How will our lives change post COVID-19 lockdown?
Clearly the COVID-19 situation completely changes the economic fortunes for the whole world, never mind the UK or Scottish Governments. Provisional estimates last week predicted that the economy is expected to shrink by a third and may take decades to recover. Many businesses will fail to rise from the ashes of COVID and when we do all emerge into a “new normal”, the Scottish Government - like the rest of us - will have to re-assess priorities and direct whatever Capital is available towards key strategic programmes, where there is demonstrable Value for Money.
What has become very clear over the past few weeks is that many organisations are able to function perfectly well without the requirement for expensive office blocks. Tools like Skype, Zoom and Microsoft Teams have made holding virtual meetings possible without the daily commute, or completely unnecessary “red eye” flights down to Heathrow. Of course there will always be a requirement for social interaction with colleagues, however the frequency will be greatly reduced, as will the amount of traffic on the roads.
Unsurprisingly, we have seen pollution levels fall during lockdown as town centres stand empty and online sharing of their attempts at Tik Tok moves provides hours of much-needed family entertainment. Countless people have had home working thrust upon them – and many of those have revelled in the benefits of swapping their Inverurie to Aberdeen commute for their kitchen to home office area commute. Some will resist returning to their home to office commute.
Companies are also seeing the benefits of home working. As reported in the BBC News on 29 April (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-52467965), Barclays boss Jes Staley says, "There will be a long-term adjustment to our location strategy. The notion of putting 7,000 people in the building may be a thing of the past."
Dr Richard Dixon, Director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, (https://foe.scot/coronavirus-and-the-climate/) shares his view of the situation, saying, “Any lasting impact of COVID-19 will not be that there was a reduction in emissions in 2020 but that our collective view of the world and how it works will have changed. Governments have found trillions to throw at the problem, the magic money tree really did exist after all. No government will be able to get away with saying that they’d love to do something about climate change but there just isn’t the money right now.
“Many people will think differently about flying, holidaying abroad and the market economy. And about how dependent we are on other countries even for basic food stuffs. For some people their rude introduction to working from home will have been a revelation, and they will never want to go back to 9-to-5 office working.
“COVID-19 is a disaster for humanity. There is no silver lining in the temporary climate emissions reductions that have resulted. But the long-term lesson for tackling the climate crisis might just be that we know much more clearly that the market doesn’t care about people, that community really is important and that governments can act much more strongly and decisively than they usually pretend they can.”
The temptation for the Scottish Government could be to “build their way out of the crisis as opposed to implementing austerity measures” which may well be a reasonable approach - but only if the construction programmes align with the new set of socially inclusive and green requirements and acceptable values.
Vanity projects such as the A96 dualling should be cancelled, instead the Government should follow the recommendations of the Infrastructure Commission for Scotland, where the presumption is to re-use and upgrade existing assets. There is no question that that the A96 does need improvement (from Fochabers to Inverness and through Inverurie) but how can there possibly be justification for building two category 7A roads (the A9 & A96) each with a capacity of 50,000 vehicles a day heading into Inverness, a city with a population of only 47,000 residents?
This situation is unjustifiable both on economic or environmental grounds. The A96 business case (published in 2014 before the oil crash) is categorised as poor value for money (using the Department of Transport criteria), with a Benefits Cost Ratio (BCR) of only 0.78 when driver frustration is removed. No matter how much organisations such as the SCDI write about the perceived economic benefits, no-one has been able to provide the A96 Action Group with robust evidence supporting these claims. Even Transport Scotland acknowledge in their tender document that their early data suggests that the ‘benefits will not outweigh the capital cost and that the Environmental Impact may be high’. In huge contrast to this, a number of recent reports show that the BCR for Digital investment is typically in the region of 12:1 at the lower end of expectations with 20:1 being achievable. So, for every £1 of tax payers money invested, there is a return of between £12 and £20 pounds. Compare this to the BCR for the A96 at £0.78...
At the end of the day, hard decisions will have to be made about where very scarce capital is directed to maximise economic and social benefit and it may simply come down Transport versus Digital. A sizable chunk of the £3bn (although the real figure will be almost certainly be far greater than that depending on the type funding used) earmarked for the A96 dualling could be re-directed towards the only future-proof solution for Scotland which is full fibre to the premises (FTTP). This would open up the opportunity for everyone - giving us a far more inclusive society where citizens have the opportunity to take advantage of the massive benefits excellent broadband connectivity provides.
Clearly, the Scottish Government needs to re-think existing transport projects.