TO Treasury minister Danny Alexander fell the ambiguous pleasure of announcing some of the biggest figures ever drawn up by a UK government for spending on infrastructure, transport projects and energy.
The overall package of £100 billion, coming on the heels of Chancellor George Osborne’s £11.5bn of cuts, suggests an infrastructure programme of historic proportions. The Scottish government will get £300 million to spend as it sees fit, and extra funding specifically earmarked for renewable projects on the Scottish islands.
However, impressive though the totals sound, Mr Alexander’s statement may leave him a hostage to fortune. It includes spending totals that have already been announced; it is a reduction, albeit small, from previous spending commitments, and half of the £100bn total will be for infrastructure projects envisaged for the period 2016-2020 – beyond the life of the current UK parliament.
However, it is right that long-term needs are addressed. And of all the spending proposals signalled yesterday, arguably the most important relate to energy provision. Any doubt on the importance of further investment in this sector would have been dispelled by a warning from industry regulator Ofgem that the danger of power shortages in the UK by the middle of the decade has risen. It said spare electricity power production capacity could fall to just two per cent by 2015, increasing the risk of blackouts. Given this context, it is right that Scotland should seek to be, as the First Minister believes, at the forefront of the renewables revolution. We have the ability to create innovative technology and an environment that offers opportunity in abundance. Investment in new North Sea technology and in sources of renewable power are clearly to be welcomed if we are to address the risk of power shortages and avoid over-dependence on external sources.
But we should be mindful, too, of the importance of other energy sources to ensure that we have a variety of sources to protect us from over-reliance on any one type of supply. A significant part of Mr Alexander’s statement yesterday was aimed at boosting new sources of energy such as shale gas, and new support to help the building of new nuclear plants in addition to a guaranteed price for offshore wind energy. One positive development was the announcement of tax incentives for shale gas projects, coinciding with the publication of a report showing the UK’s shale gas reserves were greater than previously thought. The British Geological Survey estimates there may be 1,300 trillion cubic feet of shale gas in the north of England alone. However, the statement came with a caveat that the development of shale “will require geological and engineering expertise, investment and protection of the environment”. That said, the Scottish Government would do well to aim for a similar spread of energy investment here.
Free school fruit worth it in long run
Doctors at the British Medical Association conference in Edinburgh have called for free fruit and vegetables to be made available to all children in primary schools. They would like to see existing initiatives in Scotland under which youngsters in P1 and P2 are given fruit and vegetables three days a week extended to cover all primary-age children for the whole of the school week. They also backed calls for the price of fruit and vegetables to be reduced to make them more affordable and encourage people to have a healthy diet.
These calls are wholly to be welcomed and the Scottish Government should give them serious consideration. It is open to the immediate objection that this would be yet another “free” entitlement being taken on by an administration already under pressure for its existing commitments to welfare provision. Where, say the critics, would the money come from?
But the clear advantage of this proposal is that it would help to reduce the cost of dealing with the consequences of poor diet and unhealthy eating later in life. On top of long-standing problems such as tooth decay resulting from sugary products, we are now having to deal with a worryingly sharp increase in obesity and all the attendant problems this brings.
It is piling cost upon cost on a health service budget that is already being stretched by demographic changes. Encouraging a healthy diet early in life would put the health and wellbeing of our children on a sound footing. It will need full support from parents and teachers as well as doctors. But it is a goal that will save resources in the long term and is to be strongly encouraged.