We need to see off the SNP’s new rural tax

The Scottish Government is planning a multi million pound money grab from rural Scotland – this time by charging for work undertaken by local councils on big wind farm applications.

It is something I raised in the Scottish Borders Council Chamber last Thursday. The move is hidden in proposals to change the fees charged for major planning applications, and could remove millions of pounds from the Borders and elsewhere. Officials have calculated that the net cost to the Borders over the last 5 years would have been about £1.25m if these measures had been in place.

The new measures would divert more than a hundred thousand pounds for every application away from the Borders and into Scottish Government coffers. This is a quite unjustified money grab when most of the work on these big applications is done by the local council.

Currently the fees charged for ‘section 36’ planning applications – a category of major projects that covers larger wind farms – are capped at £18,000, of which £12,000 goes to the local authority – an effective subsidy for wind farms since these amounts do not cover the substantial amount of work that goes into assessing the applications. The Scottish Government is planning to increase fees to £190,000, but will keep the  £12,000 cap on the portion going to the local council, even though council does the bulk of the work.

Scottish Borders Council has already responded to the proposal calling it “unreasonable, unfair and ill-judged”.

My concerns were raised in the media this week, but we need to continue to press the SNP to abandoned what is in effect a new tax on rural Scotland.

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The Growth Commission tries to hide the Big Lie with some small truths

IN the political drama House of Cards, the scheming Vice President played by Kevin Spacey explains how to conceal a big lie by telling a partial truth. This is the tactic used by the SNP’s Sustainable Growth Commission report.

It admits to some of the economic truths of independence – that Scotland’s deficit will be large, that oil won’t cover it, and that the banks will flee south with ‘sterlingisation’ followed by a new currency.

The report’s author, Andrew Wilson, clearly hopes that this partial candour, mixed with some specious assumptions about future growth, will hoodwink the middle class Scots who rejected independence last time.

In doing so he hides the brutal realities of a newly independent Scotland. In fact, anyone who claims that Brexit is economically damaging but independence isn’t is peddling dishonesty because the arguments are analogous. Brexit raises berries to trade, but independence does so many times more. Scotland is a net contributor to the EU and so can expect modest savings from Brexit. But we are massive financial beneficiaries from the UK and so would face a huge hole in our public finances on independence.

It is on this matter that the SNP’s opponents must surely focus now.

At the time of the 2014 referendum we were at the peak of an oil price boom, and so it looked briefly as if Scotland was more or less in balance. Salmond timed it well in that respect. Better Together therefore focussed on the currency issue, creating a sense of uncertainly over the monetary mess that would arise from Salmond’s plans. Wilson’s currency plans are just as problematic as before, but the nationalists can hope to obscure its weaknesses behind the technical complexities of monetary economics.

But they are fighting the wrong battle. This time it must be all about the deficit and the Union Dividend.

The Tories have already calculated that the Growth Commission implies nearly £30 billion less money for Scotland over the next decade. And that is obviously a highly optimistic gloss on the real impact of losing the £8bn-a-year Union dividend, which, as business group SBUK has pointed out, is a ‘recipe for recession’ that would greatly exacerbate the fiscal problem.

If I were an opposition party leader I would ask Nicola Sturgeon again and again if she agreed with the report that independence was worth £30bn of cuts to public services. This would force her either to repudiate the report or admit that she thought this was a price to pay to realise her nationalistic dreams.

There are already signs that Leonard, Davidson and Rennie are on to this. They need to stick to this trail and hound the SNP into confessing the Big Lie.

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Hunt is on for the best new Borders Building

This week sees the launch of this year’s Borders Building Design Awards.

The aim is to encourage top architectural design in the Borders, whether it’s traditional in style, modern or innovative. Different awards go to conversions, houses, non-residential buildings, and there is also an award for the best setting for a new building.

Quite apart from the aesthetic value of beautiful, well placed buildings, maintaining and enhancing our surroundings is of crucial economic importance the Borders. Our future prosperity relies on attracting skilled workers and investment,, and they’re not going to come here because of the big local market or the region’s communication links.

Instead, investors and people choose the Borders for two main reasons. It’s cheap and / or it’s a wonderful place to live. If we’re going to increase wages, productivity and average incomes (currently among the lowest in Scotland) we need to ensure that investment and relocation decisions are primarily for the latter reason rather than the former.

That means looking after our surroundings and a big part of that is ensuring the best possible design in new developments.

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Council Tax and the Borders Budget

Yesterday, Scottish Borders Council passed the administration’s budget for 2018/19 and I was happy to vote in favour. Of course, the ideal would have been lower council tax and even better targeted spending, but given the circumstances it was a good start by the new administration in very difficult circumstances.

The Council has been subjected to years of cuts by the SNP run Scottish Government. At the same time we are having to cope with the ongoing erosion of public services: an education system that is in decline relative both to other comparable OECD countries and the rest of the UK; health outcomes that are persistently below other parts of the UK and most of Europe. A police service that has been centralized and politicized. All of this despite the fact  that the Scottish Government is one of the most generously funded tiers of government in Europe (thanks to the broad shoulders of the UK taxpayer).

Meanwhile the economy in Scotland teeters on the brink of recession, performing worse again than the rest of the UK and other comparable countries, with businesses reluctant to invest under the shadow of continuing threats of a second independence referendum.

It’s fair to say that the nationalist government must be the most inept administration that Scotland has experienced since the 1970’s.

So our budget endeavoured to plug the gap left by the nationalists by prioritising roads, education, policing and care for the most vulnerable.

Unfortunately the administration felt it necessary to raise council tax by 3% to try to repair the damage done to council services in previous years. In other words the failures of the nationalist administration are having to be paid for by Borders council tax payers.

With the economy so fragile, to take £1.6 million out of the productive sector of the economy at this stage is highly risky, so this is not ideal from my point of view.

More tangibly, households in the Borders already have the lowest average incomes in Scotland. So we are asking hard-working people across our region – who often are scraping by and struggle to afford the essentials, let along the pleasures of life – to pay for this failure.

I’ve heard it said that the amounts taken in council tax are trivial. This point of view is utterly complacent because council tax is taken at the margins of people’s budgets. It may be a small proportion of total income, but it’s a big slice of whatever is left after the absolute essentials. It could be the Christmas budget for some, the heating or phone bills for others, the marginal difference between debt and modest savings for still more.

Also, as people have less to spend, this is money that will in turn be taken away from small businesses across the Borders  – the lifeblood of our communities. And while the council strives to help the most needy, often the best way to do that is to let people keep more of their own money and decide for themselves how to spend it. We should not raise taxes on Borders people lightly.

So over the next four years we are going to have to think radically about how to deliver the same quality of local services at better value for money for the citizens paying for them.

The good news is that the budget promises much more modest increases in council tax that could, with luck, stay in line with household incomes. The administration has committed itself to a ceiling of 1.5% council tax increase until the next election, so long as nationalists cuts do not exceed 2%. That’s something that is worthy of support.

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Playing with numbers SNP style

Glancing through the Scottish Government’s latest analysis of the impact of Brexit on Scotland (Scotland’s Place in Europe: People, Jobs and Investment) it’s difficult to believe that this has been produced by supposedly impartial civil servants.

The language is highly misleading, the calculations questionable and the assumptions make Mr Fantastic from the Fantastic 4 look as stretchy as me when I’m tying my shoelaces. Luckily it’s so implausible that it’ll do the nationalist cause more harm than good given their track record on these kinds of economic forecasts. Continue reading

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Will Scotland miss out on a UK productivity boost?

For years now Britain has relied on attracting workers from abroad to grow its economy. In other words we’ve been becoming bigger as a country but not much richer as individual citizens (on average). Businesses have preferred to hire more people rather than to invest in skills and machinery to boost output. Unemployment has stayed low and immigration high, but productivity has suffered. Could this all be about to change? In today’s Telegraph I suggest that better education in England and lower migration as a result of Brexit could lead to more investment and so higher output per worker. But this might not take place in Scotland. Continue reading

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Abroad – and back again

In 2013 we went to go and live in Brussels for a couple of years. Since we returned in 2015 I haven’t got round to blogging until now, though I’ve written a few articles in the media which are on this site. The new year seems a good time to start again, and there’s plenty of material as ever: Brexit, the nationalists’ relentless efforts to break up the country, and my own adventure as a Tory local councillor here in the Borders with, of all things, the ‘Planning and Environment’ portfolio to keep me busy.

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