COUNCILLORS this week backed a call for a reduction in fuel duty for rural areas such as the Borders and a postcode-based “differential road tax” for the region.
With a litre of diesel hitting £1.48 in Earlston on Tuesday, a report presented to Scottish Borders Council’s executive revealed that 72 per cent of the working population in the region uses a car to get to work.
This dependency, it appears, is born of necessity, not least because of the inadequacy of public transport and the fact that the region’s two largest employers – NHS Borders and the council itself – are based outwith major centres of population.
And, every working day, an estimated 7,500 adults who live in the Borders travel outside the region to earn a crust.
They are lured by, and rewarded with, significantly higher pay: the average commuter earning a gross weekly wage of £460, compared to the £418 for those who live and work here, although both respective figures are well below the Scottish average. That extra buying power is a key driver of the Borders economy, but it is being compromised by fuel prices well above the national average.
Cutting car dependency and reducing the need for – and cost of – commuting were just some of the issues covered in a major review which was conducted over the past 10 months by a special working group, set up by SBC’s watchdog scrutiny panel.
The review, entitled “commuting and the impact of modern work practices” found that, despite the relatively low level of earnings in the region, 31 per cent of households now had two cars: three per cent up on a decade ago and nine per cent above the current national average.
The number of people using a vehicle to get to and from work has risen 20 per cent since 2001, while the number walking to work has fallen by seven per cent.
Chaired by Borders Party councillor Sandy Aitchison, the group presented a raft of recommendations which were unanimously approved at Tuesday’s meeting of the council’s executive.
These ranged from the aspirational – “SBC will continue to promote the region as an excellent place to live, work and visit through improved planning, economic development and transport policies, encouraging the use of sustainable transport” – to the specific, viz urging other local authorities and the Scottish Government to lobby the UK Government for a reduction in fuel and road tax for rural areas.
Other key recommendations included:
z Support for the development of more charging points for electric cars, and the rolling out of the concept of car clubs and vehicle-sharing for people travelling to work;
z Improvement of the digital broadband network to allow more home working and thus reduce car use;
z Recognition of the importance of improved road infrastructure and winter maintenance, and to lobby for improvements to the trunk road network in the region;
z Continuation of support for railway developments, including the monitoring of the Borders railway, due to open in 2014, with a view to a further extension of the line south to Hawick and Carlisle;
z The promotion of better public transport, updated and more accessible timetables and the lobbying of the Scottish Government for a universal travel card.
The report, in its executive summary, highlighted the role of public transport, which is currently confined to bus services.
“Employees from SBC and NHS Borders were asked if they used public transport to get to work and, for both organisations, less than five per cent claimed they did,” it revealed. “The main reasons cited were the practicality and functionality of the routes, and the cost and reliability of services.”
Councillor Aitchison stressed that a separate review into passenger transport was currently being undertaken and the results were expected later this year. But he flagged up the impending impact of better broadband provision on commuting and modern work practices in the Borders.
“Good digital connectivity means people do not always need to travel to get to their workplace, making working at home a reality and saving fuel costs and time,” he told TheSouthern.
“There is no doubt that the next five years will be a time of change in the Borders and work practices based around fast broadband will be one of the real differences we will see. Fuel prices will be a major factor in driving the change and I am proud of our recommendations over vehicle taxation according to postcode and fuel tax reduction in an area where the car is still so vital for work and getting on with modern life.
“The alternative is that remote areas will become victims of depopulation as prices continue to escalate and that is no good for us in the Borders.
“My hope is that the new council elected in May will be able to use this extensive review in its community planning and will encourage future developers and planners to add to our infrastructure in a more positive way.”