On Wednesday Finance Secretary John Swinney will publish his draft budget for 2016/17. With relentless austerity imposed from Westminster, new powers coming down the track and a Holyrood election around the corner, what should his priorities for investment be?
The scandal of fuel poverty is fundamental. Almost 1 million Scottish households are suffering. Investing in efficient heating, including support for tenants who can't always rely on improvements by landlords, can cut fuel poverty, create thousands of jobs and reduce our climate change emissions. If we continue to invest at the current rate it’ll take 28 years to eradicate this scandal, so let’s see a step-change in funding.
Scotland’s skills gap should be a priority. For example, when it comes to energy efficient housing, there are currently no courses or apprenticeships in the trades required. We’re going to need trained energy assessors, construction workers, boiler engineers, renewable energy fitters and building inspectors. Our colleges are also vital to plugging the skills gap, yet the Scottish Government has cut further education places by 156,000 since 2007. There are around 13,000 16-24 year olds out of work and not in education in Scotland. By creating housing apprenticeships and restoring college places we could slash youth unemployment.
The Forth Road Bridge debacle underlines the need to maintain and upgrade existing transport infrastructure rather than chasing shiny new projects. Years ago the Greens argued for a proper assessment of the bridge but instead the government ploughed ahead with a £2billion scheme to create an additional crossing, which will come with a hefty maintenance cost. Motorists, bus passengers and cyclists know only too well how badly potholed our streets are. Funding for local roads has been choked off in recent years, leading to a repairs backlog. This work would generate huge benefits for local contractors rather than multinationals.
In terms of jobs the Greens have done the legwork on how Scotland can have more and better jobs than currently exist in the oil and gas sector. We need to start moving to decommissioning work now - a point the trades unions working in the sector recently agreed with me on in parliament.
On pay, frontline public sector workers have been squeezed for too long while those at the top continue to enjoy over-inflated salaries and bonuses. Putting cash in the pockets of the workforce will get our economy moving again.
On health, we often hear the phrase “preventative spend” but it’s a buzzword; it’s never been a dedicated figure in the Scottish budget. Audit Scotland and the BMA have been very clear in recent months that the Scottish Government needs to up its game on preventing ill-health. Throwing money at the latest crisis in the NHS isn’t a sustainable solution. Instead we need a serious effort to train and recruit staff, and we need to give communities more control over funds as they know best how to tackle poor fitness and eating habits.
And then there’s the council tax freeze, creaking at the seams. The local tax commission reported today, making clear that the current system must end. It simply won’t be credible for any party to go into the 2016 election offering a further year of restricting funds for local services. In other European countries it’s against the law for central government to meddle with local taxes. Don’t we trust ourselves to raise and spend what we need for our schools, libraries and social care?
Finally, the new Scottish Rate of Income Tax takes effect in April. It‘s something of a trap as any increase would lead to a cut in the block grant from Westminster, so it‘s hard to see much movement there.
Scotland can end fuel poverty, create better jobs and have a healthier population but we need Holyrood to be bold. Green MSPs will keep pushing in the right direction.