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Everything but the climate catastrophe: can COP26 solve Britain’s problems with infrastructure and accessibility?

By Imogen Shaw
02 November 2021

By Imogen Shaw

First it was rubbish piling up in the streets of Glasgow. Then it was “train chaos”. Then, the Israeli Energy Minister was unable to access the conference because she is a wheelchair user.

Over the last eighteen months, a lot has been written about the hopes, fears and predictions surrounding COP26, widely billed as the planet’s last chance to avert climate catastrophe.  Also in doubt is whether COP26 will have a positive legacy in terms of the problems it has highlighted with infrastructure and public services in the UK. The reports of transport issues, shrewdly-timed industrial action, and a lack of accessibility plaguing the opening of the conference have hit the headlines only in the last week or so as delegates, dignitaries, and journalists began to descend upon Glasgow en masse.

There is often considerable scepticism surrounding the ‘legacies’ of global events for the cities and countries that host them. The London 2012 Olympics is still a flashpoint issue on this front almost ten years on – both in terms of whether it has lived up to its much-touted sustainable and social legacy, and in terms of who the legacy of the games was supposed to benefit in the first place.

Major events place massive pressure on local and national infrastructure, and it’s not uncommon for local residents to consider them an unfair imposition on their lives. However, the UK had an additional year to plan for the COP – so what seems to have gone wrong?

While there are some factors that can’t be accounted for, such as the weekend storms that felled trees onto railway lines in the English midlands, and a train crash near Salisbury causing transport disruption, the main reason why conference planning issues are cropping up now is because they hinge upon long-running problems that the UK’s 24 months of COP preparation was not sufficient – or designed – to solve.

Firstly, there are significant capacity issues on the UK’s rail network that need to be addressed, yet ideological (and NIMBY) battles still rage on over HS2, with the latest chapter in the long-running saga centred on whether the paused Birmingham-to-Leeds section of the high-speed rail project is set to go ahead or not. This is despite the fact that full delivery of the project would reduce passenger demand (and therefore, prices) both by the direct addition of services, and also via the separation of the faster, long-distance routes onto new, purpose-built tracks - freeing up existing tracks for a greater number of local train services to run.

Secondly, accessibility on UK transport lines and in venues across the country varies considerably. Too many venues and services still fail to make available even limited access adjustments that they explicitly claim to provide.

That the Conference effectively excluded Israeli Energy Minister Karine Elharrar by failing to make the conference grounds wheelchair-accessible is unacceptable. While the UK Ambassador to Israel and Environment Minister George Eustice have issued public apologies on behalf of the organisers, the explanation for why this incident occurred reflects a wider problem with the UK’s approach to making venues and public services accessible.

This is, in a nutshell, the major issue with on-request accessibility, rather than accessible services as standard. There have been numerous news stories this year alone concerning disabled passengers and customers left stranded on trains, stuck outside pubs and shops, or unable to access bathroom facilities because promised assistance did not materialise. Of course, accessibility requirements are not always the same for everyone, and there will always be cases where people will find it most helpful to communicate their needs to service providers on an as-required basis. However, it’s clear that current systems are not adequate and more needs to be done to ensure parity of access to the UK’s venues and transport systems.

Finally, the Government’s ‘Levelling Up’ agenda notwithstanding, COP26 has run into difficulties over long-running concerns about perceived disparities between public services in London versus the rest of the UK. The conference has raised the ire of some Glasgow residents, who have been calling for years for an integrated, London-style transport system to be introduced in the city, only for a temporary one to be implemented for two weeks for the duration of the conference – for use only by delegates to COP26. While the temporary integration was a sensible idea from an organisational perspective, it’s possible to question the wisdom in providing a service that members of the public have been calling for, only to deny them access and dismantle it once Glasgow’s influx of international visitors has departed.

Events like COP26 are undoubtedly disruptive to those who live close to the site, and residents often expect some direct benefits to compensate. Given this and the ever-increasing political salience of disparities between public services in the capital and elsewhere, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a major campaign on integrating Glasgow’s transport network kicking off in the wake of the COP, and it will be interesting to see how the city responds. As for the wider infrastructure and access issues thrust higher on the national media agenda by COP26, it remains to be seen whether the conference will galvanise some changes, or become yet another missed opportunity.