As I See It: The government should set aside its worthy aims and objectives and give us a proper plan of action, writes TERRY MURDEN
First came the rescue plan, all £2.3 billion of it. Now we have a recovery plan, the Scottish government’s response to the Higgins report. It covers everything from skills development to support for the Third Sector. It promises to get us back on the road to growth. Unless, of course, the virus stubbornly refuses to go away, in which case we will have to revert to the rescue plan, topped up with more cash from Westminster to save more firms and jobs from falling over the cliff.
So far, so administrative. We now have a 77-page dossier of recommendations from former banker Benny Higgins’ Action Group on Economic Recovery and a response from the government which almost matches it (71 pages).
Both claim to be “Action Plans”, though I described the AGER report, published at the end of June, as more of a wish list, a sentiment subsequently echoed by Sir Tom Hunter. A number of economists from St Andrews, Inverness and the Fraser of Allander Institute were even less complimentary, one saying it was “poor” and a missed opportunity. That last comment could well apply to the government’s response.
To be fair, it is very thorough. As stated above, it covers just about every aspect of the economy. Trouble is, there is a lot of the usual bluster about “sustainability”, “engagement” and “collaboration”. There are commitments to pursue training, invest in digital, forestry, aquaculture, and tackle carbon emissions. But not much that can be achieved over the next three to six months which is what business really needs.
Among the more practical pledges are greater access to procurement of public services for small firms, and support for hydrogen projects backed by a £62m Energy Transition Fund initiative. But the procurement pledge is just improving an existing process and the intention to publish a Hydrogen Policy Statement & Action Plan was scheduled before the pandemic.
The same could be said for a large chunk of Economy Secretary Fiona Hyslop’s report which effectively mimics existing government policy: on planning, on renewables, setting up a Scottish National Investment Bank, investing in City Region deals…
Even in the current emergency no one would sensibly expect the government to tear up its economic policy and start again. However, what we now have is mainly some tweaking of current policy around the Higgins’ recommendations, while providing nothing much that is new and original that some felt the Higgins report also lacked.
One issue he did pick up on was a failure of politicians to properly engage with business, something that government adviser and engineering tycoon Jim McColl has also mentioned in recent weeks. The government’s response therefore includes a commitment to “work with business bodies to agree a new compact with and for business”. It adds that it will “take steps to change our culture through inward and outward secondments from business.”
‘We simply do not have the luxury of waiting 10 or 20 years for Scotland to become a fully-functioning carbon-free economy. Practical action is required. Now.’
If this comes about it might be one of the more beneficial changes, though only if these secondments represent an opportunity for input into shaping Holyrood’s understanding of business and not just another series of consultative engagements where business is told what to expect.
There is also a commitment to shift the focus of Scottish Enterprise to a more “bespoke, regionally-focussed approach”, which suggests an acknowledgment that it has become detached from local business areas. There is no detail here about what this will mean in practice.
All of this, of course, is preparation for tomorrow. It represents a long-term set of objectives towards transforming the skills base, digitising the workplace and building an economy on fairness and wellbeing. Where Ms Hyslop’s report falls short is in detailing practical short-term measures that could be implemented more immediately to deal with an escalating emergency.
Businesses need action over the next few weeks, not decades. We simply do not have the luxury of waiting 10 or 20 years for Scotland to become a fully-functioning carbon-free economy. Practical action is required. Now.
So here are 10 measures that could be actioned immediately:
- Demand action from the PM to get buses built: Press the Prime Minister to fulfil his pledge in February to build 4,000 eco-buses. This would help prevent hundreds of potential job losses at Alexander Dennis in Falkirk.
- Eradicate late payments: Push through legislation to end the scourge of late payments that cause many small firms to collapse. Ensure it is in place by the end of the year.
- Help freelancers: Use any unallocated funds from the job support programmes to help those businesses, such as freelancers, who continue to feel they have been forgotten.
- Offer free parking and more park and ride facilities: Scrap car parking charges for at least part of the day in every town and city to entice shoppers. Public transport and cycling doesn’t work for everyone or in every circumstance.
- Organise and fund outdoor food and craft markets: Turn wide streets and squares into controlled market zones to help micro-businesses and food producers and provide visitors with an alternative destination.
- Smarten up towns and cities: Fix the roads, clean up graffiti and litter, and carry out essential repairs to civic amenities: Too many roads are in a shocking state. They are a danger to motorists and cyclists and present a poor impression to visitors. There is an air of negligence around our towns and cities and marketing urban areas that are falling apart is a waste of money. Tackling this would create jobs. If it means taking these responsibilities from local authorities and setting up a national agency to do the work, then do it.
- Cut higher rates of income tax: Scotland is not currently competitive for high earners, many of whom are the thinkers, inventors and investors who help drive jobs and wealth. This would not solve any immediate problems, but it would help stimulate spending and send out an immediate and positive message to the rest of the world that Scotland supports aspiration and ambition.
- Introduce tax relief and more flexible use rules for commercial property: Landlords need tenants to replace retailers that are closing down. Towns and cities need people and people need homes and workshops. Create new communities around home-based and artisan craft workers. More flexibility would put vacant space to better use.
- Stop re-inventing policy: In its quest “to be different” the Scottish Government is re-shaping Westminster policies that can be taken off-the-shelf and put directly into action. Even the support packages are revised, their funding altered and given a new name. Small firms in Dundee have the same needs as those in Dorchester. Needless politicking and added bureaucracy simply cause confusion and has meant Scottish firms getting support later than firms in England.
- Commit to completing unfinished projects: There are at least a dozen key projects, such as the CalMac ferries and various road schemes, that are shovel ready. Let’s get people working on them.