Scotland’s transport infrastructure needs to change and adapt to the new realities of a post Covid-19 economy as well as supporting the transition towards net zero.

Having a modern, fit for purpose, transport infrastructure across the whole of Scotland is vital for the development of our society by underpinning the economic growth of our nation’s businesses. The success of our business enterprises, regardless of where they are based is, in turn, essential for creating the wealth required to fund the required investment in our transport infrastructure.

As I have often reflected, the city of Inverness and our wider region of the Highlands and Islands is thriving and dynamic, and we have an increasingly diverse and strong business base. I would argue it is the best place in Scotland in which businesses should be based. Significantly, we have growing ambition, which is best reflected in our aspirations for our region’s key role in the development of offshore wind, renewable energy and green hydrogen production. However, I can’t help but feel we achieve all that we do in the Highlands and Islands, in spite of, rather than because of our region’s transport infrastructure.

Businesses have a key role to play in delivering the required change. However, only by working in genuine partnership with the Government can this happen at the scale and speed required to secure economic recovery and meet climate change ambitions.

Even before the pandemic, Scotland’s businesses saw investment in low-carbon transport infrastructure as a priority and Scottish Chambers of Commerce has continued to argue for planned investments to be accelerated to unlock economic growth. For example, fast-track rail to the Central Belt will support economic activity now, in addition to helping achieve Scotland’s net-zero ambitions in the future.

Delays to projects such as the A9 dualling and unhelpful question marks over the future of the A96, have meant that businesses have been hamstrung by a lack of certainty on these major Scottish Government transport policies. I absolutely agree with Highlands and Islands Enterprise’s recently appointed chief executive, Stuart Black, when he argued for key stretches of the A96 road to be upgraded and made the statement that completion of the dualling of the A9 Inverness-Perth route is vital to making the north an economic powerhouse.

What we do need from government are strong commitments to, and clear timetabling of, the development of major infrastructure projects such as rail or road improvements north of the Central Belt. The same has to apply in terms of delivering on other regional investment projects such as the Glasgow Metro and the delivery of promised rail journey time reductions between both Inverness and the North-east of Scotland with the Central Belt.

The Herald:  Bay for electric car drivers.

Whilst these large-scale projects are key to connecting Scotland up on a local and regional level, getting people to switch to electric vehicles and active travel are worthy ambitions. Regrettably, it is hard not to conclude that government just simply isn’t keeping pace with change and delivering on the national infrastructure required to support such mass adoption of low emission vehicles (LEVs).

Businesses need to see a strategic plan to drive the adoption of LEVs across the private and public sectors and developing infrastructure such as charging locations and hydrogen refuelling stations at a greater pace. We can’t expect business and consumers to make the change unless the infrastructure is in place, not only in

urban, high population areas, but also Scotland’s rural, remote and island communities as well.

In the meantime, low emission zones in our town and city centres and the new workplace parking levy are the wrong policies to be bringing in. These policies will further deter people away from town and city centres, at a time we should be doing everything we can to support their recovery, and just as businesses get back on their feet and employees face a rising cost of living crisis, these punitive additional charges will do little to reduce climate change whilst having a significant and detrimental impact on Scotland’s economy. They demonstrate too, a complete lack of awareness of the dearth of adequate public transport infrastructure across too much of the Highlands and other rural areas of Scotland.

The Strategic Transport Projects Review will inform transport investment in Scotland for the next 20 years and Scottish Chambers of Commerce are currently consulting the Network on the issue. While a long-term strategy for these projects is welcome, the real test will be around delivery. To achieve what’s needed, I believe it is essential Scottish Government and business work together to support the outcome of this review.

We can’t be too inward looking though and, as important as the national transport picture is, Scotland also has significant opportunities for economic development in the aviation sector and we eagerly await the Scottish Government’s aviation strategy, which will be crucial to Scotland remaining internationally competitive.

Inverness and the Highlands have again demonstrated the key role aviation has to play in underpinning our regional economy and the importance of having a strong, independent business voice to champion the business cause. My colleague Trudy Morris, CEO of Caithness Chamber of Commerce, led the campaign to reinstate the route from Wick John O’Groats Airport to Aberdeen, and to give it the protection of having Public Service Obligation status for three years. I understand just what is required to achieve this, having led the successful business campaign which convinced BA to reinstate their Inverness-Heathrow route some years back. It was satisfying, at the launch, to hear BA’s team acknowledge one of the key factors in its decision was the support of the Highland business community. Given it was quickly established as its best performing UK domestic route, I’m sure the commercials reinforced their decision.

This juncture, I believe, is an important opportunity for Scotland’s business community and governments, both at a Scottish and UK level, to come together and deliver real and meaningful change that will unlock economic growth over the next 20 years. However, we need to get the balance and delivery right if it’s going to work. The importance of getting it right, for all of Scotland’s cities and our rural communities, cannot be overstated.

Highland businesses absolutely get this and know that fundamentally we need a transport infrastructure which supports our city and region to deliver on everything those of us who do business here know it can achieve. Inverness Chamber of Commerce will continue to campaign for this as we connect and represent businesses across the Highlands to support their growth.

Stewart Nicol: Scottish Chambers of Commerce director and chief executive of Inverness Chamber of Commerce.