Friday, 11 April 2008

Plain spite from London Labour over future plans

Published: 11 April, 2008
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

As the new tax year begins a range of positive improvements kick in. They passed through Parliament under the minority SNP Government with the help of various parties. The Small Business Bonus is a good example. Incredibly, Labour sees all small businesses as the class enemy. Although they abstained on the budget it was the Tories who saw that small businesses in many parts of Scotland need the boost the SNP first envisaged for the shops and firms that are the backbone of places like Caithness. Labour supported the single survey scheme that helps cut out unnecessary expense for home buyers each time they apply to buy a house. The LibDems and the Greens have supported various SNP Government measures like abolition of the Graduate Endowment.

I’ve often argued that every community needs to feel included for the nation to flourish. That’s why at the start of April this year there are good reasons to cheer the results of the first year of this government. It is saving people money in their everyday lives. For example, prescription charges are reduced to £5, moving to full abolition by 2011. The council tax freeze across Scotland benefits many of us. The end of the £2,289 graduate endowment benefits students who graduated last year and all currently in full time degree courses. 150,000 small businesses around Scotland are to benefit from the Small Business Bonus. Inflation related increases help pay for free nursing and personal care for older people and this benefits over 9,000 people. Also the offer of immunisation for cervical cancer is now available to all teenage girls.

All have been achieved in one year of this SNP Government showing a determined level of delivery and ambition for Scotland. But New Labour in London is not pleased. The latest spat over a Treasury veto on SNP plans for a fair local income tax is just plain spite. How dare we plan a fairer future for Scots without their say so? What if London wished to change the local taxes? They would never give a thought to what Scots wanted. So the SNP has much to aim to deliver in the coming years to put Scotland on an equal footing with our neighbours.

MEANWHILE London bumbles on. Our whisky industry pays the price of misguided untargeted budget increases. I’m so glad that Wendy Alexander’s husband Prof. Brian Ashcroft has broken ranks and added his voice to underline the fact that the Chancellor’s whisky duty hike had nothing to do with tackling binge drinking and everything to do with propping up the UK’s failing finances. It exposes the festering divisions over the UK Government’s astonishing attack on one of Scotland’s vital industries which we know is vital to the North economy sending untold millions to the London treasury that could be much better spent in job creation and investment here.

MY COLLEAGUE Kenneth Gibson MSP, no relation, has drawn MSPs attention to the betrayal of the low paid by the abolition of the 10% tax rate, announced by the Prime Minister in his last Budget as Chancellor of the Exchequer and implemented from April 2008. This is happening at a time when the gap between rich and poor has reached levels not seen for more than 40 years with social mobility in the United Kingdom among the lowest of any developed country.

It hits all those earning less than £17,000 per annum, effectively increasing the amount of income tax that they must pay. Those on low pay lose the benefit of the 10% lower rate and do not have enough income chargeable at the 22% rate to benefit from the cut to 20%. Because the wage gap between Scotland and England is over £2,000 there are more lower-paid workers in Scotland, therefore hard-working Scots will be heavily penalised by this measure. According to figures published by Deloitte, in 22 Scottish Westminster parliamentary constituencies more than 50% of workers will be worse off, which means voters in Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross are deeply affected.

I STARTED this column in a mood of optimism; I want to remain on track. I’ll mention once again a key ingredient that can make the Far North a centre of activity, not the end of the line. Last week, in this slot, Jamie Stone was praising the foresight of the early rail developers. Alas our hopes for a modern railway have been parked in a siding of dashed expectations from the Tory rejection of 1986 to this day.

However I have received full backing from all parties on the Transport Infrastructure and Climate Change committee for seeing a proper study of the Far North Line’s potential. An assiduous reader of the committee minutes will know that Stewart Stevenson, the Transport minister, has been advised that according to the Halcrow report for HIE in 2006 there is far too low a benefit cost ratio to back further study.

There will come a time to list the hidden forces who have written off the North Highlands, but since 2006 many more options for our economy have opened up. Firstly, the Orkney hub as a major transhipment port is included in the Strategic National Transport Projects list. Secondly First Minister Alex Salmond has underlined the tidal and wave power potential of the Pentland Firth in his relaunch of the Saltire Prize during Scotland Week in the USA. Thirdly many more supermarkets and national chains are set up in Caithness. Their supplies should arrive by train to reduce wear and tear on the A9. Also the tourism potential of Caithness and Orkney, not to mention accessibility for civil service relocation, should all back a strategic reappraisal of the gross underinvestment in the Far North Line.

These are grounds enough for HiTrans to make amends – for the Transport Minister to demand more rigorous examination of our case. Never mind driving a train, let’s win the big prize of driving to a prosperous, sustainable county. Are we all aboard?

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