John McLellan: Dust not settled yet

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The referendum stoor might be settling now but it will be kicked up again before the end of the year as the plans for devolving power to Scotland begin to emerge.

Is handing all income tax to the Scottish Parliament really a Tory trap as former prime minster Gordon Brown put it this week?

Only if you believe it is simply a device to limit the influence of ­Scottish MPs, not a means to make Holyrood properly accountable for its decisions.

But you don’t have to be a political expert to understand the reluctance of senior UK Labour figures to follow their old leader’s lead in condemning “English votes for English laws” because, surprise surprise, English people might quite like the idea.

And as much as Labour might oppose the more extensive transfer of power both the Tories and Lib Dems propose, the reality is if Labour goes into the general election promising to hold back devolution the results could be disastrous; yesterday, pollsters YouGov estimated Labour could lose 26 Scottish seats.

Caught between the two fronts of an invigorated SNP attacking in the west while fighting the other parties’ promises for Holyrood – with an ­unattractive leader to boot – the Labour campaign trail will be long and hard. No wonder Alistair Darling’s bag carrier, Catherine McLeod, was so scathing about Mr Brown in yesterday’s Herald.

If this is a trap for Labour, it is one they set themselves in 1997 by constructing a parliament with very little responsibility for the money it spent, in the belief 129 MSPs tacked on to the old Scottish Office would settle the Home Rule question once and for all.

Mr Brown tightened the trap’s springs himself, by first ensuring Jack McConnell’s administration was kept on a short and uninspiring lead and then famously overruling Wendy Alexander’s defiant “Bring it on” referendum call to the new SNP government in 2007.

There are no signs the SNP will not enter devolution talks in good faith, as leader-elect Nicola Sturgeon pledged, and even if under protest, they are unlikely to reject the eventual recommendations on the basis of taking another stride towards the goal of independence.

New powers for Holyrood will arrive, but amidst the inevitable wrangling about what they should be, there will be very little debate about the power Holyrood should be devolving to Scotland’s regions and communities. After all the talk of the Scottish public being more politically engaged and enlightened than ever before, see how long it lasts when it comes to ­discussing local government reform. It’s a political snooze button.

Yet it’s never been more crucial, as councils continue to wrestle with ­massive budget headaches in the next few years. Edinburgh must save £22 million next year to square its projected income of £940m with original plans to spend £962m.

This year’s books balanced at £950m in and out, but the £10m income drop is down to a cut in the cash controlled by the Scottish Government, either the direct grant or business rates. Edinburgh’s council tax revenue is actually projected to rise from £206m to £209m but the amount controlled centrally will fall from £744m to £731m.

And it gets worse, because the Scottish Government and business rates contribution is set to decline to £724m by 2017-18 while inflation, interest and wage settlements will force expenditure up to more than £1 billion if unchecked.

The impact on services is only lessened by a projected rise in council tax revenue to £219m which will be driven by an expanded working population living in more homes.

Is it any wonder the economic development department is keen on housing developments?

Pushing big housing projects out to Midlothian and West Lothian might keep the Cockburn Association happy, but it also puts a smile on the faces of finance chiefs in satellite administrations who gain the benefit.

So what’s to be done? As the referendum proved, and the general election looks set to confirm, the key is the economy and creating sustainable jobs. Like anywhere, we need more private sector companies creating more jobs, generating new incomes, increasing demand for goods and services and all the while generating more tax revenues to pay for public services. And that means competing for them.

As a rule, governments don’t ­create jobs which generate wealth, but they are good at creating work which spends it, which is fine as long as the work creates conditions in which wealth can grow.

Let’s start with the positives. By accident and design Scottish Government action this year has helped ­produce international attention unprecedented for a country this size and prolonged uncertainty and ­instability has been avoided.

The Festivals maintained their pre-eminence on the international cultural calendar while the Commonwealth Games and the Ryder Cup proved Scotland could put on a different kind of globally significant show. The referendum was obviously not designed to be an international marketing exercise but that’s what it became. Thousands of foreign journalists and broadcasters have been here all year, sending out a message that Scotland can compete, create and perform but also have the most passionate and fractious argument about its future without descending into violence.

Demonstrating rock-solid stability may prove to be the best by-product of it all. And the weather wasn’t bad either. We now have a platform for expansion which if channelled correctly can help all administrations deal with the looming problems.

The flip side of central government intervention is interference. Why, for instance, should companies be effectively bribed with grant money to go where they don’t really want to be, only for them to shut up shop when the tap is turned off?

Although Scotland’s city regions are expected to be in the vanguard of ­economic development, while delivering vital services to the vast majority of the population, they are not in ­control of their own economies.

That power lies almost exclusively with the Scottish Government and its expensive agencies such as Scottish Enterprise and Scottish Development International.

Edinburgh does have an economic development department, but with an annual budget of £12m, about to be cut by £600,000, its impact in ­competitive global markets is limited to say the least.

Meanwhile, making decisions on its behalf is Glasgow-based Scottish Enterprise with a budget of £336m, an organisation which devoted just four paragraphs to cities and regions in its 27-page draft budget for 2014-15, before swiftly moving on to an explanation of why rural Scotland was vital for tourism and renewables.

It is not that Scottish Enterprise and the other agencies do not do good work, it is a question of balance and agility.

The post-referendum debate south of the Border has centred on English devolution and whether English regions should be created with similar powers to the Scottish Parliament in a new, evened-out federal Britain.

Recreating pre-Mediaeval territories like Wessex and Mercia is gaining some romantically-driven traction. But this ignores two things. First, most English people don’t want the rebirth of neo-Arthurian kingdoms, they just want Westminster to do better by them, and second, the English city regions aren’t hanging around and have already reorganised themselves to compete in world markets.

Leeds is at the heart of a region which has just struck a £1 billion deal with the UK Government to drive forward its own expansion plan based on financial services, life sciences, low-carbon industries and creatives. Sound familiar?

Nip along the M62 to Manchester where local authorities have combined to make sure the region punches well above its weight, with the Salford Media City a symbol of forward thinking regeneration. But Leeds and Manchester haven’t had anything like the opportunity which has presented itself in Scotland this year.

What could Edinburgh achieve if it was allowed to compete on its own terms, with a targeted approach to financial services, information technology and life sciences? Or Aberdeen on energy, complex exploration and renewables? Why should our city regions have to twiddle their thumbs while Scottish Enterprise decides its priorities, ­consults with government, consults with local authorities and eventually makes a decision? Let cities get on with the job.


1: New Waverley (Caltongate)

2: Dewar Place (Exchange district)

3: Donaldson’s College

4: Fountain-bridge

5: Haymarket

6: India Buildings, Victoria Street

7: King’s Stables Road

8: Quartermile

9: Old Royal High School

10: St Andrew Square

11: St James Centre

12: Shrub Place


Against a backdrop of diminishing resources, is it any wonder Edinburgh City Council has been quick off the mark to use the now bulging electoral register to trace those with outstanding council tax bills?

If £50 million council tax arrears and £70m poll tax debts were paid in full, it would solve the coming budget problems at a stroke.

Given it was abolished over 20 years ago, tracking poll tax defaulters won’t be easy, even if Alex Salmond hadn’t announced a ban on reclaiming the outstanding amounts through the electoral register.

But council tax is a different proposition and he’s wisely left that alone. I suspect very few people who obediently cough up every year will be too worried about talk of democratic deficit if the council catches up with people who avoid paying their share for the services they receive.

Local school not good enough? Bins not emptied? Roads not fit to drive on? That’s presumably someone else’s problem.

Green leader Patrick Harvie feels such people are being punished for signing up to vote, so I’ll look forward to his budgets if he ever gets in power and we all stop paying taxes we don’t like. Anyone ever enjoyed paying tax?

No pub on brewery site?

Down in Fountainbridge you don’t have to go too far to get a drink, but some Boroughmuir High School parents and staff are objecting to a student bar in the new Napier University accommodation complex nearby.

The problem it seems is that the bar will be near the new school and there are fears the Sixth Formers will spill out of their classes and over the road to down a couple of lagers.

That doesn’t give the Boroughmuir pupils much credit, but the simple solution is to limit the alcohol licence to 5pm and allow the bar to operate as a café before then.

And in the unlikely event that some 6th Formers are gagging for a beer after classes, they have the option of nipping along to the Cargo bar along the canal.

New flats and student halls mean the district is growing rapidly and it’s come to something if you can’t build a pub on the site of a brewery.