Extending free bus passes to community transport

Too many older people are still waiting to benefit from the bus pass scheme.

I’m pleased to support Age Scotland’s campaign “Still Waiting“, which calls on Scottish Ministers to adjust the National Concessionary Travel scheme so that the bus pass is valid on community transport services.

Still waiting

Here’s a short film Age Scotland made – I was more than happy to take part.

I believe the aim of this great campaign will help reduce isolation among older people who live at a distance from commercial bus routes, or who find commercial bus services unsuitable for them.


Cycling should be safe for all from eight to 80 years

Today just before First Minister’s Questions I got the chance to ask the Transport Minister about the poor level of funding the Scottish Government allocates to active travel. You can read the transcript here, or simply read on…

There’s also a link at the end of this blog post to the video of my speech at last weekend’s Pedal on Parliament.

10. Alison Johnstone (Lothian) (Green): To ask the Scottish Government what proportion of its transport budget is spent on infrastructure to increase walking and cycling rates. (S4O-02164)

The Minister for Transport and Veterans (Keith Brown): In the current financial year, the proportion of the transport budget that is spent on cycling and walking infrastructure will be 0.7 per cent. In addition, as part of our trunk roads programme, upgrading of cycling and walking facilities is included in each contract.The transport budget is not the only contributor to infrastructure. As part of the local government settlement, £5.6 million will be allocated to local authorities for cycling, walking and safer streets projects. Funding is also available from the climate challenge fund for community cycling projects.

The Presiding Officer: Please be brief, Ms Johnstone.

Alison Johnstone: The 4,000 or so people who pedalled on Parliament on Sunday to call for increased investment in cycling were disappointed that the minister was unable to attend. Can he reassure those people, and all those who want cycling to be safe for all from eight to 80 years, that his Government is committed to increasing investment to the levels that will enable it to deliver its own commitment to 10 per cent of all journeys being made by bike by 2020?

The Presiding Officer: Please be brief, minister.

Keith Brown: We will shortly produce the cycling action plan for Scotland, which I know the member has an interest in. That will contain our plans—not the definitive last word on our plans—to ensure that we achieve those targets and to ensure that we try to increase the number of people cycling not just for recreation, which there has been a real increase in, but for commuting to work and for other purposes. We are committed to those things and I am pleased that my colleague Paul Wheelhouse was able to be there on Sunday to meet the demonstrators.

Alison speaks at Pedal on Parliament 2013

I’d like to see more support for urban hydro schemes

At the weekend Scotland on Sunday reported that SNH (Scottish Natural Heritage) has identified over a hundred sites on the West Coast where the development of hydro power could damage sensitive environments. I agree a balance has to be struck.


John Muir wrote that when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else. And that is true of water, even in Scotland, famous for its rainfall. It’s a great asset but it’s also a precious resource that sustains the ecosystem. We usually have plenty, although droughts on the West coast in recent years are a warning.

Scotland’s changing climate is already affecting our wildlife and landscape. If we’re serious about reducing emissions, moving towards renewable energy like hydro and away from fossil fuels makes sense but we also need to cut what we consume in the first place.

SNH is right to identify watercourses it believes are internationally important. Scottish Greens support renewable energy developments in the right place.

I’d like to see more support for urban schemes, like the Harlaw Hydro co-operative in Edinburgh. The community benefits, the grid gets clean energy and there’s minimal impact on the local environment.


Why should we tolerate a diet of weak poisons?

The ban on neonicotinoid pesticides is good news. A radical stance by environmental campaigners has become mainstream, with the notable exceptions of Scottish and UK government ministers who remain completely out of touch.


The European Food Safety Agency spent months evaluating evidence and concluded that neonicotinoids pose unacceptable risks to the pollinating insects vital to our food supplies. Westminster’s Environmental Audit Committee agreed. Other European countries including France, Germany and Italy have banned them because they think there is enough evidence. And there’s been a growing body of support from groups like the Scottish Wildlife Trust, Friends of the Earth and the RSPB.


Since January last year I’ve been calling for a moratorium, so I’m glad the chemicals will at last be banned, for two years, starting in December.


But what are neonicotinoids and why is their restriction a victory? Well, they’re used by farmers to help protect crops like oilseed rape and potatoes from unwelcome insects including aphids. They work on the insect’s nervous system, causing paralysis and death.


Usually, seeds are coated with the insecticide before being drilled into the ground. This contaminates the pollen and nectar, resulting in what you might call collateral damage. Non-target insects such as honey bees, bumblebees, hoverflies and butterflies are exposed to the very powerful toxins. In tests half the honeybees died from a dose that was only about four-billionths of a gram.


While most pollinators are only exposed to not-quite fatal doses, this appears to be enough to interfere with their foraging behaviour. Investigations in the field have shown honeybee nests treated with neonicotinoids grew more slowly and produced fewer queens.


When treated seeds are drilled into the ground, the coating loosens and can become airborne. Researchers have found neonicotinoids in soil from unplanted fields and in plants near treated fields. They’re also highly soluble, so remain in the ground for a long time. What long-term effect are they having on our soil? They can get into vegetation around fields and into water courses. While pollinating insects are important, is there a bigger picture we can’t yet see?


Pollinating insects provide a vital service worth at least £43 million a year to Scotland’s economy. It’s particularly important to our fruit growers. In Scotland ten per cent of crop production relies on pollination. Insects also form a crucial part of the food chain for birds and other animals. We could see a collapse across our natural and agricultural landscape if pollinators become scarce.


Comments about a “precautionary approach” by Scotland’s environment secretary at the weekend were incredibly frustrating. He wanted the ban delayed by two years to allow for more research, patronisingly describing the issue as “emotive” when, quite clearly, it is a rational one about evidence, economic cost and risk. What would be the point of implementing a ban after potentially years’ more damage?


Of course, there’s concern that not using insecticides could lead to a fall in yields but in many cases treatments are applied as insurance, a belt and braces approach. It’s also said the alternatives are worse. But studies from the US show some crops don’t benefit from the use of these chemicals at all. You have to remember that farming businesses rely on pesticide manufacturers for technical advice so there are commercial pressures at play here.


Neonicotinoids only account for one per cent of treatments in Scottish farming so the ban can surely be managed with minimal disruption.


There is the wider issue of chemical control of pests. There are other measures including crop rotation, encouraging natural predators and growing pest-resistant varieties. Perhaps we should be doing more to promote these options.


As Rachel Carson said in that perennial reminder of the folly of chemical treatments, Silent Spring: why should we tolerate a diet of weak poisons? Who would want to live in a world which is not quite fatal?