Bute House Agreement: Where do things stand two years into SNP-Greens deal?
Nicola Sturgeon described it as a "leap of faith" that could represent "a new and better way of doing politics".
The landmark co-operation deal between the SNP and the Greens was signed two years ago this summer, opening up a new chapter in Scottish politics.
"If we are to meet the moment, we must all try to do politics differently,” the former first minister told MSPs in August 2021. “In this agreement, the Scottish Government and the Scottish Greens are accepting our responsibility to do that.”
The move led to Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater, the co-leaders of the Scottish Greens, joining the government as ministers – a first for UK politics. It was marked by the publication of two documents: a 13-page co-operation agreement and a 53-page shared policy programme.
However, the deal has also been the focus of much criticism. Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross has lambasted Humza Yousaf, the new First Minister, for allowing “the extremist Green tail to wag the SNP dog”. Rural leaders have warned against a “hardening of the green agenda".
Meanwhile, veteran SNP MSP Fergus Ewing, a former minister, has made his unhappiness over the arrangement clear. He memorably dubbed the Greens “wine bar pseudo-intellectuals”, and he’s not alone in harbouring concerns.
So two years on, how does the "Bute House Agreement" (BHA) hold up? What has been achieved and what hasn't?
"On an overarching political level, I think the main success for the Greens has been proving our ability to actually deliver on our ideas in government," Ross Greer, the Green MSP for the West Scotland region, told The Scotsman. He said the BHA is wider than the pledges outlined in the shared policy programme, which he described as "the floor, not the ceiling".
He continued: "The agreement is that overarching commitment for us to work together to co-design all areas of Scottish Government policy, apart from the excluded matters.” Those excluded matters – on which the SNP and Greens agreed to disagree – include the role of Gross Domestic Product measurements, aviation policy, international relations, membership of Nato, field sports and private schools.
Mr Greer pointed to policies such as free bus travel for under 22s and the emergency rent freeze, both of which were championed by the Greens.
Here, we take a look at some of the headline issues resulting from the deal.
The documents published as part of the BHA pledged to secure a referendum on Scottish independence "after the Covid crisis”. It said this would take place within the current parliamentary session, on a specific date to be determined by the Scottish Parliament. “If the Covid crisis has passed, our intention is for the referendum to be within the first half of the five-year parliamentary session,” it added. Clearly, this has yet to happen, and there is no real prospect of it in the immediate future. Ms Sturgeon wanted a referendum to take place on October 19 this year, but this plan fell apart when the Supreme Court ruled Holyrood does not have the power to hold a vote without Westminster’s consent.
Gender and equality
The shared policy programme promised to reform the Gender Recognition Act in a Bill introduced in the first year of the parliamentary session. “This will ensure the process by which a trans person can obtain legal recognition is simplified, reducing the trauma associated with that process,” it added. The relevant legislation was passed by a large, cross-party majority of MSPs in December last year amid huge controversy. Among those raising concerns was the author JK Rowling. However, it was later blocked by the UK Government, which cited concerns about its impact on equality law. The Scottish Government is now seeking to challenge this decision in court. Mr Greer accuses UK ministers of thwarting Scottish democracy, but critics say the legislation was flawed. At any rate, its future remains unclear, and the changes have not been put into action.
For Mr Greer, this is a big one. The BHA vowed to deliver a "new deal for tenants", including through rent controls and greater restrictions on evictions. Last year, emergency legislation saw most rents frozen until the end of March 2023, while evictions were banned except under certain circumstances. This was in reaction to the cost of living crisis, and the freeze was replaced with a 3 per cent cap on rent rises from April. "The rent freeze is essentially an emergency stopgap measure for the permanent rent controls that are in the Bute House policy programme," said Mr Greer. He pointed to the move as "one of the top, standout measures", and said it will have a "really tangible impact" on people's lives.
The deal made a number of commitments relating to transport, such as aligning policy with the goal of reducing car kilometres by 20 per cent by 2030, and commissioning a fair fares review for public transport. The Greens point to policies that go beyond what was set out in the initial documents, such as free bus travel for under 22s, which was introduced at the start of last year. Peak fares on ScotRail will also be scrapped for six months from October as part of a pilot scheme. There is no doubt these are significant measures. ScotRail was brought into public ownership in April 2022.
This is another big one. The BHA documents pledged to take forward "a programme of education reform". A review by Professor Louise Hayward has now proposed scrapping exams for S4 pupils and creating a new Scottish Diploma of Achievement. However, legislation to establish new education bodies, including a replacement for the Scottish Qualifications Authority, will be paused while the Scottish Government considers its next steps. Ministers have been accused of kicking the can down the road, but the Greens say the process could lead to "the most significant and necessary change in our education system since the Victorian era". They take credit for kickstarting the debate.
Highly Protected Marine Areas
The shared policy programme promised to designate a “world-leading suite” of HPMAs, which would ban fishing in at least 10 per cent of Scotland’s seas. To say this has proved controversial feels like an understatement. Scotland’s seafood sector has launched a campaign to fight the plans, while some SNP MSPs – including former leadership candidate Kate Forbes – have also raised serious concerns. The band Skipinnish even released a protest song comparing the impact of the move to the Highland Clearances. Few policies have attracted such opprobrium. In the face of this, some believe the plans will be watered down (excuse the pun).
Deposit return scheme
The deposit return scheme wasn’t actually mentioned in the documents accompanying the BHA, but its delivery has been led by Ms Slater as Scotland's circular economy minister. Its troubles are well known, and probably don’t need to be repeated here. Suffice to say the scheme has been delayed until at least 2025 amid a row between Scottish and UK ministers, who blame each other for the shambles. With Circularity Scotland, the firm set up to administer the scheme, now in administration, no one has come out of this particularly well. Expect more fallout in the coming weeks and months.
The shared policy programme acknowledged the SNP and Greens “do not entirely agree on the role of the oil and gas sector”, or on the role of hydrogen and carbon capture and storage. It thus neatly dodged a particularly thorny issue. However, it did include important measures such as an ambition to deliver between 8 and 12 GW of additional installed onshore wind by 2030. It also committed to creating a ten-year, £500 million “Just Transition Fund” for the North East and Moray, which was established last year.
National Care Service
The documents referenced the plans for a National Care Service, saying the two parties would co-design and support the relevant legislation and accompanying guidance, with the aim of introducing this by June 2022. This was achieved, but the plans have since been delayed in the face of huge opposition from council leaders and trade unions. Ministers hope to find a compromise in the coming months, which they concede will mean changes. Back to the drawing board?
The policy programme included a pledge to significantly increase the level of the Scottish Child Payment. It has since risen to £25 per week, which both the SNP and the Greens hail as a major intervention. There is no doubt this will make a difference.
Green homes and buildings
Elsewhere, the deal includes ambitious plans to phase out fossil fuel boilers and “decarbonise” buildings. As part of this, new rules put forward by the Scottish Government this month mean new buildings in Scotland will not be permitted to have gas boilers in them from the spring of next year. Mr Harvie said this was “essential to deliver our commitment to make buildings zero carbon by 2045”.
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