SNP is wasting taxpayers' money, not being short-changed by Westminster – Brian Wilson

Scotland will remain in its current downward spiral until the SNP’s ‘send more money’ mentality is replaced by creativity and competence

“Let them not eat porridge” is one of the more unexpected messages from an SNP government but very much in line with other grim tidings from Holyrood this week. If ever a Budget signalled the need for change in political control, it was the one voted through by SNP and Green MSPs. Nobody other than themselves had a good word for it.

Civic Scotland may finally have got off its knees as the trough runs low. Local government has been so harshly treated that Cosla is in revolt. Business and industry despair about the lack of any discernible plan to grow the economy. With their sole raison d’etre on the distant back-burner, the absence of vision within a nationalist government has never been more apparent. The spiral of decline in public services is all around us and set to acclelerate.

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Their response, of course, is to say: “Send more money.” It is the standard get-out clause. But that avoids the rationale of devolution which was not to spend more but to spend better, according to needs defined in Scotland. That is the test they consistently fail.

Finance Secretary Shona Robison's much-criticised Budget demonstrates the need for change of government (Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA)Finance Secretary Shona Robison's much-criticised Budget demonstrates the need for change of government (Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA)
Finance Secretary Shona Robison's much-criticised Budget demonstrates the need for change of government (Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA)

Education in trouble

I have long argued that the Scottish Government needs a fundamental spending review in which each silo is explored and every shibboleth scrutinised for the value it brings. That is never going to happen under incumbents who have been there too long and own the status quo. An obvious example is higher education and student support. With access for Scottish students cut by thousands and over-reliance of our universities on inflated foreign fees, the need to reconsider policy and outcomes should be inescapable against a hierarchy of priorities.

At the same time, further education takes yet another hit. Last year, Audit Scotland warned about the sector’s “financial sustainability” and job losses have continued throughout Scotland. Yet the kind of education which FE colleges provide is a lot more relevant to many Scottish communities and future needs than maintaining a dogma around university fees.

Indeed, one is spoilt for choice when looking for cases of how this Budget will make matters worse for the very people to whom lip-service is paid, the poor. For starters, it is they who depend disproportionately on council services which are no longer going to be exist.

It is they who need more teachers in schools, not fewer. Promising an extra billion pounds of spending on benefits next year will help some while having very little impact upon the structural disadvantages they face. Education from the earliest age is the biggest potential benefit for lifting children out of poverty that any government can offer.

A lack of vision

Housing helps too. The decision to cut the social housing budget by 43 per cent is truly incomprehensible in any order of progressive priorities. Apart from providing people with decent homes and attacking homelessness, construction is recognised in any economy as the most effective kick-starter of growth and employment.

A government of vision would be promoting a joined-up package to meet housing demand. Alongside social housing, there is an appetite in the private sector to do far more which is thwarted in Scotland by the overburdened planning processes and – once again – cuts in local government services.

I noticed the director of the Royal Town Planning Institute Scotland, Dr Caroline Brown, not only deploring the “consequences for communities across the nation” of the 43 per cent cut, but also pointing out that “a quarter of planning department staff was cut between 2009 and 2022. At the same time, new duties and responsibilities are falling on planning authorities”.

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This is an excellent example of where a lack of joined-up government leads and confirms it has been going on for years. Instead of a vision for housing which links social need to economic growth, we have a huge cut that will put every project in doubt and hit both the construction industry and its supply chain. And all for the price of a ferry.

Recently, the scheme which brought the Scottish construction industry and trade unions together to promote apprenticeships was wound up due to the Scottish Government’s withdrawal of support for a compulsory registration scheme. It had survived for 90 years but is now closed to new entrants to the dismay of both employers and unions.

The union Unite said: “Scottish construction apprenticeships are the gold standard across the world and this Scottish Government are destroying that along with the collective bargaining rights of young workers.” No government would allow this to happen if there was a philosophy which linked education and skills to investment in construction in order to meet social need. But no such political cohesion exists.

Struggle to provide services

In the same week as this crass Budget, we see them pressing ahead with legislation for a National Care Service. The principle had general support when first announced but soon descended into farce as the costs of centralisation and a massive new bureaucracy soared to over £2 billion.

It was kicked into touch in December and has now been resuscitated via a “framework bill” which ministers (or rather civil servants) will be free to colour in as they go along. Meanwhile, all around Scotland, local authorities are struggling to provide the actual services and saying within one voice: “Give us the money instead.”

It should be remembered that support for devolution grew in the 1980s and 1990s to protect Scotland from the kind of unpopular policies which were introduced in the Thatcher-Major years. The demand was not for more money but for devolved powers. There was never an expectation of never-ending growth in budget.

Until the “send more money” mentality is replaced by creativity in policymaking and competence in delivery, Scotland will remain stuck in the downward spiral. Spend the same money better should be the first objective and devolution can start to deliver.



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