On Yer Bike

“A society sufficiently sophisticated to produce the internal combustion engine has not had the sophistication to develop cheap and efficient public transport?’
‘Yes, boss… it’s true. There’s hardly any buses, the trains are hopelessly underfunded, and hence the entire population is stuck in traffic” –  Ben Elton, Gridlock

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This week’s column has been inspired by a couple of things. The first is Alistair Davidson’s excellent piece on Bella Caledonia talking about Glasgow’s quiet urban transport revolution. The second is my current gripe with South Lanarkshire’s own transport strategy which actively limits my ability to “do the right thing” when it comes to my own transport reform.
(Yes…if you read my article a few weeks ago about my attempts to upgrade my home’s heating system…this article is very much in the same vein).
I have a fairly simply goal that, if achieved, will tell me that the coming transport revolution has reached my corner of semi-rural Scotland. I want to be able to cycle to my nearest town and cycle back with my shopping instead of driving.

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Too Low. Too Slow. Too Late?

“It’s easy to think that as a result of the extinction of the dodo, we are now sadder and wiser, but there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that we are merely sadder and better informed.” – Douglas Adams

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This week has seen the latest round of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP27, this year in Egypt. Rather than being a celebration of the 27th anniversary of the success of COP1 in 1995 and the averting of the climate emergency, we shall instead see a round of talks similar to COP26 in Glasgow concluding in some promises that shuffle us closer to oblivion just a little slower than we would have otherwise.

COP21 in Paris in 2015 showed us what we need to do if we want to live in a world remotely resembling the one we’ve come to know. Global warming cannot now be averted entirely, we are decades too late for that and the impacts of our actions today will take decades more to play out in full, but we can limit the damage. Limiting global average temperature rise to less than 1.5C above our preindustrial average will mean that the damage is likely to not be too great and to be significantly easier to adapt to than otherwise. Paris also said that the absolute limit of +2.0C must not be breached else we shall face a world that is so different from today that it is unlikely that we will be able to adapt in full. Anything beyond +2.0C massively increases the risks of the world spiralling into uncontrollable feedback loops that are simply unprecedented in terms of anything we know about the history of this planet. The only events that have looked similar – massive volcanic events or asteroid impacts – have created layers of fossils of now extinct ecosystems for future palaeontologists to call “interesting”.

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How To Heat Scotland’s Homes

“Leaky pipes lead to puddles of despair.” – Anthony T. Hincks

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In December 2019, our oil boiler exploded. This was rather inconvenient as it was the week before Christmas, we had only moved into the house a couple of months prior and my parents-in-law were over visiting to see the new place for the first time. It was also bitterly cold and our only sources of heat were a hot water bottle, two hyperactive kittens and an old electric heater the previous owner had left forgotten in the shed – plugging it in was effective but sent the meter spinning so quickly that I’m pretty sure I could have rigged up a dynamo and used it to keep the water bottle warm. It was doubly annoying in that one of the first things we did when we moved in was to get the boiler serviced and that turned up no obvious problems.

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The UK’s Rotten Borders

“Regulatory compliance is critical to managing risk.” – Hendrith Vanlon Smith Jr

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The “spectre” of a controlled border between Scotland and England is looming again as Scotland discusses independence and the future shape of our country but we should be paying more attention to how the UK manages borders on behalf of Scotland – especially when it fails to do so.

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Burning Money

“When you want to know how things really work, study them when they’re coming apart.” – William Gibson

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Britain is heading into one of the worst winters of a generation. The rising cost of living combined with multiple crises from energy, food supplies and general government incompetence mean that we’re facing price rises, empty shelves and potentially the highest rents and mortgage burdens ever seen in this country (headline interest rates /might/ not quite reach the peaks of the early 90s but house prices are so much higher now than then and wages haven’t increased by nearly as much so a greater proportion of our wage will end up being devoured by our bank and/or landlord). Folk trying to buy a house over the winter, who are trying to renew a mortgage reaching the end of its fixed rate or who are renting from a landlord trying to do one of the above are particularly vulnerable to price shocks that could equal or exceed the energy crisis.

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Whose Land?

The land so much needed by men was tilled by these people, who were on the verge of starvation, so that the corn might be sold abroad and the owners of the land might buy themselves hats and canes, and carriages and bronzes, etc.” – Leo Tolstoy

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If you read the Scottish press last week, you might have seen some headlines promoting the spectacular success of transfers of land to community ownership over the devolution era. The amount of land now in community ownership in Scotland has “skyrocketed” in the past twenty-odd years. If you heard the Scottish Government’s own statements on the news, you’d be forgiven in thinking that the last round of land reform in 2016 was a huge success.

If you read the actual report, your enthusiasm might be more muted. The actual rate at which hectares of land have transferred to community ownership in Scotland has completely flatlined since the last round of land reform legislation in 2016 with over 99% of all community owned land being transferred before that act came into effect.

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Better For Who?

“If politicians don’t care about the electorate and lie to them, they can’t expect the electorate to care back and vote them in. An election must be more than a search for honesty in a snake pit.” – Stewart Stafford

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This month marked eight years since the Scottish Independence Referendum and it’s fair to say that they have not been a quiet eight years. Brexit, pandemic, economic turmoil and the grinding poverty caused by over a decade of Austerity are taking their toll on the wellbeing of the country. It’s certainly not the promised “sunlit uplands” or even the pre-2014 “status quo” that many thought they were voting for. As we move into a fresh independence campaign, it’s worth looking back at some of the things we were promised in 2014 by the pro-Union campaign and how those promises have panned out since.

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The Eternal Workforce

“Austerity should not be a death sentence. Every person should be able to retire with the benefits they’ve earned and dignity they deserve.” – Fuad Alakbarov

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Last week, while everyone else was watching a septuagenarian finally start the job he was born to do, some stats were released by the ONS that revealed that he is not alone in the “grey workforce”. An increasing number of older people in the UK are entering, re-entering or remaining within the workforce. It paints a picture of the older workforce that reveals underlying weaknesses and vulnerabilities in the UK economy.

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Land Reform Requires Democracy

“As soon as the land of any country has all become private property, the landlords love to reap where they never sowed, and demand a rent even for its natural produce.” – Adam Smith

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The Scottish Government is currently consulting on a new Land Reform Bill. The consultation closes next week so while there’s still time for you to submit your own response there isn’t much and you should get it in as soon as possible. We’ll be publishing our own response next week. In brief, the Scottish Government’s proposals are that Scotland should better regulate large-scale landholdings by forcing them to comply with the already existing but voluntary Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement that recommends actions to better care for land. The proposals suggest that a breach of the statement could lead to fines or cutting off access to Scottish Government subsidies.

The proposals also suggest that large-scale landowners regularly submit a Land Management Plan laying out, amongst other things, how the owner(s) will use the land, how that land use will contribute to “Net Zero” and how they will engage with the local community on reaching the goals and objectives they lay out for the land.

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Collaboration, Not Competition

“Collaboration has no hierarchy. The Sun collaborates with soil to bring flowers on the earth.” – Amit Ray

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This week saw the annual launch of the Scottish Government’s Programme for Government – its stated aims for the next year in Parliament. Usually at this time I’d be taking you through a deep dive of the various policy announcements and what they might mean for Scotland. The truth is though there isn’t really all that much there to dive into. Most of the major programmes mentioned in it (such as the National Care Service or the Circular Economy) have already been announced and are underway and many of the truly new announcements simply aren’t all that exciting. Even I, policy-geek amongst policy-geeks, can’t bring myself to get too excited about the devolution of the Aggregates Levy – the tax paid on taking stones and soil to landfill. It was one of the taxes devolved to Scotland in the wake of Indyref, the Smith Commission and the eventual Scotland Act 2016. The others were Income Tax (significant, but already straining at the seams of what is possible under devolution), Air Passenger Duty (the devolution of which was scrapped because of a potential legal fight with the EU), the assignment of VAT revenues (the devolution of which was scrapped because no-one could work out how to actually do it) and now Aggregates Levy (which will finally be devolved seven years and two Holyrood Elections after the mandate to do so). According to GERS, it’s currently worth around £58 million per year which is almost 1/16 of the estimated margin of error in the calculation of Scotland’s overall tax revenue.

The only other really noteworthy item is that the Scottish Government has finally acceded to the campaign to bring in the kind of tourist tax that almost all of us will be familiar with if we’ve travelled anywhere in Europe. Back in August, I spoke to the National about this kind of tax and mentioned the possibility of using it to fund or subsidise public transport and that perhaps tourists could be granted a free travel pass when they arrive in return.

But let’s talk about the most important policy announcement in this year’s PfG – so important that someone decided to leak it to the press ahead of time. The Scottish Government has decided to bring in an emergency rent freeze – backdated to the day of the PfG, though the legislation still needs to pass through Parliament. At the time of writing, we don’t yet know many of the details of the freeze itself including whether or not the Government will subsidise landlords for implementing the freeze. The news report announcing the leak mentioned a source who said that if the cost of the freeze was met by landlords then it would cost the Government nothing – this certainly suggests that if the landlords don’t cover the freeze then the Government may look at giving them partial or full compensation in the way that Liz Truss may be about to do to energy companies. It’s difficult to say how much this could cost as the freeze may only be for a limited duration (say, till March 2023) and many landlords – particularly in the public sector – only raise rates anyway once per Financial Year in April and some private landlords either do the same or weren’t planning to raise rates anyway (will they claim otherwise now if they can expect “free” money from the Government for doing so?).

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