project – was not lost on the special Edinburgh Airport Rail Link Bill Committee of the Scottish Parliament set up to scrutinise the project. Ultimately, the committee approved the EARL Bill by a bare majority of 3:2, with geographical political interests coming into play both then and in the later full plenary vote, held just before the end of the 2003-2007 session. Then, following the 2007 election, the incoming SNP government scrapped the project, citing uncertainties in cost and engineering feasibility as reasons for redirecting investment towards the upgrading and electrification of the Edinburgh – Glasgow main line instead.

38Another smaller yet even more controversial rail project has laid bare the wider politics of devolution in Scotland. Proposals to reopen the Waverley Line in the Scottish Borders have been made ever since the Edinburgh – Carlisle route closed in 1968. The area has no rail station, and has relatively poor road connections to Edinburgh and elsewhere. Reopening the line has become a major local political cause, especially for the Liberal Democrats, who are historically strong in the area.

39The problem is that despite its political significance, the project has one of the weakest benefit:cost profiles of any transport scheme in Scotland – even after several recalculations according to more favourable criteria, the headline BCR figure for the project is only 1.21, which the Department for Transport in England would regard as being poor value for money (Docherty et al., 2007). The decision to proceed with the scheme, which was confirmed by the SNP government in early 2008 – is a clear example of the impact of coalition politics on the policy process in Scotland. Committed to the Waverley Line scheme for local political reasons, the hen Liberal Democrat transport Minister Nicol Stephen played a clever game to ensure its acceptance. Aware that the M74 motorway scheme was at least as strongly supported by the Labour section of the coalition, Stephen constructed a behind the scenes deal to ensure that both projects went ahead, playing one set of political and local geographical interests off another, much to the chagrin of several civil servants who feared that ‘proper’ policy making was being strangled by (partisan) political imperative.

40Railways policy in London is politically sensitive for different reasons. The scale of the mobility in London – especially commuting, as in Paris – means that the rail network plays an unusually large role in overall transport provision compared with other city regions in Britain. It is therefore critically important to the wider economic competitiveness to an extent not seen in smaller cities, and as such, figured strongly in the Mayor’s plans for transport investment in London. However, the London authorities had very little responsibility for the rail network in the city, which remained firmly in the control of central government. With strong recent growth in the economy and an increasing population, London’s transport planners had long noted the potential of rail investment to secure regeneration, reduce congestion and facilitate population growth.

41The Mayor’s transport strategy clearly noted the potential to introduce an intensive, Underground-like heavy rail service on several surface routes (similar to the French RER and German S-Bahn concepts), bringing the benefits of mass rapid transit to more of London. The final iteration of these plans – the London Overground – deliberately mimics London’s most famous rail network, and is being completely rebranded as part of the Mayor’s and Transport for London’s multimodal transport network.

42The significance of the successful campaign for more transport powers in London – specially over the rail network – is that it has legitimised the call for more powers elsewhere, such as in Scotland, without this position being automatically associated with conflict over wider constitutional issues. Whether or not the further devolution of transport powers – such as over aviation or shipping, for example – will be possible in the near future given the inevitable clash between Westminster and the nationalist government in Edinburgh, remains to be seen.


43Devolution in Britain is a highly complex process, as the example of transport policy demonstrates. Although one of the main rationales for devolution is that public policy making will be improved as local solutions are found to local problems, this paper suggests that all is not as straightforward as this would suggest.

44London has been a clear ‘winner’ in transport terms from devolution. The congestion charge, for example is an impressive piece of policy innovation, representing a unique means of addressing an acute local problem, and which has catapulted London to the forefront of sustainable transport policy internationally. Scotland – at least in the first phase of devolution from 1999-2007, tells a different story, with often rather ineffective solutions adopted for local transport problems, symptomatic of a decision making process that became very politicised. As the contrasting examples of London and Scotland demonstrate, the level of formal autonomy granted by devolution is not the primary determining factor in the success or otherwise of devolution in transport policy. At least as important is the capacity of the organisations and political leaders to determine strategy and implement policy so that effective change can be achieved.

45How devolution will develop from here is uncertain. It might be expected that as the devolved institutions mature, so their capacity to develop and implement policy will improve. There are already signs of this in Scotland, where the 2007 government has maintained most of the policies of its predecessor – one or two notable projects excepted – to focus on delivery of those schemes already well developed. Whether this will survive the intense political pressure that seems likely over the next few years as the constitutional future of British state itself comes under renewed scrutiny is uncertain. But what is readily apparent is that the pace of change in spatial restructuring in Britain – both in terms of the powers afforded to devolved territories and in the demands for reform from those within them – is only likely to increase.

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1  Despite this, Livingstone lost the May 2008 Mayoral election to his Conservative challenger, Boris Johnson, who benefited from a strong swing to the Conservatives across England.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Table 1 List of ‘Reserved’ and ‘Excepted’ matters in Scotland and Northern Ireland
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Titre Figure 1 : Constituent countries of the United Kingdom
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Titre Table 2 : Benefit:cost performance of Scottish road schemes, 1999
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Titre Figure 2 : M74 Completion project, Glasgow
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Titre Figure 3 : Proposed Edinburgh Congestion Charging Zones
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Iain Docherty, « Coming to terms with spatial change – transport and devolution in Britain », Géocarrefour, Vol. 83/2 | 2008, 151-161.

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Iain Docherty, « Coming to terms with spatial change – transport and devolution in Britain », Géocarrefour [En ligne], Vol. 83/2 | 2008, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2011, consulté le 23 juin 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Iain Docherty

Department of Management, University of Glasgow, Glasgow G12 8QQ, Scotland, UK, Tel. +44 141 330

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