An Out of Touch Budget from an Out of Touch Government

If the UK Government thought that they would be able to buy votes with their new budget for the rich and middle England it doesn’t seem to be working with their proposals being criticised by everyone from the Telegraph to the Greens. The Tories’ coalition partners the Lib Dems don’t seem to know whether they are criticising the budget or supporting it. This morning it was all over their website that the budget was a great thing and full of Lib Dem ideas (unfortunately I didn’t take a screen shot). This evening as it became apparent that just about everyone was unimpressed, Danny Alexander their Chief Secretary to the Treasury appeared with a yellow box and announced an alternative Lib Dem budget.

Fundamentally the problem is that the budget is built on a fixation with reducing public borrowing, but right now the cost of borrowing is lower than it’s ever been and any borrowing would lock in these low interest rates in fixed rate bonds for decades. If ever there was a time to invest in publicly funded infrastructure it is now! Not only would borrowing to invest mean that we got the infrastructure upgrades we need at rock bottom prices it would also create jobs taking people out of unemployment and back into the tax base as well as giving them dignity and self-respect and keeping their families fed.

We need to invest in electric vehicle infrastructure, upgrading the railways, rural broadband, the NHS, educating people and in our community assets. Apart from investment to improve rail services to SW England there’s nothing, and I suspect the money for the SW is only coming because the line washed into the sea a last winter leaving Cornwall with no direct public tranport links to the capital (and possibly also because the SW is one of the last bastions of the Lib Dems and something they will be desparately trying to hang on to!) Instead the budget continues asset strip the country and cut already over stretched budgets. This is so short sighted! Does the UK Government really think that in 10 or 20 years time companies will be rushing to invest here when our roads are full or potholes, our trains overcrowded and broadband plods through the cables like a tortoise? Probably they don’t care as sitting in their off shore tax havens in the sun so it will be irrelevant.

Is there anything good in the budget? Well, there are some steps to close down some tax loop holes, evasion and avoidance, and some increased taxation on bank profits, although more probably could be done.

Increased funding for mental health services, particularly services for young people is welcome, but we also need to look at why people are suffering for mental ill health in the first place. If people are suffering because the services they need are being cut; they don’t have a job or they have having to cover the workload of colleagues whose posts have been increasing mental health services is treating the symptom not the cause.

Income tax thresholds have increased, but this doesn’t help the least well off who don’t pay income tax anyway. If you’re using a foodbank or an apprentice working for £2.73 an hour this won’t help you! There has been no reduction in VAT rates which would have helped these people. And it’s hard to understand why the top tax band has been raised faster than inflation (except of course, that those at the top have not been restricting themselves to below inflation wage increases).

There’s some investment in new technology: £500 million for science and technology, a paultry £8 million to support the video games industry, £60m to support a “National Energy Catapault” in Birmingham; £100m for driverless cars (its unclear whether these would still use fossil fuels, and if I was a truck driver I’d be starting to worry about my job!) but all this pales into insignificance compared to £1.3 BILLION in tax cuts for the oil and gas industry. Yes, those highly profitable oil and gas companies! The days of fossil fuels are numbered. North Sea oil is running out, and if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change we cannot afford to continue to burn fossil fuels. Instead of giving away more money to oil companies who are increasingly indulging in “rent seeking” behaviour – threatening to leave the country if they don’t get a pay off – we should be investing in renewables and in upgrading the electricity supply network.

Yet again the fuel duty escalator has been frozen. This tax was supposed to increase annually to incentivise people to switch away from fossil fuels. Instead its been frozen for years. “Rural motorists” are always cited as people who benefit from this, but in fact the main beneficiaries are likely to be haulage companies. Rural fuel prices are high, but they could be tackled in other ways – investing in public transport would be a start! Other measures could include mandatory limits on fuel prices to ensure that rural prices are not hiked above the prices in areas where there is more competition or some sort of fuel voucher system for people in areas with poor public transport and high fuel prices. Blanket freezing of the fuel duty escalator benefits people in urban areas as much as rural ones, and given that there are more people in urban areas they benefit most.

The budget continues to sell off assets which the public have bailed out and made profitable, so instead of keeping the profits now being made by Lloyds we’re selling it along with the government share of Northern Rock’s and Bradford and Bingley’s mortgages. We pick up the tab in the bad times but don’t keep a share of the profits in good times. Where’s the sense in that?

Of course we can lift our glass to cuts in excise duty for the Scotch whisky industry! Is this a major employer in Scotland? It’s difficult to find the figures, but compared to the NHS or councils probably not. But it sounds so tartan and iconically Scottish. How could any Government which so enthusiastically supports the Scotch whisky industry be accused of being focussed in SE England?

There are many areas of taxation which don’t get a mention: inheritance tax, capital gains tax and corporation tax are conspicuously absent. But hey, what would “ordinary people” know about these – they’re only paid by the rich so we mustn’t raise them!

So what about public spending? Nothing is said about key areas of spending: benefits and the NHS don’t get a mention, but given the spending targets and tax give aways these will have to suffer swinging cuts. But never mind we can cheer ourselves with the thought that £1 million will be spent to celebrate the battle of Agincourt (that’s bound to bring in lots of tourists from France!) and an additional £40 million will be added to the fund to replace church roofs.

In summary an out of touch budget from an out of touch government!

Infrastructure Bill: What’s really happened?

This is going to be bit of a dry post, but I’m concerned that there’s a lot of political posturing going on in Scotland about yesterday’s debate on the UK Infrastructure Bill which I think is really unhelpful to understanding where we are with this in Scotland. Some clarity is needed on what’s actually be said and not point scoring which detracts from the whole issue. Things aren’t good, but they are not perhaps as bad as they are being made out to be in some quarters. I think it’s important that those of us who oppose unconventional gas extraction don’t decide that everything is lost before it is, and that the main goal is not lost in political name calling between Labour and the SNP (neither of whom have come out as being clearly against unconventional gas extraction).

Being a bit sad, I have had a trawl through the Hansard record on yesterday’s debate on the Infrastructure Bill. This has clarified a few points about what was and was not said about devolving onshore gas licencing in Scotland.

There were several key amendments proposed to the part of the Bill related to gas extraction (Part 5, Sections 37 – 44) :

1) An amendment to the Bill which aimed to bring forward devolution of gas licencing.
2) An amendment calling for a GB wide moratorium on unconventional gas
3) An amendment proposing various additional restrictions on unconventional gas extraction.
4) An amendment to require Defra to publish a report on the effect of unconventional gas on rural communities.
5) Amendments to exempt Scotland from provisions to allow drilling under people’s property without their permission (because actually, Westminster can’t change trepass law in Scotland and they know it!)

The amendment to bring forward devolution of gas licencing was defeated, but the UK Government were still maintaining that they intend to do this as recommended by the Smith Commission along with other Smith recommendations. It is not ideal that this is delayed, but it is not the end of the road for this, and we need to keep on the pressure to ensure that this is devolved, not start fighting each other! For the record Labour voted for this amendment.

The amendment calling for the GB wide moratorium was defeated. Labour abstained, but it would not have passed even if they hadn’t. However Scottish Government could still use the Scottish planning system to set up a moratorium until such time as the Smith commission legislation devolves licencing and the use its powers over licencing to set a full moratorium.

The amendment proposing additional restrictions was passed.

The amendments exempting Scotland from provisions to allow drilling under people’s property without their permission were passed.

The amendment calling for Defra to publish the report on the effects of unconventional gas on rural communities was rejected. The Government’s response on this was pure flannel and stinks of a cover up.

So where from here?

  • Keep up the pressure in Westminster to fully implement Smith and kick up merry hell if they don’t.
  • Keep up pressure on Holyrood to use they powers which Scotland already has to stop unconventional gas extraction.
  • Ask what the hell are Defra trying to cover up in the report on effects on rural communities.
  • And have a small celebration that there can be no drilling under property without consent in Scotland (which will actually make it very difficult to extraction unconventional gas under much of Scotland), and also that the UK wide regulation has got slightly tighter. We’ve a long way to go, but every little helps!

Thoughts on the Smith Commission proposals

Looked through the Smith Commission report. Better than expected on some things, but as expected inadequate on taxation and it was never going to offer the power to scrap Trident.

It’s all very well to devolve new powers, but without the revenue to fund new activities Scottish Government will be fighting with one hand behind its back and will be forever having to rob one sector to pay for improvements in another.

Also there are a lot of sections which talk about UK government having greater rights to be consulted, or represented in decision making. How much difference this makes depends on how seriously the views which Scottish Government put forward are taken. We’ve all seen “consultations” which do little more than go through the motions and rubber stamp decisions which have already been made, but some consultations can be good and bring about real changes.

Anyway I’ll start with the things I like first:

Good things:
1) Enshrining the Scottish Parliament as a permanent institution.
2) Looking at mechanisms to oversee the power of the Parliament. However good the initial intentions of a party, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, so we need to have a mechanism for scrutinising majority governments. I don’t have the solution to what this must be, and certainly not anything like the House of Lords or groups of undemocratically selected “worthies”, but we need something to make sure that rules are being followed.
3) Giving the Parliament the power to give votes to 16 and 17 year olds.
4) More powers over election spending limits which could help to stop the rich buying themselves into power through greater advertising etc.
5) Requirement for formal processes to improve communication and consultation between UK and Scottish Governments.
6) Requirement for Scottish Ministers to be involved in EU negotiations on devolved matters and be allowed to speak at EU meetings where Scotland has the predominant interest in the matter being discussed.
7) Transferring responsibility for and income from the Crown Estate in Scotland to the Scottish Parliament.
8) Scottish Government and Parliament to be formally consulted about a new BBC charter
9) Scottish Government and Parliament to be formally consulted on priorities for OFCOM relating to telecommunications e.g rural broadband, wifi etc and postal services. This could improve rural broadband and wifi as well as protecting rural communities from high costs for postal and courier services.
10) A greater role for Scotland in designing incentives for renewables – this is an important industry for Scotland and we need to be able to assist it, although it would have also helped for regulation of the electricity grid to be devolved.
11) Devolution of some benefits, power to create new benefits and the power to vary “bedroom tax” (including persumably the power to vary it to nothing).
12) Power for public sector organisations to bid for rail franchises.
13) Power to design energy efficiency schemes, although it would have been better if the power to raise funding for them was also devolved.
14) Devolution of onshore gas exploration licences (although I’m not sure how this will work as licences for the most likely parts of Scotland have already been offered by DECC).
15) Borrowing powers for Scotland to allow investment and financial stability.

Bad things:
1) No taxes other than income tax will be devolved nor will National Insurance. The richest people in society earn money in ways which is not taxable via income tax, and income tax is a difficult tax for governments to raise, which may limit the funds which Scottish Government can raise to support action with new devolved powers.I can see no reason why capital gains and inheritance tax could not be devolved.
2) The fact that income raised through increases in income tax will be clawed back from block grant, so what’s the point?
3) The fact that income tax on the savings of Scottish residents is not devolved.
4) Not all benefits will be devolved.
5) We’re not going to be able to get rid of Trident or have a say in whether or not the UK takes military action.
6) The regulation of the electricity grid in Scotland will not be devolved.
7) The fact that Scottish MPs still have the right to comment on things such as Bills to control filming on Highways in Northamptonshire is ridiculous.
8) While we retain the Barnett Formula public spending trends in Scotland will be tied to those in rUK.

Although outwith the scope of the commission I also think it is welcome that they have recognised that devolution should not stop at Holyrood and there is need to increase the devolution of power within Scotland.

Smith Commission Submission

Well, I managed to scrape together my submission to the Smith Commission on further devolution for Scotland before the deadline (just!). Here’s what I wrote for posterity, although I’m not optimistic that it will change very much.

Introduction
I welcome the opportunity which the Smith Commission gives to allow the Scottish public to continue the debate on the future of the country which has so engaged it during the Referendum debate. Both sides of this debate have acknowledge that the Referendum has had a transformative effect on political engagement and has shown that there is a considerable degree of enthusiasm for re-imagining the future of the country. To make the types of changes that most Scots hope for will require that the greater powers are devolved to the Scottish Parliament. The need for such powers is acknowledged by all parties with representation in the Scottish Parliament and some Scottish parties with no current representation there. However there is a range of views on what such powers should be.

One thing which I think needs to be clear at the outset is that “The Vow” made by the leaders of the three main UK (in terms of numbers of Westminster seats held) parties was that more powers would be devolved to Scotland, and that this would not be dependent on an other initiatives to restructure the administrations and regions of the rest of the UK, however desirable some aspects of this might be. Consultations and Inquiries into e.g an English Parliament, further Assemblies for English Regions or further powers for the Welsh Assembly and Government and Northern Ireland Assembly must not be allowed to delay the promised progress towards further Scottish devolution. Any attempt to confound these issues will be seen as a betrayal of “The Vow” by the majority of the Scottish people.

Basic Premiss
Devolution has been a good thing for Scotland, enabling it to develop policies which are appropriate to its geography, language, culture and social mix. Although there were mixed feels about the Scottish Parliament at its inception, there are few Scots who would wish to see it removed, even many can see scope for improvement. Crucially it has brought democracy and politicians closer to the people. While it is rare encounter anyone who says that they want more politicians, Scots have become used to encountering “their” MSPs when going about their daily lives, and were generally positive about the immediacy of democracy in Scotland even before the huge upsurge in interest in politics triggered by the referendum. Because of the requirement to spend considerable periods of time outwith Scotland, even the most dedicated Westminster MP is rarely encountered by their constituents. Democracy is important, but to be effective the electorate must be able to engage with the representatives that they elect. Therefore subsidiarity is an integral part of democracy. It is this belief which drives my conviction that the time is now right to devolve as much power to Scotland as can be arranged.

The majority of Scots are said to favour a “Devo Max” option of devolution of all matters except Foreign Affairs and Defence, this was not included as an option in the Referendum. However as this is viewed as being the option favoured by Scots, and as we live in a democracy, I believe that this is the option which the Smith Commission should be seeking to facilitate as far as is possible. However, the interwoven nature of policy areas means that it is is not a straightforward matter to simply devolve full powers minus these two policy areas, as the both impinge on other areas in ways which are not obvious at first glance. Therefore the problem should be identifying what should be devolved under “Devo Max”, identifying potential barriers to devolving these powers, and assessing whether it is possible to overcome them.

Government and Constitution
Although not technically a devolution issue, the UK Government must rule that the right of Scots to have their own Parliament is inalienable and cannot be removed by the UK Government. Without such an undertaking, further devolution lacks firm foundations given that the Scottish Parliament itself could be abolished by the whim of Westminster (and this is indeed the stance of UKIP).

Scotland must have the a constitution. This is a feature of almost all mature democracies, and sets out clearly the terms of the agreement between their sovereign people and the legislature. The UK is unique in not having a constitution, and while rights are encoded in a complicated history of traditional and law which allows the rights and responsibilities for citizens to be altered over time. Scotland needs a constitution as a check on the powerful, and a protection for the vulnerable.

The Scottish Government should be given the power to organise the democratic structures within Scotland according to the wishes of the Scottish people.

There is a need to continue the process of relocalisation of democracy of which devolution is part by having the power to further devolve powers as to more local levels such as Local Authorities and communites. A recent report by COSLA highlights the failings of the current system, but is too large to be able to accommodate local views, which in turn breds disillusion and disenchantment with this system. Disillusion with democracy is dangerous, and is something which we should be addressing. Scotland currently has some of the least representative local democracy in the world, lacking effect the community level tier of government represented by District and Town Councils in England.

The Scottish Parliament should also be able to decide the franchise for elections. 16 and 17 year olds who where given votes in the Referendum used them with maturity and responsibility. It is an anomaly that these people can be taxed, marry and die for their country, but not vote on what their taxes should be spent on or whether or not they country should participate in a conflict.

The House of Lords is an undemocratic and outdated institution. Scottish Lords should be abolished and replaced with representatives elected by the people of Scotland.

As devolution progresses, the West Lothian Question becomes more and more pertinent. It seems perfectly obvious that MPs should not vote on matters which do not affect their constituencies. Therefore there is a strong case that Scottish MPs should not vote on matters which only affect England (it is assumed that matters which only affect Wales or Northern Ireland will be dealt with by their devolved adminstrations, and not by Westminster). However, there is one caveat to this which is the impact that votes on “purely English” matters which involve spending decisions could affect funding for Scotland through the Barnett formula, thus if English MPs vote to cut spending on public services in England these cuts would be passed on as cuts to Scottish’s budget from the UK. This complicates matters. Therefore it follows that if Scottish MPs are not to vote on English matters (which seems only fair and reasonable), Scotland must be freed from the Barnett formula, and if Scotland is freed from the Barnett formula, it must be given full tax raising powers. The next section expands on this theme.

Taxation and Revenues
If Scotland is to take responsibility for more areas of its own governance, it needs to have the finance to do this. As I have explained above, I do not think that the Barnett Formula is a good way to address this, and a rethink on how Scotland is financed is needed. I would favour a solution where Scotland raises its own revenue and then pays a proportion to the UK for shared services, rather than the current system whereby Scotland is dependent on the largesse of the UK and the revenue paid is linked to public spending and therefore to policy decisions outwith Scotlam.


I would favour devolving Income Tax, Corporation Tax and Inheritance Tax to Scotland. Devolution of Income Tax (or part of it) alone is not sufficient as the wealthiest people and organisations do not earn income in ways which attract Income Tax. On its own the power to vary Income Tax would only affect working and middle income earners, while not generating enough income to improve the lot of the least well of, and not address the very skewed distribution of wealth in Scotland where a very few individuals control a vastly disproportional share of the country’s wealth, often as a result of an accident of birth and inheritance.

Scotland should have control of all forms of taxation on income and wealth generated within its territory, including income and wealth from offshore assets in its territorial waters.

Given the chronic health problems and poor life expectancy in much of Scotland Excise Duty should also be devolved to give the Scottish Government an additional lever to control alcohol and tobacco pricing. Reduction in Excise Duty are generally spun as benefitting the upmarket end of the whisky industry, but they also benefit the life-destroying alco-pops and cheap cider industry. In fact much of the malt whisky industry’s profits are made outwith the UK and are therefore unaffected by Excise Duty.

Scotland has world leading targets to reduce greenhouse gas emission, but need to do more to meet those targets. Therefore there is need for Scotland to have control of taxation on activities which generate these emission, particularly Road Tax and Fuel Duty.

At least a share of National Insurance contribution should be devolved to enable Scotland to fund changes to its welfare system. Ideally all of NI and all of the welfare system should be devolved.

VAT is a regressive tax which falls disproportionately on the least well off. The ability to vary VAT would give Scottish Government a lever to boost the retail economy at the same time as reducing taxation on the least able to pay. Ideally VAT should be devolved, however EU rulings against “regional” variation of VAT within a country may make this difficult. However there may be scope for some powers to design a system to allow Scotland to vary VAT on key economic sectors such as tourism.

As a result of gaining further powers of its own revenue streams, Scotland will need to have representation within UK financially institutions such as the Bank of England, Treasury and HMRC.


Scotland should be allowed to set up a Sovereign Wealth Fund in times of plenty using revenues collected on Scottish assets. This should be ring fenced to be invested for the common good of the people of Scotland.

While borrowing to cover revenue spend is not desirable in any nation, Scotland should be given the power to borrow to raise money for infrastructure investment which will increase competitiveness, and could boost the economy during their construction.

Welfare
To tackle deep seated social problems prevalent in some parts of Scotland, Scotland needs to be able to tailor its welfare system to its needs. The “bedroom tax” was deeply unpopular in Scotland because it was a badly designed UK wide solution being applied to solve a problem which was mainly an issue in SE England, and did not take account of the state of Scotland’s housing stock, and the lack in many places of single room rented accommodation. Similarly the blanket UK-wide pension age does not offer a fair deal to Scottish pensioners who sadly have lower life expectancy than the UK average.


To be able to administer welfare Scotland needs control of the income side of the system as well as expenditure, and therefore National Insurance should be devolved. If pensions are devolved the whole of NI should be devolved, otherwise a proportional arrangement will be required.


Industry and Employment
It is crucial to Scotland’s economy that it can influence investment investment in its industries, whether this be attracting overseas investment or more preferrably encouraging domestic investment. As discussed above there are currently multiple barrier to this including inability to borrow to fund infrastructure projects and the lack of a direct voice in international trade.

Workers need to be protected from exploitation and kept safe in their workplaces. The pressures and threats to them will vary depending in the industries they are involved in. The key industries in Scotland are different to key industries elsewhere in the UK, and Unions needs to be able to adequately represent their workers in Scotland and ensure that they are protected from hazards experienced here. Therefore legislation relating to health and safety and to Trade Unions should be devolved.

Immigration

The patterns of population growth and decline vary considerably across the UK. While the population of England has grown steadily over the last 200 years (except for tragic episodes such as the First World War), Scotland has suffered population decline for most of that period, mainly as a result of net outward migration to England and beyond. This has given Scotland a demographic problem, with a relatively large elderly population compared to the working age population. To redress this Scotland must have control of its immigration policy to enable it to attract skilled and dynamic young workers. Not only does inward migration help to tackle the problem of an ageing population, it adds to cultural diversity, and increases understanding of the world.

Energy
Energy in various forms is a key Scottish resource. However, the resources available and the demands on energy in Scotland are very different to those in the rest of the UK. Scotland has relatively small population and energy demand, but large reserves of fossil fuels and renewable energy. In contrast, England has a relatively population and energy demand and more limited reserves of fossil fuels and renewable potential, therefore different solutions to meeting energy demands are needed across the UK. Scotland needs to have control of energy policy as the current “one size fits all” energy policy emanating from London stifles the development of Scotland’s renewables as it incentivises the solutions which are needed in SE England which currently seem to be nuclear power and unconventional gas.


As offshore oil and gas are currently a major part of the Scottish economy, Scotland should be able to control how these are exploited. In the long term as these reserves dwindle other forms of energy will come to the fore. If we are to meet or greenhouse gas targets, and prevent uncontrollable climate change we must reduce reliance on fossil fuels and therefore “fracking” and other unconventional gas technologies cannot be developed. There is increasing evidence that exploitation of fossil fuels will become increasingly unattractive as clean alternatives and Scotland needs to be able to manage the transition from being a fossil fuel based economy to a renewable based economy.

Renewables also offer greater flexibilty in ownership model including commercial, state, community and individual ownership of installation at various scales. While housing is currently a devolved issue, control of micro-renewables on houses and other buildings is not which seems to be an anomaly.

Finally to exploit its renewables generations sites needs to be able to connect to the grid. At present the grid is heavily under invested, and is the sort of infrastructure which Scotland needs to be able to borrow to enhance. The current system of charging of access to the grid penalises Scottish generators, particularly those in more remote areas which needs the income and jobs which renewables can provide. It is ironic that rural fuel poverty is often prevalent in the exact areas where there is considerable scope for renewable generation. This makes it essential that regulation of the grid, grid pricing and energy pricing more widely is devolved.

Defence
Nuclear weapons such as Trident are morally abhorent, play no logical role in the defence of the UK and are hugely expensive. Their presence in Scotland makes our main city into an international target, and necessitates the regular transport of warheads on our roads. Had Scotland voted for Independence we would have been in a position to remove them from our soil. However sadly I see no mechanism by which the UK would be prepared to devolve even UK based aspects of defence such as decisions on the siting of nuclear weapons on Scottish land or transport of munitions although these are things which I would strongly support.

As planning is already a devolved matter Scottish Government should be allowed to require planning permission for MOD sites within Scotland.

While accepting that without Independence Defence will remain a reserved area, if Scots are to be asked to put themselves in harms way in the interests of the UK they should have some say in whether they should take part in wars. A right of veto of new military intervention involving Scottish regiments or personnel based in Scotland should therefore be devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

Foreign Affairs and International Relations
While accepting that there may be some economies of scale in a pooled approach to international affairs, for example sharing embassies, there are some key areas where the lack of international representation holds Scotland back.

Many aspects of devolved policy relating to key areas of Scotland’s economy such as Agriculture and Fisheries are affected by policy and decisions emanating from the EU. However as a UK “region” Scotland has no say in the EU’s approach to these matters. While in theory the UK Government should represent Scotland in EU negotiations, there are a significant number of instances where agreements which had significant implications for Scotland were signed with no consultation with the Scottish Government, for example Scotland had no voice in the most recent round of CAP negotiations, and regional uplift payments allocated by the EU to the UK specifically to increase the very low rate of agricultural payments in Scotland were appropriated by the UK, with little that either Scotland or the EU could do about it. Similarly fishery quotas affecting are frequently set without the agreement of Scottish Government, and the Carbon Capture and Storage Directive which had significant implications for energy generation and environmental regulation in Scotland was agreed with no consultaion with those involved in these fields in Scotland. Perhaps this would not be a problem if Whitehall had a good understanding of Scottish interests, but increasingly it doesn’t as these are seen as being Victoria Quay’s problem. I have had recent personal experience of having to explain to a Whitehall department working on land management what such exotic species as “heather” and “grouse” are. This hardly inspires confidence! Scottish Government needs to be guaranteed input to UK policy making on EU policies affecting devolved matters. It is simply not good enough to be told what has been decided after deals have been done. The forthcoming TTIP agreement could crucial change the ability of countries to legislate on their own affairs without threat of legal action from corporations. It is essential that Scotland has a say on such agreements, and the ability to selected nationally important areas of public services which should be opted out market control,

In addition to the EU, the UK is supposed to represent Scotland’s interests on various bodies which relate to devolved matters. Again, Scottish Government should have the right to be included the UK’s involvement with such bodies.

International trade is another are where Scotland could benefit from greater representation. UK support for promoting Scottish business and trade internationally is currently patchy can could be improved by guaranteeing Scottish involvement in internation trade initiatives or by devolving international trade responsibility to Scotland entirely. However the latter approach may be more expensive, and result in thinner coverage than at present.

Relations with rUK
Many of the current problems in the relation between Scotland and the UK arise because the UK is not a fully federal nation. While devolution has allowed more localisation in the countries to which power has been devolved, the position of England remains ambiguous. It is strange the despite having obvious attractions the idea of a fully federal UK as not been widely discussed until the last few weeks of the Referendum debate. While in the long term, a fully federal UK seems the obvious alternative to dissolution of the Union, it should not be used as an excuse for failing to honour The Vow and devolve more powers to Scotland by the end of the current UK Parliament.

Another constitutional issue is the role of Whitehall in the government of the UK. At present Whitehall purportedly acts as the UK administration. However, because of the lack of an English Parliament and secretariat it also finds itself taking on a dual role as the administration for England. At times these two roles blur, and it is not clear whether Whitehall is acting for the UK or for England. At times Whitehall itself seems confused by these distinctions, frequently referring to the UK and the Devolved Administrations when in fact it means the UK, the Devolved Adminstrations (DAs) and England where England’s status seems to be somewhere between being an imperial power and completely ignored. This is unsatisfactory for the UK, England and the Devolved Administrations. There needs to be a clear separation in policy and development between English and UK interests in reserved areas of UK policy.

There should be Scottish representation as a right on all UK-wide government bodies and arms length organisations.

Scotland should be consulted about all UK national infrastructure projects projects to which its citizen’s contribute funding, whether or not they are located in Scotland. It should be able to veto Scottish funding for projects which it believes are of no benefit to Scotland. While arguable this should be a function carried out by Scottish MPs, in practice most MPs have little interest in representing their constituents on matters which do not directly affect their own constituencies, and constituents are more likely to make their views known on matters local to them than on the infrastructure which may be buried underground several hundred miles away.

Broadcasting
Although in the age of social media and the internet mainstream broadcasting does not have the overwhelming influence which it once did, it still plays a significant role in forming public opinion. As Scotland shares a common language with the rest of the UK, UK based media plays a significant role in Scotland. Because the make up of the UK political scene is very different to the Scottish political scene this leads to bias even if Scottish media attempts to provide a better reflection on Scotland.

As an example in the 2014 EU elections UK coverage of UKIP reflected the regional strength of their support in England as reflected in numbers of councillors. Prior to May 2014 UKIP had absolutely no elected members in Scotland at any level. The wall to wall coverage of UKIP on UK media available in Scotland was, I believe, a major factor in UKIP narrowly getting an MEP in Scotland. In this case the UK media, both state owned and private, did not accurately reflect the political landscape of Scotland it created it. It is therefore perverse that the SNP are told that as a “regional” party they are not entitled to take part in the party leaders’ debates for the 2015 UK General Election despite having had Westminster MPs for decades, and currently having six MPs; being the majority party in Scotland and being one of the largest parties in the UK in terms of membership, while UKIP the “regional” English party who had had an MP for all of four days at the time of the announcement have been allowed to take part.

To counter the tendency of English media to act as UK media, it is essential that Scotland has a strong domestic media both in print and on TV, radio etc. Furthermore, a vibrant Scottish media with the resources to probe and question the workings of the Parliament is an essential element in assuring that any new devolved powers are welded in a responsible manner. Thirty minutes of “The News where You Are” is not sufficient to do this.

Outwith political reporting, Scottish current affairs more generally; culture; history and geography are under represented on Scottish screens. For example, coverage of live music on BBC Scotland is generally restricted to traditional music. Wonderful though this is it does not reflect the full breadth of music produced in Scotland from opera to rave.

Broadband and other telecommunication provision is also reserved. There is no obvious reason why this should be the case. With its large rural areas, Scotland’s broadband issues are very different from those in England. If it is to develop the rural economy, the Scottish Parliament needs to be able to control and incentivise rural broadband. Absence of broadband and mobile phone signal from rural Scotland is stiffling rural growth and isolating communities but does not seem to be an issue which Westminster sees as a priorty. As the EU has now banned differential roaming charges there is no reason why Scotland could administer the licencing and regulation of its own broadband network.

Crown Estate
The Crown Estate is an archaic institution which acts in an opaque way. Its decisions, particularly relating to marine activities such as fish farms, harbours and off-shore renewables have often not heeded local views, and have at times damaged the economy. It would therefore seem sensible that the role of the Crown Estate Commissioners is devolved so as to make it more accountable.

Conclusion
Overall I think it is likely to be extremely difficult to unpick a coherent bundle of extra powers for Scotland which is large enough to go some way towards meeting the aspiration of the Scottish people, while reserving some powers to Westminster. This is why these powers have not been devolved before now and why the option of “Devo Max” was not included on the Referendum ballot paper. If it has not been possible to develop a package of extra powers for Scotland in the last several years, I am not optimistic that it will be possible to do this within the life of the current UK Parliament, even if there really was the political will to do so. However I wish you well with your task, and await the recommendations of your Commission with considerable interest, if not a great degree of expectation.

 

What Scottish Government could do about fracking even without Independence.

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The UK Government have recently opened up new areas of Scotland where companies can bid for licences for fracking and other unconventional gas extraction. Some of these licences have already been sold e.g to Ineos, owners of the Grangemouth plant. Because Energy Policy is not devolved at present the UK Government was able to do this without getting permission from the Scottish Government.

However, just because the licences have been issued doesn’t mean that there aren’t steps which Scottish Government could take to make unconventional gas extraction in Scotland very unattractive using the powers which it currently has on planning and environmental regulation. These could be used to put in place a really strong regulatory framework which could effectively stop this unconventional gas extraction. Scottish Government have used a similar approach to prevent the development of any new nuclear power stations in Scotland, and there is no reason why they could not do the same for unconventional gas. Their stance so far has been rather hesitant and if they are serious about meeting their much vaunted climate change targets they need to do much more about reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. Opening the floodgates to unconventional gas extraction won’t do this.

There are several steps which they could take including:

1) Setting similar buffer zones between developments and settlements to that in Australia (2 km), where a settlement is any inhibited dwelling (not just large towns). There very few places in the central belt coal/shale are or the Canonbie area which are more than 2 km from a house. So far Scottish Government have only specified a discretionary buffer zone which is to be proposed by the extraction companies and reviewed by local planning authorities. This is not good enough – we know that local authorities have taken a very variable approach to defining settlements and setting buffer distances around other developments such as opencast sites.

2) Setting requirements for very hefty restoration/accident clean up bonds to ensure that any sites approved are properly restored and that any incidents of contamination are dealt with at the expense of the extraction companies, not the public purse. The restoration bonds which councils were fobbed off with for opencast coals sites were woefully inadequate and have left councils will huge bills for restoration in the wake of Scottish Coal’s bankruptcy.

3) Ensuring that sufficient funding is extracted from operators to allow SEPA to do effective monitoring of methane emissions, groundwater contamination and other pollution risks are any extraction sites. SEPA have had a series of large staff cuts in recent years and don’t have the capability to do this at present. I don’t think it is acceptable for operators to “self monitor” or appoint an “independent” monitor of their own choosing. It must be SEPA and it must be paid for by operators licence fees, not through SEPA’s grant from taxpayers.

4) Ensuring that detailed monitoring of background levels of contaminants in groundwater is carried out before any drilling starts. At present there is only very limited monitoring of groundwater in Scotland mainly because it is difficult to get at because there are not many boreholes. It is essential that the condition of groundwater is understood before drilling starts as otherwise operators will be able to claim that pollution pre-dated gas extraction activities.

5) Setting up a proper a regulatory framework for this activity – none exists at present. This must include binding guidance to local authorities on how to deal with unconventional gas applications.

6) Banning drilling under anyone’s property without their permission (this will stop sideways drilling from remote locations). UK Gov ran a consultation on this and reported back at the end of Sept recommending changes to the trespass laws to allow drilling under property without consent. These changes have not been implemented yet as they need changes to the law, so will have to go through Parliament which could mean that they do not get enacted before the 2015 general election. UK Gov say that their consultation applies to England, Scotland and Wales, but this seems to be based on energy policy not being devolved and ignores the fact that the trepass laws in Scotland devolved and are different to those in England and Wales. I am not sure which get the final say (although I can guess which UK Gov think do!). So we can still lobby MPs about this (suspect it could become an issue in the 2015 election) and try to get an opinion on whether UK Gov can, in fact, change the trepass laws in Scotland.

7) Requiring that all applications for unconventional gas extraction and related activity to be heard by the planning committee to avoid the Canonbie situation where DART Energy/Buccleuch Estates made separate applications for about 30 well heads and a compressor station each of which were dealt with as “minor developments” and so were approved by council officers without the planning committee being aware of them or realising their significance when put together.

8) Supplying sufficient funding to allow local authorities to recruit staff with sufficient specialist expertise to be able to properly assess applications.

9) Giving clear guidance on how the duties on public bodies relating to climate change set out in section 44.1.a of the Climate Change (Scotland) Act should be applied by planners. This section states that “A public body must, in exercising its functions, act in the way best calculated to contribute to the delivery of the [emissions reduction] targets”. To date this has not been used to challenge developments which could increase greenhouse gas emissions, but there is no reason why it could not be, and clearly unconventional gas extraction will increase greenhouse gas emissions both by leaks of methane from wells and by carbon dioxide emissions from burning the gas.

10) Requiring Health Impact Assessments as well as Environmental Impact Assessments for these developments.

However so far the SNP has sat on the fence about this rather more than I would like. I hope that this was just because they didn’t want to rock the boat with their friends in the fossil fuel industry in the run up to Indy Ref and that now they will have the courage to take some sensible action on this. Greens will certainly be pushing for it.

Why Robin McAlpine is a zombie.

Naysayers of the Jimmy Reid foundation’s Common Weal ideas fear that they will drain the lifeblood out of Scotland. But that’s not why Reid’s Director Robin McAlpine is a zombie. It’s the annual Gala day in Robin’s home town of Biggar and this is a family day out. It’s the day in which town dresses up in the curtains and bedclothes, hitches decorated trailers behind tractors and processes through the streets in a boisterous, good humoured spectacle which normally ends up with a running battle involving water pistols and buckets of water.

The McAlpine clan is infamous for their floats which give current issues a political twist. Last year they donned horse head masks to highlight the horsemeat scandal. This year they’re zombies representing the brain dead attitude of South Lanarkshire Council to listening to communities’ views.

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The specific cause the outrage is the recent decision by South Lanarkshire’s planning committee to rubber stamp its own application to demolish the historic primary school building in the town and replace it with a car park. Although the sturdy Victorian building was removed from the Listed Building register by the council some years ago, it’s a much loved piece of local heritage, which is in reasonable condition structurally and could be used for a number of other purposes. A Facebook campaign to save the building attracted hundreds of supporters from around the world in a matter of days, and there were ninety five objections to the plans to demolish the building. In a move which smacks of secrecy and decisions already made only three of these objectors where notified of the planning committee meeting to determine the application and none were permitted to put their case. The process has been opaque and left the local community feeling ignored and powerless.

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But the wider point that team McAlpine are making is the lack of meaningful engagement between local government which neither listens to or serves communities. Instead it governs by faceless dictat from offices located miles away, with decisions made by people who neither know nor care what matters to communities, but are more concerned with meeting performances targets, hitting deadlines and assuring the quality of deliverables.

Rural areas like Clydesdale are fortunate that they have managed to maintain a real sense of community, where people join together for events like galas, look out of each other and work together to make things happen for everyone’s benefit. In some ways this is the Common Weal in action, but there is a feeling that this is happening despite government structures rather than because of them. That by trying to make one size fits all, off the shelf solutions applicable to all communities whatever their aspirations remote government is sucking the life out of communities. This what Robin McAlpine has become a zombie to protest about. This is what the Common Weal wants to change.

It’s time that the powers that be realised that the best people to decide what their communities need are the people who live there, and stopped regarding communities who want to do things differently as nuisances who have to be managed or handled carefully if the bureaucrats are to do what they have already decided to do. Its time that the people who care most should be the people who make the decisions. It’s about time that there was some love and understanding in decision making processes. It’s about time to put the local back in Local Authority. It’s about time to get rid of the grey and bring back local colour. That’s why Robin McAlpine is a zombie!

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Book Review: Cows Save the Planet

When I’m at work I do soil science-y stuff. I was asked to review the book Cows Save the Planet for the British Society of Soil Science’s newsletter The Auger. The book suggests that increasing livestock numbers might help soils to store carbon and so help to tackle climate change. This is a controversial hypothesis. My review of the book is below this pictures of some wee sleekit, cowrin’ timorous beasties!

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Cows Save the Planet – Judith Schwartz

Judith Schwartz is an American journalist whose main interest is in alternative economics rather than soil science, and this shows in the book, both in the focus on American prairie agriculture and in some of the flaws in the science.

The book is aimed at a general audience, and aims to use light touch with the science while keeping the reader engaged with a human interest angle on the people who the author meets. This works reasonably well, although the lack of numbers and references is frustrating, and at times made me suspicious about some of the assertions. For example I tried to trace a study on the nutrient content of food from the UK Ministry of Health (sic) and could not locate it. Similarly the book refers to the numerous papers published by Australian soil campaigner Christine Jones, but none of these were from peer reviewed journals. That said it does make some interesting points about how we manage agricultural soils.

The main thesis of the book is that by storing more carbon in soils we can improve soil fertility, reduce the need for agrochemicals and retain water in soils setting up a virtuous circle which captures carbon and combats climate change. Certainly soil carbon is an important element of the carbon cycle, and soil carbon stocks should be maintained and where possible enhanced.

The cows referred to in the book’s title are supposed to save the planet by adding manure and breaking up impervious, dry clay surfaces increasing rainwater infiltration which in turn promotes plant growth which returns more carbon to the soil. However the numbers to back this up aren’t presented, so while there is anecdotal evidence that changes to grazing management and increased stocking levels might be beneficial for some degraded soils in hot dry regions with mineral soils the applicability of this to organic or organo-mineral UK soils which are cool and wet is less clear. On UK soils there is a risk of compaction, erosion and loss of soil structure where high stocking levels lead to over-grazing. The author almost completely ignores the effect which increased nitrogen inputs from manure and urine could have on nitrous oxide emissions and nitrate run-off as well as dismissing the increase in methane emissions which would occur from increased ruminant numbers.

At times Schwartz seems convinced that climate change can be tackled by increasing soil carbon stocks alone. However limits on the capacity of soils to increase carbon stocks are not considered. While soils can undoubtedly make a contribution to removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, at times the book strays close to climate denial suggesting that no other action is necessary and that we can continue with business as usual use of fossil fuels and expect soils to mop up all of the carbon dioxide released with no need for lifestyle and technological change.

Schwartz blames the agrochemical industry for soil degradation. It is certainly true that agricultural intensification has caused problems for soils. While  efforts to remedy this have focussed on supplementing major plant nutrients by adding synthetic fertilisers less attention has been given to trace nutrients and soil carbon. Another cause of soil degradation which gets less attention in the book is the transposition of European agricultural practices to parts of the world for which they were not developed for. Ploughing the prairies caused enormous damage to soils long before the advent of modern agrochemicals. We should recognise the diversity of global soils and be wary of treating imported soil management practices such as tillage reduction, use of cover crops, mob grazing or biochar addition as “magic bullets”.

The final chapter takes a look at economic context of soil management. Here Schwartz’s economics background comes to the fore, pointing out that economic growth has to be constrained by the ability of environmental resources to support it. She also discusses the economic benefits of managing soil well so that inputs of fertilisers and pesticides can be reduced, and how we could better value the contributions which soils make to the economy.

I came away from this book with mixed feelings about it. There are some flaws in it’s analysis, however it does make the case for better management of soils and for more value to be given to the services they provide, and that has to be a good thing.

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