Rail link axed as Scottish Government's budget cuts bite

THE Glasgow airport rail link, social housing and economic development have become the first major casualties of the Scottish Government's spending cuts.

The axing of the 115 million rail link was the most high-profile of a raft of cuts announced by finance secretary John Swinney yesterday in the draft budget for 2010-11.

Others included a proposal to cut social housing spending by 180m, while Scottish Enterprise has been allocated 77m less than last year.

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Mr Swinney told MSPs that ministers faced "difficult" choices" about where to cut planned spending this year. But he went on: "I have been determined to act in a way that protects jobs, supports families and communities and keeps our investment in skills, innovation and our industries for the future."

Read Tom Peterkin's analysis here

However, opponents claimed that the loss of the airport link alone would cost 1,300 jobs and was bad news for the economy.

And sources at Glasgow City Council warned it could jeopardise the 2014 Commonwealth Games, as the project was part of the Games contract.

Other cuts included 9m from teacher-training and 14m from central government, including a 5m, or 54 per cent, reduction in its advertising budget.

Support for tourism is decreasing by 5m to 44m, even though attracting visitors to Scotland was one of the SNP's key elements of economic recovery.

Mr Swinney claimed the budget was down in real terms by 268m, or 0.9 per cent, on last year's, following a 500m reduction in what was expected from the UK government.

But Labour MSPs claimed that it was the finance secretary's overcommitment of 350m in spending that had caused the real headache.

They accused Mr Swinney of sacrificing economic recovery to protect SNP pet projects, citing increased funding for international relations, up 25 per cent to 15m, and international aid, up 50 per cent to 9m, as well as an allocation of 1m for the so-called National Conversation on independence and an extra 2m for Gaelic services, taking their funding to 21m.

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Mr Swinney insisted that he intended to push through with 70m for the council tax freeze, in the face of concerted attempts by Labour and the Liberal Democrats yesterday to have it axed.

The finance secretary received applause from his fellow SNP MSPs when he said he would continue with 40m funding to make all prescriptions free.

And the controversial Scottish Futures Trust, created to fund public projects but still not properly up and running, is to have its funding almost doubled, from 3.1m to 5.9m.

Mr Swinney said he was trying to protect front-line services, promising health would not lose out from the 129m loss in capital funding that was a a result, under the Barnett formula, of NHS reductions in England.

He said the NHS revenue budget was going up 2.4 per cent to 11.3 billion, while police spending would rise 6m to 266m. There was also 27m more for colleges and universities, taking their funding to 277m. New NHS money included an extra 30m set aside to prepare for a flu pandemic.

The finance secretary claimed the building of social housing was under threat, as the Treasury had refused to bring forward capital money from future years to help with economic recovery.

And he said there were too many teachers in the system, which was why the teacher-training budget had been slashed. However, this raised questions about his party's commitment to reducing class sizes.

Mr Swinney acknowledged it was a draft budget that was open for negotiation, while the opponents claimed it was a disaster for the economy.

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Labour's finance spokesman, Andy Kerr, said: "The SNP are trying to make Scotland pay the price for Alex Salmond's dodgy accounting.

"I accept that, just like any government, the SNP have to set their priorities, but they are making bad choices. It is obscene that investment projects are being cancelled and services cut while they are spending nearly 1m on the 'National Conversation'."

Liberal Democrats' finance spokesman, Jeremy Purvis, said: "This should be a budget that protects front-line local services and stops a lost generation of young people ending up on the scrapheap. Instead, we get SNP spin, a refusal to look at the changes we need, and a host of expensive SNP vanity projects."

The Tories claimed political divisions over the council tax freeze showed the shape of the election fights to come.

"The battle lines are already being drawn in this budget, between those parties that want tax rises and those who want to ease the burden on hard-working families," said Conservative finance spokesman Derek Brownlee, whose party wants a council tax reduction for many people.

And indicating that his party, is ready for a third year running, to back Mr Swinney and the SNP government, he said the loss of the Glasgow airport rail link was the result of Labour's policies in Westminster.

"The Glasgow airport rail link is another casualty of Labour's cuts, and it won't be the last, given the mess the public finances are in. We cannot avoid reductions in spending, but we can try to ensure their impact is minimised," he said.

Crucially, the SNP hopes to have the independent Lothians MSP Margo MacDonald on their side, with spending for Edinburgh protected and the capital not being included in the social housing budget cuts. It is also getting an extra 2.7 per cent for the NHS.

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The cancellation of the airport rail link provoked outrage in Scotland's biggest city. A spokesman for the city council described the project's loss as "a dagger into the heart of Glasgow".

However, despite the local authority's feats, the Commonwealth Games Federation said that, even though it was disappointed by the loss of the project which was part of the 2014 Games contract, the loss was "not insurmountable."

Speaker finds 'much to learn' at Holyrood

WESTMINSTER could learn a lot from its Scottish counterpart, the Speaker of the House of Commons admitted yesterday.

John Bercow, on his first visit to the Scottish Parliament in his new role, praised the "progressive" nature of Holyrood.

He said elements such as the petitions system, which lets the public lobby parliament, may be adopted at Westminster.

Mr Bercow said: "I don't think you can change the atmosphere or culture of the House of Commons overnight, but what I can say is I respect the system here.

"I also think there are many progressive things about the Scottish Parliament beyond the atmosphere in the chamber."

He praised its committee system for openness, as minutes are "very quickly" posted online.

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He added: "You have a facility to have petitions in this parliament, which we may well want to follow in our parliament, so I think there is lot we can learn from you. And in the short term I would like to encourage – which your presiding officer oversaw so successfully today – quicker progress at question time: short questions and short answers."

Mr Bercow also joked with second-year pupils from Edinburgh's Leith Academy about the rowdiness of Westminster question times.

He said: "Of the schools I've spoken to so far I've found, pupils are very much more restrained and better behaved than sometimes is the case in parliament."

Mr Bercow was on a fact-finding mission and held talks with counterpart Alex Fergusson.