The government must be ready to listen before putting a budget before parliament
Party conference season is upon us. With Theresa May’s farcical performance in Manchester earlier this week, every other leader can be confident that’d be hard put to do any worse. This weekend it’s the turn of the SNP, whose members will no doubt be eager for some positive, upbeat announcements to cheer.
The first of these was announced on Tuesday; the temporary moratorium on fracking and other forms of extreme energy production will be extended. These technologies will not be deployed in Scotland, and this will certainly feature prominently in the First Ministers speech.
Greens have opposed all forms of unconventional gas extraction from the start, and we've stood with communities against this dangerous and unnecessary threat. So we welcome the Scottish Government’s intention to ban fracking and provide certainty for communities across Scotland that have been living with this threat hanging over them.
However, it’s important to know that we’re not quite there yet in terms of a complete ban. What’s been done is that the government has written to local councils, telling them that the moratorium will carry on. However, the planning system still treats fracking in much the same way as things as simple as the gravel extraction industry, and there’s no clear legal context for the licensing powers once they are in Scottish ministers’ hands.
No government likes to admit that it won’t last forever, but eventually every government loses office. So we need a ban on fracking that’s not only resistant to legal challenges from powerful companies like INEOS, but also one which will be harder for a future government to reverse. This can never be absolute of course, but a future minority government could reverse this moratorium at the stroke of a pen. The ban on new nuclear power is stronger; it’s covered by a clear and simple statement in the National Planning Framework, which can’t be revised without robust scrutiny and a vote in Parliament. It should be straightforward for the government to achieve the same level of protection against fracking, before the end of this parliament.
One policy that SNP ministers won’t be able to shout about is aviation tax. Their plans for a tax giveaway to this profitable and polluting industry had already been shown to be backed by no serious economic case, no environmental case, no social justice case and no political support beyond the Tories who think they can slash every tax and keep spending from the magic money tree. The week it was revealed that the policy is in a legal quagmire too, and almost certainly can’t be implemented in the near future. Good! Maybe we can spend that money on people’s real transport priorities instead, and meeting the 70% target for low-carbon infrastructure that the Government is still missing.
Green research has shown that most people want improvements to their daily public transport instead of a tax cut to occasional flights, which would save far more money to the wealthiest people than to the rest of us.
As the Scottish Government prepares to put a budget before Parliament, these two major announcements of a fracking ban and the ditching of aviation tax cuts will remove the barriers that would have existed to budget discussions with the Greens.
When those talks start, there’s a lot to cover.
Since summer recess we’ve already shown the value of Green influence with many of our policies referenced in Nicola Sturgeon’s programme for government. One such positive step is the fund to support councils piloting a Citizen's Income, a core longstanding Green policy. We’ve also seen agreement to our proposal for an additional grant and support package for young carers. We’ll want to see the detail on both of these.
Beyond that, there’s general agreement that the cap on public sector pay has to end. But just lifting the 1% cap won’t make the difference unless all public bodies are given the resources they need to give real, above-inflation increases.
And local councils, which were protected from deep cuts last year by the Green budget deal, need to see the reversal of previous years’ reductions. Real investment in local services, restoring the lost value of council funding in real terms, is urgent.
None of this can be achieved unless we also take the wider opportunity that Nicola Sturgeon opened up recently, by signalling that the SNP are ready to talk about income tax policy too. Progressive taxation, raising funds from people like MSPs who can afford to pay more, can cut inequality and help fund our vital services.
If the government is willing to fit all these pieces of the puzzle together, we’ll see a budget that really lives up to the aspirations of voters in Scotland for an end to austerity and investment in services we can be proud of.
This article first appeared in The National.