John McLellan: Nicola's Christmas gifts come at a price
It was Christmas Day at the SNP conference as First Minister Nicola Sturgeon revealed the presents she'd brought for her increasingly restless membership as the second independence referendum fades over the horizon.
An extra £420 million for childcare, free sanitary products, a tourism fund, the scrapping of the public sector pay cap, and a government-owned not-for-profit energy company; but just like Christmas Day, the SECC jamboree was not the time for discussing how it is all going to be paid for.
The equivalent of the January credit card bill will be opened on December 17 when Finance Secretary Derek Mackay reveals his budget, and every taxpayer will be responsible for the repayments.
The £6m tourism pot for remote areas might be covered by a new tourism tax, but as for the rest of it, income tax, council tax and business rates are the most obvious sources, and as the SNP tries to head off the Corbyn surge by out-lefting the lefties, higher-rate income tax-payers can expect to get clobbered. Whether Mackay raises as much as he expects remains to be seen, given the Land and Buildings Transaction Tax which was designed to whack the well-off has raised close to £100m less than predicted since its introduction in 2015.
Mackay also has to decide what to do about non-domestic rates and the recommendations of the Barclay review, which is still out to consultation. But the word is he favours full implementation of some of the more controversial proposals such as forcing council arms-length charitable leisure trusts to pay full rates.
It now seems almost certain that private schools will be hit, which would suit a new further-left agenda, however short-sighted and spiteful it may be. But it would be utterly perverse if, as is now expected, he plunders local leisure organisations and their users.
Edinburgh Leisure is a not-for-profit charity and its only income is a council management fee (which is taxpayers’ money, remember) and customer charges. As I have written before, higher rates will inevitably mean higher prices so every swimmer, every gym-goer, every youth football club will have to stump up. It’s very hard to see the sense in this if the Scottish Government is serious about ensuring as many people as possible embrace healthier lifestyles by keeping facilities enjoyed by the less well-off affordable.
Unfortunately, Mackay has been given encouragement by the outgoing head of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, Martin Sime, who said last month that organisations like Edinburgh Leisure “undermine the whole concept of what it means to be a charity in 21st century Scotland”.
Edinburgh Leisure’s chief executive, June Peebles, was understandably furious and accused Sime of making a “cynical and derogatory judgment” on charities such as hers.
“Our charitable purpose is to create opportunities for people in Edinburgh to lead active, healthy lives,” she wrote in a stinging riposte. “Last year we enabled around 5,200 people affected by health conditions, poverty, inequalities and disabilities, to get active and improved their health and wellbeing,” she said. “Physical activity is a force for good, the work that we do at Edinburgh Leisure has a positive impact on the collective health and wellbeing of the city.”
And Barclay, Sime and Mackay are determined to raise tax on this because it would be fairer? Heaven help us.
Guards to blame for block on bikes
With impressive new bike racks at their stations, ScotRail and Network Rail are doing their bit to encourage cycling. “Combining a bike ride with train travel is a brilliant way to see the country – or just to get about town,” says the ScotRail website, and as a result the racks are always full.
Of course that might be because the warm welcome doesn’t always extend to the trains themselves, as I found last Friday when two jobsworth guards in succession prevented me from boarding Stirling services at Haymarket because there were already two bikes on the carriage racks.
The racks can easily take three bikes without inconveniencing anyone, and most guards take a relaxed view, but not these two. “Nothing I can do about it,” they both said independently.
With no guarantee I’d be allowed on at the third attempt I had no choice but to cycle home and jump in the car, and arrived at the class I was taking at Stirling University over an hour late.
But checking with ScotRail, there has been no rigid, pain-of-death instruction to guards to limit each rack to two bikes, and if more than two can be accommodated safely then it shouldn’t be a problem.
The website advises booking on the busiest lines and warns about lack of space on commuter services, but having promoted cycling ScotRail needs to ensure it can meet the demand it has helped create. Or at least make sure the bolshie guards get the memo.
Dog walking licences lack real bite
A First World issue it may be, and thankfully problems with commercial dog walkers such as the recent attack on a chicken coop on Ulster Crescent at the back of Holyrood Park are rare.
They provide a very good service for elderly and infirm people who can no longer exercise their pets, but they also meet a growing demand from people who live alone and are out at work all day but who want the companionship of a dog nonetheless.
The Council’s licensing system is a good idea in principle, but as we in journalism have often been reminded, regulation with no teeth is no regulation at all.
Gone in the blink of an eye
Now you see it, now you don’t. Last week Edinburgh Council leader Adam McVey stated (not claimed) that Edinburgh Conservative councillors were “wearing their prejudices on their sleeves, whether it is ageism, sexism or homophobia”, which in a group with several proudly gay members as well as the youngest councillor was news to us.
But no sooner had the claim appeared in a website interview than it disappeared. Not that any of us will sue, but perhaps someone pointed out to Councillor McVey and the ex-lawyer who runs the site that they may have just defamed 18 people.
Councillor McVey is unlikely to explain, but as he made a sexually-charged remark in a council debate and an SNP councillor recently asked one of my female colleagues if her husband had drafted her motion, maybe he should look a little closer to home.
Development in demand
After long delay since planning permission was granted in 2014, the controversial Craighouse development is now being publicly marketed by its new owners Quartermile, with prices starting at £520,000 for a two-bedroom flat and going up to £1.1 million for a townhouse. But potential buyers will find several properties in the new block have already been reserved, including all the two-bed flats at one end, which suggests predictable interest from investors. Given changes at Edinburgh Council, this may well be the last of such plans to get the go-ahead for some time, so despite the prices demand might be high.