‘Five Years, that’s all we’ve got’: the Scottish election and challenges for the new Parliament
by Ken Gibb
Earlier this month, the Additional Member System reasserted itself and ended majority government (just). The SNP continue in power but as a minority administration (just). One consequence expected from this turn of events is that there will inevitably now be more focus on the committees and a wider distribution across the parties of committee chairs. Will we see more scrutiny and more effective committee work as a result (e.g. of the coming spending review)? Budget-making and financial bills also take on a new heightened aspect now that their passing through Parliament is less straightforward.
The major substantive change for the new Parliament is of course how they use the new powers. Much of the election debate focused on the new fiscal powers and how progressive or otherwise any changes to income tax should be (and party proposals for local tax reform – see below). Much less was said about the coming welfare reforms which will devolve over many non-working age benefits as well as powers to amend the housing cost elements of universal credit. This is a massive step change for Scotland, perhaps the biggest single administrative challenge since 1999 (and that is even before contemplating policy change like benefit top-ups). It is not a particularly exciting thing to advocate but better done well than quickly.
Two interwoven constitutional matters remain very close to the surface. Next month is the European referendum and of course Scotland remains politically defined by the dualism of the 2014 referendum – what David Torrance and others have called the ‘Ulsterisation’ of Scottish politics between nationalism and unionism. As in Northern Ireland this seems currently to most benefit the two parties most associated with these positions (in Scotland, the SNP and the Conservatives), which again raises questions for the positioning of the diminished Scottish Labour party. While there is a small majority in favour of indepdendence in the Parliament, the appetite for a second vote will of course be driven by political calculation and risk. This could well be altered should the ‘material change’ of a vote to leave the EU occur while Scotland votes to stay.
There are two other substantive issues that will feature in the new Parliament. First, while the SNP came up with a remarkably modest set of proposals to reform local taxes that even failed to promise a general revaluation (not that dissimilar as a set of proposals from those of the Conservatives), the rest of the Parliament offered more radical property-based reforms. This may be enough to neuter the call for more comprehensive tax reform (which would be disappointing and a lost opportunity) but alongside it, there is clearly interest in local government reform more broadly.
These two things cannot and should not be separated, as is equally true of the need to situate council tax reform in terms of wider amendment of local government finance as a system. Austerity rolls on and will impact hard on local government and its services in years to come. My colleagues Annette Hastings and Nick Bailey have shown clearly in work carried out with Heriot Watt University for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that earlier spending cuts in England were often ‘pro-rich’ at the expense of the most disadvantaged. The Scottish Government and local authorities must actively minimize this possible outcome in Scotland in the years ahead.
Second, the SNP have pledged a target of 50,000 social and affordable homes over the life of the new parliament. The significant financial commitment is welcome but the attainment of 70% social housing within this total and the willingness and ability of non-profit providers to develop, the limits to borrowing by councils and the necessary step change in new supply required by private house builders to support affordable housing – raise major questions of implementation. The 30,000 target was achieved in the last Parliament but this is much more ambitious and takes place in a context where the enabling conditions to facilitate the levels of new supply are still very challenging. This is all at a time when the generally accepted levels of national housing need is 12,000 not 10,000 per annum and worrying evidence is emerging from our cities of rising street and repeat homelessness.
While I don’t actually feel as apocalyptic as the mood of David Bowie’s 1972 song in the title of this post – there are big challenges ahead and as always, governments, particularly devolved ones, are also at the mercy of larger external shocks, not least at the macroeconomic level. Nonetheless in terms of public policy reform and spending priorities, even in a context of austerity, the new government has considerable choice over how it allocates its funds, an opportunity set undoubtedly widened by the Scotland Act. There are real possibilities as well as constraints.