Don't let tax cuts for frequent flyers take off

Summer, such as it is, nears an end; politicians are gearing up for a return to debating chambers around the country. Councillors have returned already, sadly including the racist and sectarian ones whose leader Ruth Davidson seems to regard their voting numbers as more important than any principle. Holyrood and Westminster will start their business again at the start of September. Not before time.

Now perhaps MPs will have something more meaningful to talk about than the nauseating outbreak of sentiment over Big Ben’s silence. As for MSPs, now that we’ve all enjoyed the annual ceremony known as “GERSmas Day” in which we all triumphantly claim that the figures prove exactly what we’ve been saying all along (yes yes, I know I do it too!) we can expect to see a Government programme announced, with action proposed for the coming year. Hints of a government “reset” have raised the possibility of a new policy direction to reclaim some progressive territory. Certainly the political context is changing, and it would be a very odd thing for any government not to respond to new circumstances.

Those in opposition who think their job is to throw brickbats at anything and everything the Government does will have to be nimble, for fear that a new Government policy is too close to what they demanded in the past. Such people never want to be seen giving credit where it’s due.

For the Greens, our mantra is to always be both constructive and challenging. If we see movement toward progressive income tax, or the necessary reform of local tax, we’ll welcome it. If we see a commitment to net zero emissions in the new Climate Change Bill, we’ll respond with enthusiasm. If the government changes tack on education and put resources ahead of divisive governance ideas, we’ll congratulate ministers instead of crowing about “u-turns”.

One area that’s ripe for some change, and where Greens have been offering positive ideas, is transport.

It’s a subject where you can never please all the people all of the time. Infrastructure decisions mean favouring one project over another (as shown by the controversy down south about investment in London’s rail network while electrification in the north of England was scrapped). Debates over managing road space, or how to provide public transport always involve making choices that can’t meet everyone’s interests equally.

For as long as I can remember private road transport has been put first, and all the while the road lobby squeal about a “war on the motorist”. Billions are spent on new roads, while existing ones fall into potholed disrepair and getting the relatively tiny investment needed to make walking and cycling easier is like pulling teeth. Aviation has grown relentlessly, apparently given a free pass to pollute while the rest of the economy is faced with the urgent need to cut emissions. And public transport just keeps getting ever more expensive, stripped of the taxpayer support which is needed for a system that meets the actual needs of society.

The most recent hike in rail fares is only the latest example; it’s the result of a conscious UK Government decision to shift more of the cost of rail fares onto passengers. It’s not as if motorists all pay tolls to fund the roadbuilding programme – taxpayers are expected to meet that cost. Similarly with buses, the privatised operators are given hidden subsidies while peddling the myth that it’s a just a free market system where everyone is spoiled for choice and competition keeps driving up standards.

Regulation, taxpayer investment, subsidy and public ownership; these are the things which many world class public transport systems share. All are to a large extent achievable within devolved powers, and within the current parliamentary session.

Instead, the Scottish Government is so far obsessed with an aviation tax cut that would increase carbon emissions, strip hundreds of millions of pounds from funding for public services, and give a vastly bigger tax saving to the wealthiest people in society than to the rest, giving nothing at all to almost half the population. As for an economic case in favour, the lack of any meaningful attempt to build one has been astonishing. It looks like nothing more than a giveaway, resulting from high-powered lobbying by an industry already enjoying many tax breaks, and based on nothing more than their own self-interest.

The consultation on this policy remains open for another few weeks, and if the Scottish Government is serious about a new policy direction which benefits the majority of people and helps achieve a sustainable economy, this is a clear opportunity. Dump the airline tax cuts and invest instead in a transport system that meets people’s everyday needs, fairly and sustainably.

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This article first appeared in The National.