Tories pledge £1bn blitz on crime and taxes

THE Scottish Tories yesterday unveiled their election manifesto with an ambitious promise to cut £1 billion from the Executive's budget and use it to lower business taxes, discount council tax bills and launch a major war against crime.

The press office budget for the Scottish Executive would be cut by half to 2.6 million, Communities Scotland - the housing quango - would be axed and there would be major reductions in both the promoting equality and social inclusion budgets.

All the savings identified by the Tories would come to 916.5 million, money which would then be reinvested in law and order, housing and council tax, transport and business rates relief.

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But Annabel Goldie, the Scottish Conservative leader, admitted that she would not be able to implement her manifesto from government, reiterating the decision not to go into coalition.

Ms Goldie said the Tories would not be in the Scottish Executive after the election, either as part of a coalition or on their own, and the only way to implement Conservative policies was to lead the debate and convince the governing parties of the need for change.

She said: "Our manifesto policy commitments are not for sale in any post-election horse trading process since other parties can cobble up deals behind closed doors.

"The Scottish Conservatives will enter into no pacts and no coalitions. We will operate on an issue-by-issue, case-by-case basis and do what's right for Scotland."

Ms Goldie said the party would back individual legislative proposals brought forward by other parties which they can support without entering into any kind of formal ruling partnership.

And she added: "Coalition has failed Scotland. I think what we've seen is eight years of fudge, compromise, dodging issues and frankly reducing everything to the lowest common political denominator. That has failed Scotland. I think it's time for a fresh approach."

The biggest casualty of the savings will be the enterprise bodies, Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise. They will see 413 million cut from their annual budget and reduced to core organisations dealing with inward investment and little else.

The Tories also believe they can save 190 million a year by the mutualisation of Scottish Water - turning it into a mutual company funded by borrowing on private markets, rather than purely by the taxpayer.

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The party wants an alternative, cheaper, proposal for the Edinburgh airport rail link, avoiding a controversial tunnel option which would save 119 million from the project's 610 million budget.

Housing, families and crime were the main themes of the manifesto, with particular emphasis on affordable housing and drug rehabilitation.

Key to the party's spending plans will be law and order, with 240 million spent annually on crime and drugs, 35 million allocated on the recruitment of the 1,500 extra police officers on the beat and 25 million to build a new prison.

In addition a new Scottish Skills Agency would take over the role currently filled by Scottish Enterprise at the cost of 148 million, with a total of 15 million identified to fund the scrapping of tolls on the Forth and Tay bridges.

The Conservatives believe that, as part of cutting back the public sector, MSP numbers should be reduced from 129 to 108, saving 3 million.

They would also halve council tax for pensioners' households and look at high-speed rail links between Glasgow and Edinburgh, with the aim of cutting journey times to 15 minutes, and from Scotland to London.

Housing at heart of programme that lacks a 'big idea'

SOMEWHERE, someone in the Scottish Conservative Party is willing to learn from history.

At the heart of the Scottish Tory manifesto, launched yesterday, was a major commitment to improve Scotland's housing stock, particularly affordable housing.

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The Tories have enjoyed their best times in Scotland when they have concentrated on housing. In the 1950s, housing was the burning political issue. The Tories exploited it to great effect and won a majority of the seats and the votes in Scotland in 1955 - the last time this has been done. Then, in the 1980s, there was one Tory policy that stood out and was popular with people on the ground - council house sales.

This year, the Conservatives believe they have found its natural successor.

They are pledging to spend 33 million on affordable housing trusts, with another 67 million from the private sector, providing a fund to help low-paid families get on the housing ladder.

Taken alongside the party's plan for council tax discounts for pensioners, this does represent an innovative approach to housing policy.

However, it seems unlikely that housing policy will have quite the pull on voters that it did either 50 years ago or 25 years ago.

As a whole, the manifesto is refreshingly simple. There are really only three main themes - crime, housing and families.

The manifesto also represents a careful exercise in redistribution, moving money from administration and bureaucracy and into frontline services - but no-one ever won an election by promising to spend money more wisely than their competitors.

What it really lacks - despite the commendable progress on housing - is the radical big idea. There are no plans in the manifesto to cut the so-called tartan tax. Something which, had the Tories been brave enough to suggest, would have marked them out as a really different alternative to the other main parties.

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It is Conservative in name and conservative in nature. It might be enough to keep traditional Tories from drifting away but, unless affordable housing trusts suddenly take off in the public imagination, it is unlikely to inspire many others into the fold.

'Quit Europe - and sack all MSPs'

INDEPENDENCE with the SNP will be "bogus" as yet more powers are given over to Europe, according to the UK Independence Party, which launched its manifesto yesterday with a promise to scrap all MSPs and take Scotland out of the European Union.

David Campbell Bannerman, deputy leader of UKIP, said his party was in favour of a referendum on independence.

However, he argued that the current model offered by the SNP would be a "disaster" for Scotland as the key policies on energy, agriculture and the economy are all controlled by Europe.

He said: "When the SNP talk about independence, that is bogus - all they talk about is replacing British democracy with Brussels bureaucracy. We stand for real independence and restoring local democracy."

The party is putting forward a total of 36 candidates, with at least four in each region in the coming election. It is also fielding local-council candidates.

Mr Campbell Bannerman, who is also lead candidate for the Highlands and Islands, suggested the country should be taken out of Europe and the constitution restructured.

All 129 MSPs would be sacked and the Scottish Parliament would be represented by the present Scottish MPs, who would meet once a month for a week. There would also be an English Parliament, Welsh national council and Northern Irish Parliament meeting for a week each month to discuss issues of importance to their countries. The rest of the month, regions would work together for the UK.

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Mr Bannerman said UKIP would cut council tax by 40 per cent and replace VAT with a local sales tax. Councils would be given more powers to raise their own money and local referendums would be held on any major issue. Chief police officers and headteachers would also be given more powers and publicans would decide on whether to enforce a smoking ban in their premises.

Mr Campbell Bannerman said it was "time" for UKIP in Scotland and insisted there was no contradiction in trying to get seats in the Scottish Parliament when the party would sack all MSPs.