Scotland should embrace Green New Deal because the Covid economic crisis demands our politicians are bold – Richard Leonard

Scotland has an opportunity to make full employment a goal of public policy again while tackling climate change, writes Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a member of the US House of Representatives, is a leading proponent of a Green New Deal in the US (Picture: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Tomorrow we will solemnly mark two weeks since the deaths of driver Brett McCullough, conductor Donald Dinnie, and passenger Christopher Stuchbury in the Stonehaven rail disaster. In the midst of our current all-consuming pandemic, the tragic loss of these three lives serves as a stark reminder of another crisis of global proportions.

The landslip which led to the derailment came amid record-breaking temperatures, thunderstorms and flash flooding. Our railways, like so much of our public infrastructure, will need investment to ensure the significant safety improvements in recent years are not undone by the fast-changing climate conditions. The Rail Accident Investigation Branch should consider the TSSA rail union’s suggestion that the crash investigation should consider “whether Network Rail has sufficient funds and staff” to carry out earthwork maintenance given the huge volume of assets under its control.

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A shift towards public transport, after all, will be crucial if we are to prevent temperatures rising to the point that humanity itself can no longer thrive on planet Earth. As we face an unprecedented economic and unemployment crisis sparked by the pandemic and the necessary lockdown, we should not make the mistake of thinking that putting the brakes on global warming is about returning to a pre-industrial age.

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On the contrary, the pressing need to radically develop Scotland’s infrastructure to meet the climate challenge is an opportunity to reinvigorate our post-Covid economy and revitalise our industrial base, which has been in steady decline for decades.

That’s why I am proposing a Green New Deal for Scotland. This draws on the international phenomenon, popularised by the socialist US House of Representatives member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, with the guiding principle that we do not need to choose between climate justice and social justice.

Housing crisis

Earlier this year I commissioned the economist Laurie Macfarlane to investigate what this could mean for Scotland. His conclusion is that with a significant investment into Scotland’s economy, we could create 131,000 good quality jobs.

One pre-existing crisis which Covid-19 has brought into sharp relief is in housing. Too many people are stuck on never-ending housing waiting lists, losing hope by the day. There are too many young people with no prospect of having their own home outside of the private rental market, and too many children going to sleep at night in damp and over-crowded accommodation. No wonder the education attainment gap remains stubbornly high. So we are proposing the building of 12,000 council homes each year, over the next five years to the highest energy efficiency standards under the direction of a new Land and Communities Development Agency which would employ and train thousands of new workers.

It is ambitious but achievable to upgrade Scotland’s housing to at least Energy Performance Certificate C energy efficiency standard by 2030, and for domestic renewable energy production to meet 200 per cent of our own electricity needs within the next decade. This will ensure that we are ready for future increases in demand and can be a net exporter to the rest of the UK. It will also put us on the path to be net-zero carbon by 2045.

As oil and gas platforms are decommissioned, we cannot allow the north-east of Scotland to suffer the economic and social destruction that our coalfield communities suffered in the eighties and the nineties. So we must establish a £500 million Just Transition Fund to assist workers and businesses with the realities of transition. Part of that must mean a plan so that decommissioning jobs are retained in Scotland and not outsourced abroad. But part of it must also mean a new strategic Scottish National Energy Development Agency to coordinate the development of renewable energy infrastructure, generation and local supply chains. Because in this sector too, we must start securing the jobs dividend here.

How to pay for Green New Deal

Of course, we can’t just use up our natural resources, we must replenish and look after them too. That’s why we must have a major reforestation plan and a plan to restore degraded peatland every year for the next quarter of a century. To do this we must employ and train a new workforce dedicated to restoring Scotland’s natural environment and meeting our climate commitments.

Just last week Falkirk-based bus manufacturer Alexander Dennis Ltd announced 160 job cuts. At the very point when a modern Scotland needs a modern public transport system these jobs are at risk.

We should be expanding Scotland’s bus network by investing £100 million in buying new electric buses from domestic manufacturers. By significant investment in electric vehicle charging points. And by extending free bus travel. We can move away from low-paid, insecure work and towards the sectors of the future, not only creating apprenticeships and jobs for young people, but offering new skills to all working people.

People will understandably ask how this Green New Deal will be paid for.

In my view the Scottish Parliament needs more borrowing powers to provide the investment that is required now. And we need a renegotiation of the bad deal struck by the SNP which set up the Fiscal Framework.

We should ensure that Scotland gets its fair share of the UK’s net EU contribution rate. This would be worth around £800 million per year to the Scottish Parliament’s budget, in addition to Barnett formula funding. And lastly we must draw down on the benefit of being part of a stable and credible monetary union. That’s why we have said that we are backing the IMF’s call for countries with “fiscal space” to run deficits to promote growth.

Ripping up the rule book

Last month the Office for Budget Responsibility said that “one silver lining” to the current economic woes is that “it remains relatively cheap for the government to borrow – and indeed it has become more so”.

So Boris Johnson’s government must unleash the monetary firepower it has at its disposal to stimulate Scotland’s economy.

If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it should be that even those who want to roll back the state are prepared to rip up the rule book when it is expedient.

This is not a time to be tame and meek. We have an opportunity to make full employment a goal of public policy again, to tackle climate change and to be ready for the jobs crisis which is coming. As Laurie Macfarlane concludes “big challenges require big solutions”. And he is right.

Now is the time for extending the Job Retention Scheme, rolling out a quality Jobs Guarantee Scheme and investing in a Green New Deal.

Richard Leonard is leader of the Scottish Labour party

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