The Devolution Journey: Part 1 – The Treaty of Union

This is Part 1 of what shall become a companion piece to my previous history of devolution and tax powers which can be read here.

As we edge closer to the the May elections and (maybe) to the passing of the Scotland Act 2015 we can continue our reflection on the process and “journey” of devolution. My last piece on the subject looked solely at the transfer of tax powers to the Scottish Government since 1999. This one will look at several of the other functions of governance and the process of the transfer of power over other important areas. To do this though, we need to look back a little further.

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The Most Shameful Smear

It’s (hopefully) no secret that I’m not a member of the SNP so some may question my stepping in to this current scandal. I am, however, a member of Yes Clydesdale and it was through them that I first met Philippa Whitford (in fact, it was a talk organised by our group which went viral and was responsible for launching her political career).

Through the course of the indyref I had the opportunity to sit on Q&A panels alongside Philippa and can find absolutely nothing but praise to say about her.

She is a person of incredible knowledge and inspiration who took the incredibly brave step of moving from a hard fought career in healthcare to casting herself into the thankless kindergarten where people make animal noises” which is the House of Commons.

So to today and Dr Whitford finds herself the target of the latest and lamest SNPBAD smear yet.

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The actual story is that she gave up a substantial chunk of her Christmas and New Year holiday to cover for a sick colleague. She spent 5 days saving lives while others in the benches opposite hers spend their “moonlighting” days being paid to destroy the very NHS in which she works. (As Wings Over Scotland points out, she is also compelled to work a certain number of days as a surgeon per year if she is to maintain her license to practice so it’s hardly a job she’s just doing to top up her pocket money)

A little further digging reminds us of the increasing problems with medical staff in England causing more hospitals to hire locum doctors at fees of, on average, £1,700 per day.

That Labour’s Jackie Baillie would have the temerity to be complicit in this transparent smear is just one more notch on that party’s slide into irrelevance. If even they cannot resist their urge to try to find just one more SNPBAD story then I cannot see any reason why any voter would think them worthy of being the party of opposition in next year’s Parliament.

I’d put out a call asking the Baillie and Daily Mail to retract and apologise for this piece but I know how futile that would be. I do hope that everyone, even those on the other side of the political landscape from Dr Whitford and myself, feel as utterly appalled and ashamed for the state of the press as I do. We deserve so much better.

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This Could Be Home

“It seems obvious: the reason only a tiny percentage of new…buildings and retrofits aren’t green isn’t cost. It’s lack of ingenuity or knowledge of new construction techniques — architects and builders wed to the ‘same-old,’ lenders leery of anything unconventional.” – Sustainable Energy Africa

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Sign the petition or get involved here.

The Scottish Greens have launched our new #ThisCouldBeHome campaign aimed at greatly strengthening the current movements towards better land reform.

There are currently around 11,000 hectares of land in Scotland current derelict or un- or underused which, through the application of a Land Value Tax, could be freed up to build a new generation of affordable housing. Here is Andy Wightman introducing the campaign.

As the campaign points out, the current UK housing bubble is pushing rents up beyond the affordability of far too many people and those increasingly fortunate few who can scrape together a deposit and have secure enough employment to sustain a mortgage are looking with trepidation towards the day that the Bank of England starts pushing interest rates back up towards pre-2008 levels. For hard pressed people who can barely afford to pay the bills as it is, moves like this could result in yet another crash in the housing market and more families facing default, foreclosure and eviction.

We also live in a country with the second highest level of excess winter mortality of any European country north of the Alps, driven in large part by our lax building standards and fuel poverty.

For this reason, we should take this opportunity to ensure that those new houses which are built adhere to strict building regulations which push the limits of our technological abilities to ensure that energy bills and the other ongoing costs of running a building are kept at an absolute minimum. Of course, buildings are themselves often constructed to meet only the very minimum standards set by law as to do otherwise would eat into the private construction industry’s precious profit margin.

Of course, as the headline quote states, cost isn’t nearly the greatest obstacle to greener housing development and, as I have written previously, the Scottish government will soon be handed the power to borrow money far cheaper than can any bank or private company (As an alternative, the Common Weal has also pointed out that the Government has the power, today, to set up Scottish Housing Company to perform the same function) and could use that money, paid back through rents, to undercut the private industry and ensure that the highest green standards are adhered to. The precedent for this already exists in Scotland where, according to official government figures, the social rented housing stock are generally more energy efficient than private builds and contain a higher percentage of B and C grade housing (where the overall Scottish average is merely grade D). If we are willing to push things as far as we need to to reach a zero-carbon economy then a greater pool of cheap, efficient housing will force the private sector to either step up its game or step aside.

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A Thermal image of an energy efficient “Passive House” compared to a more traditional, less well insulated dwelling behind it. Source: Passivhaus Institut

But how do we get everyone to A grade? One pathway can be found in the Passivhaus Standard which employs a strict understanding and approach to engineering and techniques such as solar thermal panels on roofs, underfloor ground source heat pumps, insulation throughout the house and architectural elements designed in from the start to minimise heat loss and maximise the amount of energy which can be harvested from the environment. Properly employed, these standards reduce a house’s heating requirements to below 15 kWh per square metre per year. By comparison the average Scottish house requires approximately 140 kWh per square metre per year to keep it warm. It’s no wonder so many of us struggle in winter. (Fun fact about Passivhaus, they have built a compliant dwelling now on every continent on Earth. Including Antarctica!)

With heating making up 55% of Scotland’s overall annual energy demand and only 10% of that heating coming from renewable sources (including renewable electricity) then it is clear that this is the area which, if targeted, will have the most potential to reduce our requirement to run a carbon based economy. This needs to be stressed. Whilst the Scottish Government has made great strides in pushing renewables (and despite the UK government’s increasingly hostile attitude towards them) if we only focus on meeting of our current electrical demands then we’ll still be reliant on fossil fuels for over three quarters of our energy and this doesn’t factor in the doubling of electrical demand which will come if we translate our transport system over to electric vehicles (assuming we don’t also reduce demand there too).

To achieve this may seem to require brave choices. But we can’t sustain the “same old” attitude for much longer. Pretty soon, doing nothing will be even “braver” (in the Yes Minister sense). I believe that a strong Green voice in the Scottish Parliament from May will help the government make those brave choices and your vote for the Greens in May will help that happen. As noted earlier, it’s not a problem of money or power holding us back here. Merely the will to roll up our sleeves and do it. We’ll be glad for it once we have. We’ll wonder why we didn’t do it sooner.

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An Arbitrary Failure

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The relevant passage from the Smith Commission Report. Page 28.

David Mundell, who is currently crowing that the Smith Commission has been delivered “in full”, has just blocked a key element of it.

All of the Smith parties agreed to consult on the possibility of allowing Scotland to issue post-study visas for visiting students to allow them to continue working (and paying taxes) in Scotland, the country which educated them, after they graduate.

Mundell has just blocked that proposal without such consultation and before the Scottish Affairs Committee looking into it has even had a chance to report back. (Story here)

One of the most upsetting moments in my own personal indyref campaign was hearing from a young lass whose partner was one such visiting student. He had come to Scotland to study engineering and, after falling in love both with our country and one of its inhabitants he decided that he wanted to stay, to build his career and to make Scotland his home. Just two weeks after his graduation, the UK Government rewarded his endeavour with arrest, incarceration in Dungavel and deportation.

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Protests outside the Dungavel Detention Centre. Source: Wikipedia.

This is not how a civilised country should treat other human beings. Instead, we should be encouraging those who, after all, pay significant sums of money towards their education to find a place within Scotland should they choose to do so. Many will find high paid, highly skilled and highly sought after jobs. Many others will start businesses of their own and CREATE those same jobs. Even the graduates who choose to leave Scotland will, if they are treated with respect, go on to strengthen our trade and business links with the countries to which they go. Something to bear in mind with respect to the UK’s worrying trade deficit combined with a currency value currently at the lowest level since the Tories took power and which is rapidly approaching the weakest value it’s had in 30 years.

Think about it David. If you were incarcerated and forcibly ejected from here simply because you had graduated, would you look upon this country favourably afterwards? Of course not. Would you consider sending your kids to study in a country which threatened to do the same to them? Of course you wouldn’t.

As Smith notes, this policy doesn’t require any additional powers to be devolved, indeed the similar Fresh Talent scheme used to be implemented in Scotland between 2005 and 2008 and was rolled out successfully to the entire UK until 2012 when it was scrapped by the Coalition government.  Mundell’s decision therefore seems especially arbitrary, short-sighted and, frankly, smacks of nothing less than a jumped-up Governor throwing his weight around simply because he thinks he cannot be challenged.

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