Angry business leaders hit out at SNP

LEADING business figures today launch a scathing attack on Alex Salmond's economic record, claiming the SNP government's policies have harmed growth during the financial crisis.

• Salmond (left) was 'astounded' by Iain McMillan's (right) attack

Cancelled transport projects, a failure to reform the public sector, money wasted on constitutional debate and the imposition of a supplementary business rate of 15p in the pound for large businesses are cited as examples of the SNP's "failed" policies.

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In his New Year message, CBI Scotland director Iain McMillan says SNP ministers have implemented "too many policies that are likely to hinder business and the economy and for which the Scottish Government deserves to be sharply criticised".

He claims the government spent too much taxpayers' money on the 1 million National Conversation on the constitution, in the knowledge MSPs would vote against a referendum. He also criticises ministers for cancelling the Edinburgh and Glasgow airport rail links.

The Scottish Government's ideological objection to using Public Private Partnerships to fund large capital projects is attacked by Mr McMillan, as is its failure to make more use of the private sector to deliver public services, and its refusal to come up with a new funding model for Scottish Water to inject more cash into the economy.

Although the CBI chief has welcomed the Scottish Government's support for renewable energy, he is critical of Mr Salmond's continued objection to the inclusion of nuclear power in Scotland's energy mix.

Scotland plc gives its verdict on the SNP

• What they got right...

• What they got wrong...

• Tom Peterkin: How a few key decisions by ministers tarnished government's reputation

John Swinney's announcement that larger retailers such as supermarkets are to be hit by higher business rates comes in for particular criticism.

In his November Budget, the finance secretary said that, from next year, retail properties with a rateable value of more than 750,000 would pay a higher business supplement - an increase he hopes will raise an additional 30 million in 2011-12.

Mr McMillan says the policy "discriminates" against supermarkets "risking increased prices for consumers, fewer jobs and less investment in that sector".

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Last night, Mr McMillan told The Scotsman the "shine has come off" the SNP government.

"I don't think John Swinney should be in any doubt about the anger he has caused by this supplementary rates policy that will hit retailers," he said.

"Alex Salmond and his ministers have been too busy picking fights with Westminster, particularly on public finances.

"John Swinney continues to berate the UK government for spending cuts, but the UK government's approach is supported by us in the CBI. Frankly, we don't think there is any choice.We have a structural deficit of over 90 billion and our interest payments are over 40bn a year, yet Alex Salmond and his ministers are bickering with the UK government.

"I am not talking party politics here; what we are saying is that the UK government is doing the right thing. If you prolong addressing the deficit, then you are piling up debt and more interest payments for the future."

He added: "At the very time that the UK and the western world is going through the most ghastly economic downturn since the 1930s, the Scottish Government is focusing on its National Conversation. That was something that was soundly defeated in parliament and the government should have been concentrating on getting the economy motoring again."

As the election approaches, Mr McMillan said the political parties would be tempted to "avoid tough decisions" to "court popularity". But he called on them to show leadership.

His message does list some positive SNP policies. The council tax freeze, promises to improve education, new motorways, improvements in the planning system and a crackdown on red tape are all mentioned. But the CBI director says they are "eclipsed" by the negative policies.

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CBI Scotland's views on Mr Swinney's business rate supplement were shared by David Watt, executive director of the Institute of Directors. He said: "The SNP government has had a very mixed performance. I would probably be more upbeat if they hadn't suddenly announced that they want to hit some of our biggest companies in the private sector with an additional business rates tax. I don't understand what encouragement that is going to give to companies to invest in Scotland."

In his New Year message, Mr Watt called for public service reform. "We've truly been fiddling while Rome burns and this can't continue," he said. "We have to move people working in the public sector into the private sector and find the entrepreneur inside them to make our country grow and prosper.

"We must also finally address wage rates in the public sector, where some senior staff receive salaries we simply can no longer afford. Equally, we should be looking closely at artificially maintained public-sector pensions."

The SNP's opponents weighed in behind the criticism. Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray said: "The SNP's complete failure on efforts to grow the economy have been highlighted, along with the cancellation of major infrastructure projects.

"These failures have cost tens of thousands of jobs in the construction industry alone.Labour go into the election next year with a vision for business based upon sound investment and reform of public services."

Tory spokesman Derek Brownlee said: "The lesson from this session of parliament is clear - where the SNP has taken action to help taxpayers and employers, it has been because the Scottish Conservatives forced them to, in areas like business rate cuts for small firms and this year's council tax freeze."

Lib Dem chief whip Mike Rumbles said: "The SNP have made a real mess of business rates. Businesses will be happy to see the back of the SNP in May. Liberal Democrats want to make the business rates system fairer."

A spokesman for the First Minister said he was "astounded" Mr McMillan had not credited the SNP with scrapping business rates for thousands of firms through the small business bonus.

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He pointed out Mr McMillan had been a member of the Calman Commission, which cost more than the National Conversation, and said nuclear power was "dangerous, dirty and costly".

He said the business rate supplement would affect less than 0.1 per cent of non-domestic properties, but would raise an extra 30 million for front-line services, adding: "Our plans for Scottish Water involve making the most of a great natural asset without selling it off cheaply."

Opposition politicians who may be tempted to revel in the discomfort Mr McMillan's words will have for the SNP, should also keep their ideological hobby horses in the darkest part of the political stables.