Putting growth ahead of environmental impacts doesn’t strike me as balanced.
AS we head towards the festive break many of us will be planning journeys, local and international, either to catch up with family and friends or simply to get away to relax. The closure of the Forth Road Bridge is unlikely to make those journeys easier. That situation underlines the need to invest properly in maintaining the road network we already have, and good public transport.
Some people will be flying over the holidays and it reminds me that there’s a thistle we need to grasp.
Yesterday at First Minister’s Questions when asked about her plan to cut then scrap air passenger duty in a bid to grow airport travel, Nicola Sturgeon said her government would “continue to take a balanced approach that prioritises economic growth”. Putting growth ahead of environmental impacts doesn’t strike me as balanced.
Since the Climate Change Act was passed in 2009 Scotland has put nearly 10 million tonnes more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than targets allow. The independent Committee on Climate Change earlier this year specifically recommended that ministers should assess the climate impact of their APD policy. It took my colleague Patrick Harvie two years of repeated questioning before Scottish ministers finally admitted that halving and then scrapping APD would increase carbon emissions by up to 60,000 tonnes a year.
In the spirit of constructive opposition we have drawn ministers’ attention to ideas such as a Frequent Flyer Levy, which targets those wealthy individuals who use planes as casually as most of us use buses.
Simply scrapping the tax would help highly profitable big businesses. Airlines already pay little VAT and absolutely no fuel duty. And let’s not pretend this is about helping struggling airports. Every few months a report comes out heralding yet another rise in passenger numbers.
It would also worsen our tourism spending deficit. Figures from the Office of National Statistics show that the UK loses £15 billion a year as visitors who fly here spend less than we spend when we fly abroad. The Scottish Government would do well to publish the local impact each year to focus minds on closing this gap.
If we’re serious about making a family’s annual foreign holiday more affordable, let’s instead look at how to improve people’s wages and make heating our homes more affordable.
Cheaper flights will simply pamper wealthy frequent flyers and reduce income for the government, making austerity worse for all of us who rely on public services.
It’s not too late for the First Minister to rethink her stance, as she has already done with corporation tax. Back in March the Scottish Government unveiled a new economic strategy. It talked of tackling inequality, which should of course be at the heart of any economic strategy. It also softened the Government’s position on corporation tax. The SNP used to advocate cutting it further than the UK Government, an issue highlighted by the Greens and others during the referendum campaign. Instead the Government now talks of targeting tax breaks. The trend of ever-lower corporate taxes is something we’ve seen whether UK Governments have involved Labour, Tories or Lib Dems. Scotland can and should aim to take a different approach.
Perhaps all those occasions when Greens and SNP shared a platform during the referendum sank in. If we genuinely want a fairer Scotland, cutting the tax bill of big business is not the way to go about it.
We also need to push for a shift in the Scottish Government’s attitude towards funding big business. Rather than giving grants to hugely profitable multinationals such as Amazon, Lockheed Martin and KPMG, we should be prioritising local businesses. I recall during a meeting of the economy committee at Holyrood I quizzed Finance Secretary John Swinney on this issue and his view was that funding such companies was acceptable as they provided jobs. But having visited the massive Amazon warehouse in Fife I have to say I’m not convinced. The jobs created appear stressful, insecure and badly paid. Just think what a multi-million pound grant shared between hundreds of local businesses would have done for the economy instead.
Consistent, constructive pressure from Greens and others has secured a moratorium on fracking and coal gasification (let’s get that turned into a permanent ban), got the option of rent controls into draft legislation to help private sector tenants, and secured agreement that Energy Efficient Housing should be a National Infrastructure Priority.
I’ve always taken the view that you get things done by being positive and constructive. Scotland can bring holidays into reach for less well-off families and we can make polluting industries pay but it’s clear we need a bolder Holyrood to embark on that journey.
A version of this article appeared in today's National newspaper.