Council17 – The Aftermath

That’s the council elections done then.

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Well, that’s the voting done. The “fun” bit is going to happen over the next few days as the negotiations work out. Not one of the 32 councils in Scotland have a majority control with major Labour fiefdoms like Glasgow and North and South Lanarkshire all falling to that party’s continuing collapse. Not safe, though, were SNP councils like Dundee which has also slipped out of majority control. The rise of the Conservative and Unionists (who have been benefiting from the second half of their name even in spite of the first) has been remarkable even if all they’ve been doing is cannibalising the other Unionist parties rather than making any substantial gains on the other side of the constitutional divide.

The Greens had a good time of the elections, increasing their seats from 14 to 19. Incidentally, we’re now the largest party on Orkney Council (albeit because all the other councilors are independents). My own branch of South Lanarkshire failed to get any candidates elected although I have to give my personal thanks to the 139 people who placed their trust in me with their 1st preference votes. It was a great experience being a candidate. Who knows. It may not be my last time.

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As it stands now, South Lanarkshire will be represented by 27 SNP councilors, 21 Labour, 14 Conservatives, 1 Lib Dem and 1 Independent. With 33 required for a majority there will now be a weekend of intense negotiations over who goes where. Whilst they’ve lost their control, Labour will now be the kingmakers here. It will be their choice whether they side with a party with whom they share many or most of their values when it comes to local issues or whether they’ll side with a party with whom they share precisely one value over which their councilors will have precisely zero ability to effect.

This will be the story going on in many more councils across Scotland and I cannot predict how they’ll turn out, only that if Labour does decide to ally itself with the Tories one more time for one more stint at short term gain then their final death as a party is inevitable. They will have thrown away their last reason to exist in Scottish politics. And they wouldn’t be missed by many, not even their “allies”, once that happens.
Glasgow will be an interesting story in this regard. With the tally there being 39 SNP, 31 Labour, 8 Conservative and 7 Greens and with 43 needed for a majority there is no possibility of a Labour/Tory Alliance conspiring to keep control of this city. Instead it seems inevitable that the SNP will be the part of control here, it just remains to be seen if they’ll form a formal or informal coalition with Labour or with the Greens to get there. Obviously I’d certainly be hoping for the latter but, as with all in politics, I guess it’ll depend on the price asked by all sides involved. No matter what, Glasgow is ripe for exciting possibilities for change. Too many areas of the city have been neglected for too long and there are great opportunities and assets there just waiting for someone to have the courage to take on the challenge of exploring them. I’d personally like to see something like the Community Buyout scheme recently promoted by Common Weal given a shot. You can read about that here.

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Air Departure Tax Post-Brexit

“We haven’t commissioned to the best of my knowledge any independent research of our own. If committee wishes me to look at that, I will certainly consider that absolutely.” – Derek Mackay on the Government’s (lack of) analysis into the proposed ADT cut.

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The Scottish Government put out a call for evidence for their proposal to cut and eventually eliminate air passenger duty (or, as it’s now going to be known, Air Departure Tax).

Common Weal duly obliged and updated our previous work on the topic to account for the impact of Brexit. You can read the new report here or by clicking the image above.

It’s just as well that we’ve done this as it has since been reported that the Government itself has done precisely zero economic analysis of the impact of the tax cut and, as it turns out, our report is the only economically based submission which is against the tax cut (The RSPB have submitted an objection on the grounds of a very well founded environmental impact analysis). More than half of the other submissions and the bulk of those in favour of the cut are from companies and groups within the airport and airline industry. There is a great deal of concern that unless the government does pull its weight and do the maths itself then this policy could pass through simply on the say so of those who stand to benefit directly from the tax cut and at the expense of those who will lose out due to the impact on tourism and the lost revenue to public services.

Preface and Key Points below the fold.

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We Need To Talk About: GERS (2015-16 Edition)

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us. To see oursels as ithers see us! – To a Louse, Robert Burns

It’s that time again. The annual Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland report is out. Click the link or the image below to read it for yourself.

GERS 2015-16

Actually it seems like only March that the last edition was out. What’s happening here?

Well, there was a consultation that almost no-one knew about which discussed a few methodological changes to GERS in line with the ‘new powers’ we’re getting and it also asked if the next report should be brought forward. I’m completely convinced that the fact that this means that we’re getting the report well before the Council election campaign next year is absolutely just a convenient side effect(!)…but no matter. We’ve got the data.

Tomorrow’s Headline Today

Scotland’s budget deficit remains at a little under £15 billion. As with last year, don’t expect a single news outlet to go one single step further with the story than that. Except maybe to say that oil revenue has dropped from £1.802 billion last year to just £60 million this year.

So what’s happened? Why hasn’t Scotland, which is “totally dependent on oil”, completely collapsed now that oil revenues have basically dropped to zero?

Last year, total revenues dropped by  around £500 million on 2013-14. This year, total revenues have INCREASED by £181 million. In fact, total revenue is higher than it was in 2012-13 when we received some £5.3 billion in oil revenue.

It’s also worth noting that if you only look at GERS 2015-16 then it looks like our deficit has increased by a couple of hundred million in the past year but if you look a bit deeper, and compare the numbers to previous GERS reports then something interesting happens.

In GERS 2014-15 our deficit was recorded as £14.8 billion but in GERS 2015-16 the 2014-15 deficit has somehow dropped by £622 million to £14.3 billion. Essentially, this shows one of the limits of GERS in that it is based on sometimes highly speculative estimates which get revised over time. It may be five years before we finally know the “true” accounts figures for this year. This accounting adjustment is extremely significant compared to, say, our “budget underspends” but unless you’ve read it here I expect it to pass entirely unnoticed.

Now, what about our all hallowed GDP? It’s down by 0.45% from £157.502 billion in 2014-15 to £156.784 billion in 2015-16 (with non-oil GDP having increased by over £2.2 billion, the highest it’s ever been).

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You know, perhaps it’s time we started measuring our economy in terms other than just GDP. We know it’s flawed. We know it throws up extremely strange results like Ireland’s “economy” growing by 25% because a few American companies moved their nameplates around. We know it doesn’t even particularly correlate to things like tax and ability to service debt very well.

Maybe it’s time we started measuring (and taxing) our country based on the things which actually matter.

But back to GERS.

Dutch Disease with Scottish Characteristics

So what’s going on here? Essentially it’s the same pattern first picked up last year. As oil prices drop, so do fuel costs. Which means everything from the costs of transporting goods to the heating and lighting costs for your home drops. This means you have more money to spend in the economy and companies have fewer overheads leading to either greater profits (thus, ideally, more tax revenue) or more room to invest in expansion.

This is a clear demonstration of the so-called “Dutch Disease” where high oil prices choke off the non-oil based economy in the form of the aforementioned fuel costs (it also tends to harden one’s currency but this is less of a factor in the Scottish case given that we don’t yet have one).

At the time of the last report I was criticised for pointing this out on the grounds that the oil price collapse “hadn’t fully fed through” hence I was jumping the gun on the observation. It shall be interesting to see if anyone says the same thing now. Could revenues drop any lower?

This should serve as somewhat of a warning to those itching for the return of high oil prices and certainly for those desperate to “replace” offshore oil with onshore fracking. It’s maybe time to have a good hard rethink about what kind of resources we want to develop in Scotland. Now, to be sure, I’ve nothing against our offshore industry and for those folk out there it’s been a pretty dreadful time. It’s just that, certainly as a Green, I think our offshore industry is on the wrong side of the country and should be based on wind/wave and tide rather than oil. You can be sure that  if the wind and tide stops flowing we’ll be dealing with problems a little bit larger than the state of our finances.

Scotland Offshore Wind Power Density

Scotland’s offshore Wind Power Density map

Sweet Fiscal Autonomy

As mentioned earlier, part of the methodological changes discussed in the GERS consultation was to do with looking at the taxes to be devolved to Scotland under the series of “vast, new powers” we’ve been generously granted.

In terms of actual revenue, chief amongst these is income tax (excluding interest and dividends, the ability to move the Personal Allowance or to adjust the definition of “income”) and VAT (excluding any actual control at all. We’re getting the VAT added to Scottish coffers and then an equivalent amount removed from the block grant. Yay.) along with comparatively minor taxes like landfill tax, aggregate levy and air passenger duty.

In total, the Scottish government will directly receive 40.5% of Scottish revenue (£21.8 billion this year) and, given the limitations on VAT and income tax, have actual, practical control over perhaps half of that. Devolved expenditure, however, will soon sit at 63.1% of total (£43.3 billion). Basically the Scottish government can only directly control enough income to fund perhaps about a quarter of what it’s directly responsible for delivering.

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There’s a side issue in all of this related to that old topic of the budget underspends. Tucked away on page 47 of GERS there’s an interesting line which looks at the confidence intervals for some of the tax revenues used. Remember that the revenues given are estimates and are subject both to revision over time and change due to circumstances that the government cannot control. For example, if you move job half way through the tax year your income, therefore income tax, can change. If your job moves you to England, your entire income tax contribution moves from the Scotland side of the budget to the rUK one. Hence, the total income tax revenue estimate is subject to a margin of error, in this case of 1.0%.

The same goes for other taxes to greater or lesser degree to the effect that the margin of error over all of the taxes measured there is 1.6% or ±£570 million.

Remember that the Scottish Government has extremely limited borrowing powers. It can only “overspend” on the current budget by £200 million in a single year and cannot exceed a total current debt of £500 million. And yet income revenue, on which expenditure must be planned, has a margin of error of ±£570 million.

In the event, this year Scotland’s “underspend” was only £150 million. If you think you can plan a budget better than this then please, send it in. If not, might be a good idea to stop reporting and moaning about underspends.

Paying For It

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Another little line that seems to have been added to GERS this year (on page 37) is a breakdown of the annual costs of financing Labour’s PFI and the SNP’s replacement NPD loans. There’s been a bit of a milestone reached there with the availability costs of PFI now exceeding £1 billion per year or over 15% of Scotland’s total capital budget and slated to increase even further over the next decade unless something is done about it. Don’t be surprised if this becomes a major issue for the council elections next year.

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Of course and once again you wouldn’t know this if all you did was watch our Great British Broadcaster, the BBC. Their recent “investigation” into PFI couldn’t even bring itself to mention the name of the party which lumped this crippling financial burden on us.

Finally

I could go on. We could nip-pick at details like the mysterious addition to the expenditure budget of net EU contributions (there’s always been an annex discussing this but this is first year it has explicitly been counted in a separate line in Total Expenditure) or notice that for the first time in at least five years our debt interest paid has increased as our UK debt increases have started to outweigh the effect of falling bond yields.

It’s all a shell game though. We know that GERS isn’t nearly as important as people hold it to be nor is it nearly as informative as it should be. It’s not going to change many minds on its own nor does it tell us one single thing about the finances of an independent Scotland. If we want to do that, we’re going to need to build a national budget from scratch, taking into account all of the taxes (existing and new) that an independent Scotland might choose to levy. We also need to have a look again at what Scotland actually needs to spend its money on. Could we use Citizen’s Income to create from scratch a welfare system worthy of the name? Would a Scottish Government able to issue its own bonds on its own debt be able to get a better deal than the one we have right now?

Quite simply can Scotland as a nation see ourselves as better than others would prefer us to be seen?

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SP16: The Morning After

I’ll confess to being a lightweight. I snuck off for a few hours sleep right after the Clydesdale results were called and woke up right after the Lothian list so unlike virtually every other political pundit in Scotland right now, I’m able to type only marginally less coherently than normal.

So. How about those results?

The Green contingent has expanded three-fold and whilst I’m more than a little upset that neither of the two candidates covered by my branch, Kirsten Robb and Sarah Beattie-Smith, made it in I’m heartened by the success of the others notably Andy Wightman in Lothians. Who Owns Scotland? We’re about to find out!

My hypothesis that the SNP would come back with another majority appear to have been disproven although a clear pro-independence majority remains. Arguably, the Greens could call this a result significantly in our favour as we move to the wrangling over Parliamentary positioning begins.

I’m willing to be wrong again but I can’t see much appetite for an offer of a formal coalition. It doesn’t seem like good game theory for the SNP to offer up a Ministerial position (almost certainly something like Energy or Environment) just to avoid a two seat minority. Especially when they already have form for running a minority government with a fair degree of success.

I could see a discussion over some kind of Supply and Confidence arrangement based on some concessions that the Greens have campaigned on and over which there’s already a substantial level of support within the SNP membership.

I’ll make one prediction on this point. Unless the SNP are willing to rely on Tory support, Fracking will not happen in Scotland. Good.

I’d be hoping that there might be some more movement over local taxation and, perhaps, the Scottish Government will let Andy formally get his teeth and claws into the Land Reform Bill. That’ll be a joy to watch. The Greens campaigned on giving the Scottish Government the courage to be bolder on a range of issues. Here’s hoping it can.

So, on the vote itself. We saw hints of the total flight of the Right and Unionist vote within Labour as early as November last year but even as the last polls came in they appear to have underestimated the depth of that flight. Ruth Davidson’s campaign to get people to vote Unionist, rather than Conservative, appear to have been successful. What shall be interesting to watch now is what she does with that support. How far can they be pushed on Austerity (or how far can blame for it be deflected) before the Union-at-any-cost vote starts to tally up just that?

Where it leaves Labour is another great unknown. They’ve been utterly wiped from their birthplace in Glasgow and Lanarkshire and have retreated to the Morningside Reds of Edinburgh. They appear to have three choices ahead of them. Either ossify as an increasingly marginal voice in Scottish politics; Abandon the Unionist vote and try to out-left the SNP (I don’t think at this stage that even a drastic Home Rule or Federal position would draw back those now set on independence) or try to out-right the Tories (which would mean claiming, adopting and accelerating Austerity). I cannot honestly see a route back to the forefront of Scottish politics for Labour barring some singularity event such as actual independence or some act of self-destruction within the SNP greater even than the one that UK Labour appear bent on.

The proportionality of AMS was stretched rather to its limits last night. Despite narrowly missing out on a majority the SNP, as the largest party, were the largest beneficiaries of the system gaining approximately 9 seats more than their regional vote percentage would have suggested. The Tories though also benefited gaining about two more seats than their regional vote share whilst Labour broke about even, the Greens losing one seat and the Lib Dems being rather drubbed by the system, losing three seats to the maths. This calculation would have been mitigated by the addition of 6 “Other” seats which, on these results, would have more likely have been distributed amongst the sitting parties rather than going to smaller ones. In most proportional voting systems around the world a minimum threshold of 5% is often applied and, in our case last night, no small party achieved more than 2% nationally or more than 4% in any single region.

Seat Allocation

It’ll be interesting to see if there are any calls for electoral reform based on these results the way even the SNP made a mild complaint about their overwhelming success under FPTP last year.

Another topic which will now need to be thrashed out is the position of Presiding Officer. I reckon that this year the wrangling over whether the party/ies of government or of opposition give up an MSP for the post will be particularly intense this year given the slim margins and the tactical situations faced by each of the parties. The SNP won’t want to dilute their minority any further, Labour won’t want to shrink further either, the Tories and Greens will want to capitalise on their gains to maximum effect and if the Lib Dems lose one more MSP they cease to be an official parliamentary group.

Personally, I’m rather disturbed by the concept of choosing the PO from the MSPs in the first place. Why should the electorate who have only just chosen their representatives have to give one up as the PO must remain neutral, must resign from the political party and whip and have severe restrictions on where and how they vote (Only in the event of a tie and only to maintain the status quo or further the debate). To me, this isn’t a job for a Member of the Scottish Parliament. I’d look towards inspiration from the “checks and balances” of the US. Perhaps the PO should be appointed from a pool of senior judges or similar judicial positions? They are already used to applying impartially the rule of law so should trivially be able to manage Parliament in a neutral manner.

Of course, an alternative to a Presiding Officer could be an elected President, but that is likely to be a discussion for a post-independence situation…

Where do we go from here? I honestly have no idea. Going from bracing for a substantial majority and “the most boring Parliament” of the devolution period (as one pundit put it) to back to the days of actual discussion about policy I think the next five years could be one filled with potential…if we choose to allow it. For a last word:

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The Economics of Fracking

“It can be concluded that both shale oil and shale gas are unlikely to be economically viable in this current low hydrocarbon price environment and even if there is a return to recent higher prices; it is likely that the industry would require significant subsidy or significant efficiency progression before it could be used at any kind of scale.”

“Even if the extraction can be proven to be environmentally ‘safe’ the experience of the United States shows that it risks bringing boom-and-bust to our communities as waves of temporary jobs move rapidly through without rooting themselves in local economies.”

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My first paper written for the Common Weal has been published today. The Economics of Shale Gas Extraction is the first major paper to be published in Scotland focusing on the economic, rather than environmental, impacts of the industry particularly on the local communities which will be hosting the wells.

Key Findings:-

  • The SGE market in the US and, so far, in the UK is dominated by larger companies occupying the most profitable licences. There is little scope for community owned or small company development to occupy a significant market share.
  • Individual wells become largely non-productive within a few years of development which, due to market demand for constant production, forces companies to continue drilling new wells in new locations at a rapid pace.
  • The low recoverable volumes and high capital and running costs of wells may render profit margins comparatively small and extremely sensitive to oil and gas pricing. There appears to be little scope for economic development of SGE in the UK until and unless wholesale prices return to historic highs and even then significant subsidy may be required.
  • Communities are likely to be significantly adversely impacted by nearby SGE fields. The concentrated pattern of land ownership and comparatively weak situation of local government renders communities vulnerable to being unable to capture wealth generated by nearby wells whereas the burden of environmental degradation or even simply the threat of such degradation can lead to community stress and negative economic effects.
  • The jobs created by SGE appear to be short-lived and highly mobile. The job demographic of the planning, drilling and production phases are each relatively exclusive meaning that they will move to the next site more rapidly than the wells themselves do. This creates the risk of a “Boom-Bust” effect in communities.
  • Shale oil and gas is considered a relatively poor source of fuel due to high extraction costs. The UK’s reserves are also likely to have an insignificant impact on global markets and hence a negligible impact on end-user prices.
  • Significant externalities have been identified in the form of environmental degradation due to methane leaks. The costs to mitigate these may exceed the lifetime revenues generated by the well which produced them. Further, the UK has a poor record in terms of ensuring adequate decommissioning and restoration bonds which may lead to further public funding being required after the SGE companies have left an area.

Whilst much of the attention on the shale oil/gas and fracking industry has been focused on the environmental impact, less attention has been paid to the economic effects. Even if the extraction can be proven to be environmentally “safe” the experience of the United States shows that it risks bringing boom-and-bust to our communities as waves of temporary jobs move rapidly through without rooting themselves in local economies. Scotland’s history of concentrated land ownership and comparatively poor local government also risks creating a vast transfer of wealth benefiting the already wealthy whilst potentially leaving communities to foot the bill for cleaning up. All for a fuel which the government has been told will not even benefit us in the form of lower energy bills.

There should be no place for fracking in Scotland or the UK.

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Greening Tax

“Unless Scotland has the boldness and the courage of its convictions to use the abilities that the Scottish Parliament is going to have in the next session to have a fairer, more progressive approach to taxation…many more communities are going to find that the public services they rely on will continue to be under threat.” – Patrick Harvie

Yesterday, the Scottish Greens published our proposals for reform of both the national income tax and a replacement for the local council tax. The proposals themselves can be read by clicking on the image below but I’ll spend a bit of time here explaining how they work and what might have been missed in some of the media coverage about them.

Green Tax

 

First though we need to remember just what the purpose of tax is for. It’s so easy to get caught up in the arguments over how much more or less a particular tax or tax change would raise without considering the deeper impacts of what a particular tax is supposed to do.

The Principles of Taxation

Why do we tax people in the first place? It’s a substantial chunk out of your paycheck every month and there’s not one of us who has, at some point, wondered what they could have done with that money instead.

The reasons for taxation are broadly covered by three principles:

Revenue Generation:- There are many services, such as roads, emergency services, healthcare, education etc, which we, as a society, have decided are best funded collectively. We may argue over just how much is paid for in this way and how much is funded ad hoc or privately but there are vanishingly few full blown anarcho-libertarians, especially in Scotland, who believe that absolutely everything should be in private hands and that Government shouldn’t exist at any level. For everything else, taxes are collected to fund the State and its operations.

Redistribution:- Societies are rarely entirely equal at every level. Some people end up earning or accumulating more than others, some people end up not earning enough money to meet their basic needs. Some regions end up with a greater concentration of wealth than others. Some, due to size or geographical constraints (such as the Highlands and Islands) simply require more funds to deliver the same level of services than others. It is well known that more equal societies experience greater levels of wellbeing and lower levels of ill health and other negative effects. Most societies, therefore, employ tax, alongside policies such as social security and welfare, in a progressive manner such that the richer pay more according to their abilities and the poorer gain more according to their needs.

inequality

Reshaping:- This is the carrot-and-stick approach of taxation. Governments often develop policies designed to encourage their citizens towards certain activities or discourage them from others. One prominent example at the national level would be the levies on tobacco and alcohol which are, at least partly, there to try to encourage us to smoke and drink less (obviously, taxes can fall into multiple categories and the Revenue Generation aspects of these taxes cannot be discounted, especially when used improperly).

In addition to these principles on the purpose of a tax, we must consider how it is structured so that it works in an effective manner. In 2013, local council body COSLA published a report into the effectiveness of current local taxes and in it laid out six principles outlined below.

LT Prin

Essentially, these principles boil down to taxes being fair, easy to manage and employing a sense of subsidiarity whereby local powers should, wherever possible, be used to effect local solutions. Whenever discussing a potential tax, local or national, all of these principles must be upheld or accounted for.

Income Tax

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The Green proposal for the use of the income tax powers due to come with the implementation of the Scotland Act 2015 includes not just a tweaking of the rates nor the use of clumsy rebates as Labour (briefly) seem to have  considered but the full use of what powers we shall have to create new bands appropriate to Scottish income distribution.

The headlining feature of these proposals, as one may have suspected, was the inclusion of a 60% rate on earnings over £150,000.

This certainly did grab the headlines coming so soon after the SNP announced that they would not be raising the top rate past it’s current 45%. Their decision was based on this document which suggests that the “tax induced elasticity” (TIE) of the richest 1% in Scotland may be substantially higher than in the UK as a whole. Simply put, they fear that Scottish millionaires may flee elsewhere if we tax them at a higher rate than their southron counterparts. Their claim is that in the worst case scenario, enough high earners would leave that the actual revenue collected could be up to £30 million less than would be if tax rate remained as it is (one has to remember that if a top rate tax payer leaves, you also lose what they’ve paid in lower bands too).

Now, I have a couple of reasons to doubt this will impact as badly as they fear. In particular, having had a read through the book on which the UK TIE figures are based and having back-calculated their suggested maximum top-rate income tax for those UK figures, the implication appears that if the high end TIE rate the SNP suggests (0.75 compared to 0.46 for the UK) were to come to pass the maximum allowable income tax rate would be something on the order of just 30%. I would suggest therefore that the conviction attached to that worst case scenario is somewhat low as not even the Scottish Tories have went into this election on a platform of cutting the top rate of income tax.

My other reason for skepticism over this fear of tax flight in relation to internal tax boundaries is the case actually seen in the United States (In particular, as found by this paper by Young et al in their study of tax migration and border effects) where each state has far more control over many taxes than Scotland has and consequently sees quite sharp tax boundaries between states. Now this is not to say that that tax induced migration does not occur but in the words of the paper linked to above it seems to occur “only at the margins of statistical and socio-economic significance”. This appears to be true even at easily commutable borders so don’t be readily expecting a cluster of Scottish millionaires moving to Carlisle or Newcastle.
[Edit: Alternate link to the Young paper here.]

The reason for this is quite profound. As it turns out we can broadly place the richest echelons of society into to one of two groups. The “transitory millionaires” who really are just seeking somewhere to park as much of their wealth as possible without contributing much to society in general and the “embedded elites” who more closely fit that classic-to-the-point-of-cliché term of “job-creator”. These folk are the ones who have built a business in their locale and, as it turns out, it is not a simple case to uproot it and move it wholesale elsewhere (especially when higher property prices may make the operation of that business significantly more expensive). Perhaps, we in politics have been too quick to conflate these two distinct attitudes among the most well off in society. Perhaps we should instead be asking which of the two groups we would prefer to have influence our policy decisions?

On the Greens’ part, we are not making any prediction of revenue based on our 60% rate. We’re operating on the basis that our changes to the top rate of income tax will not attract any additional revenue (although the changes overall could bring in some £331 million per year) and this managed to attract some attention during the recent STV Leader’s Debate with the Tories asking what the point was if revenue didn’t change and asking how that would improve the economy. Well, we’ve seen the answer to that in the principles section above. The Green tax plan would significantly reduce inequality within Scotland. From a social standpoint, this should significantly improve general wellbeing within Scottish society and from an economic standpoint there will be benefits due to what’s known as the Marginal Propensity to Consume. Essentially, if you increase a multi-billionaire’s income by £100 then it means next to nothing to them or their lifestyle but if you increase the income or decrease the tax burden of a minimum wage worker by £100 then it will give them the ability to pay down debts or spend more on goods and services on which they would not otherwise have been able to do so. By this means, a revenue neutral tax change which decreases inequality most certainly can have a positive economic benefit. It reflects poorly on Ruth Davidson that during that debate she either didn’t know or didn’t want others to understand that fairly fundamental point.

Property Tax

Incidentally, the Young paper linked to in the previous section points out that a far more significant cause of high-earner migration than income tax is a draw towards expensive housing which is a famously immobile asset and which leads us neatly on to the second half of the Greens’ proposals.

Given how limited the set of devolved national taxes actually are and given how long overdue we have been for doing something, anything, about the Council Tax, it’s perhaps no surprise that a large proportion of the campaigning has been dedicated to those taxes over which Holyrood does have near unfettered control.

Faced with the increasingly loud rhetoric over the need for change from many parties and the cross-party consensus on the need for radical change laid down by the Commission on Local Tax Reform’s final report it’s therefore been a deep disappointment that it has been left to the Greens to be the only party to lay down a system of local residential property tax which is meaningfully different from the Council Tax. The Lib Dems have dropped their long standing aspiration towards a local income tax. RISE have stuck to the plan for an income based service tax inherited from the SSP but have appear to have opted to set rates nationally thus remove the advantages of local control. The SNP have decided to keep the present system, including the quarter century old, out of date valuations, but will increase the rate multiplier, nationally, on the top couple of bands. Labour have come up with a system of a per household flat rate poll tax with the addition of value based percentile tax (In my previous article I mischaracterised this as a banded tax due to a misunderstanding of their press statements on the topic. I was in error.) which, on the face of it, is an interesting change but their actual calculations will leave us again with a tax which is deeply regressive with respect to house value.

The Greens, however, have opted to levy a local property tax based entirely as a percentage of the property’s value. This Residential Property Tax would be nominally set to 1% of the property’s value but it will be entirely within the local council’s power to set that rate at whichever value they wish and will be coupled with a scheme of reliefs for low earners similar to the system currently in place.

Of course, such a large step change in the tax system requires careful management and people will need time to adjust their financial affairs to reflect the change so we also propose phasing in the new RPT over the course of the next five year Parliament by stepping over to the new system in 20% increments until Council Tax is fully abolished.

The graph below shows this transition as well as a comparison of the tax regimes proposed by the SNP and Labour as a percentage of a house’s value (RISE’s SST, being income rather than property based, isn’t directly comparable in this way).

Green RPT Both

The contrast is quite profound. Incidentally, the large change in nominally band “C” and above properties may look alarming but one must remember that the lack of revaluations since 1992 has led to many houses, some 57% of the total stock, sit now in the wrong council tax band. The house I’m currently in is a fairly graphic example of this being a band “D” house with a present market valuation of approximately £100,000. Converting from the present Council Tax to a 1% RPT would actually cut the bill here by some 10%.

Also of specific note within these plans is a system of redistribution across councils. Essentially, there are some council areas containing a lot of very expensive houses (Edinburgh, say) and some where property prices are comparatively cheap. It couldn’t be fair that one of the higher priced areas takes the decision that they could cut property taxes to a bare minimum and still fund local services, as happens in places like Westminster, whereas lower priced areas must pull those tax levers harder. Therefore, the block grant given to councils will be calculated on the assumption that they will charge the 1% RPT which will remove much of the temptation from those councils with higher property values from perpetuating the cycle of inequality. They still would have the power to reduce those rates, but they’d have to be accountable to their voters for doing so.

But what of land? Isn’t that a core tenant of Green policy? Well, herein lies an aspect of property tax which has been almost entirely missed by the media and yet lays the path towards possibly the greatest change within them. The RPT includes a slider which will allow a council to weight the RPT between taxing property and taxing land. If a council decided to, say, weight 100% towards property and 0% on land then the system would look most like the present council tax (albeit, as said, greatly more progressive) whereas if another council weighted 0% on property and 100% on land then the system would be functionally equivalent to a Land Value Tax and those who owned not just a large house but also a large estate would have to account for those holdings. In practice, many councils will seek some compromise between the two and the Green proposal lays out an example as currently used in Denmark where a typical weighting is something like 70% on property and 30% on land. Once again, localism is the key here. Council regions which are largely urban will likely wish to weight towards property whereas more rural areas, particularly those with patterns of unequal land ownership, may wish to weight towards land. Simply setting a national rate is unlikely to be sufficient or effective in every region of the country.

Conclusion

I  hope this then lays out our proposals for income and property taxation. I know. It’s a complicated issue which doesn’t soundbite very easily but we’re entering an interesting phase of Scottish politics whereby our Parliament will be getting more power than ever before and the need to use those powers effectively will become more important than ever before. Scotland Can be bolder if we want it to be.

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My thanks to Andy Wightman for technical advice provided for this post. His blog Land Matters can be read here.

One Year of The Common Green

The Common Green blog just hit its first anniversary.

Initially started as a continuation of my monthly column in Yes Clydesdale’s Aye Magazine and to help support and expand on points made during my pitch as a potential list candidate in the upcoming Holyrood elections, it has grown to a rather larger audience than I had expected with over 32,000 visitors dropping by to read articles.

Several of those articles even went fairly viral, as these things sometimes inexplicitly do, with my early discussion of last year’s GERS figures, the prototype for my “We Need To Talk About:” series in which I pull some details out of under-reported stories, (look out for an updated version later this week when this year’s figures are published) and my dissection and explanation of the Holyrood election voting system doing particularly well (the latter article has even been republished and incorporated into a couple of school and university courses).

By far and away the most popular article I’ve written so far though was a take down of one of last year’s big scare stories. “We Need To Talk About: Budget Underspends” accounts for one in four of this site’s pageviews and was a reaction to the near blanket media coverage of an SNPBAD story which could have been neatly resolved by any political journalist with a pocket calculator (or, as it turned out, a Green activist without one!). Whilst it’s probably no surprise that an article in support of the SNP on a Green page is more likely to find favour among supporters than one critical of them, I think it spoke also to a deeper sense of despair with the way the media still tries to treat a Scotland which went through a political awakening and education during the indyref and is showing very little sign of letting that go yet. That story was a lesson that we’re not going to let politicians just make spurious claims any more and not question them. And we’re not going to let them get away without answering those questions either.

So thank you to everyone who helped this blog get to where it is, to those in the 110 countries and territories who have enjoyed reading what I’ve greatly enjoyed writing and thank you to everyone who shared the articles around (I get trackback links from the strangest places sometimes) and I’m glad to have helped people learn and talk about issues which would have otherwise passed us by.

Here’s to 2016 and beyond and, as a little bonus, below is a copy of my first formally published piece of political writing (long before I had joined a political party) for the Aye Magazine back in November 2013. Final thanks to Bill Oliphant for convincing me to do it. You knew not what you had wrought.

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We Need To Talk About: The “Tactical Vote”

“People who think about politics every day greatly overestimate how much time the average person spends thinking about politics” – A maxim that every political activist should pin on their wall.

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One of the many, many parodies of the #SNPOUT “Tactical Voting Wheel” seen in the run up to the 2015 UK General Election. Source: Youtube

We’re just about to cross into the single digit weeks remaining before the 2016 Holyrood elections and among a subset of the political campaigning community the inevitable debate over the “tactical vote” rumbles on. I, myself, have had a couple of fairly interesting conversations with a few such voters over the past couple of days which crystalised a few thoughts in my head about it.

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We Need To Talk About: Local Taxation

 

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Source: Flickr

Next year brings in the Scottish Parliamentary Elections and with it comes the proposals from each of the parties on how best to use the limited powers that the Scottish Government will have at its disposal. No doubt, much of the news and comment will be around whether or not the (marginally) expanded powers over income tax coming in under the Scotland Bill 2012 will be used and by how much.

Our approach towards local taxation, however, will perhaps lead to a far more fundamental change to the fabric of our society. There is also far greater scope within the devolution powers to do something a bit more radical that simply raising or lowering the rate of tax by a penny or so (or repeatedly defending one’s reasons for not doing so). It is therefore important, before the campaigning season begins in earnest, to understand what our options are and the potential impacts of them.

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Greening Your Vote

Note: This article assumes that readers are fully familiar with the AMS voting system used in Scotland. If you are not or would like a refresher please read this article first:- How Scotland Votes: A Guide to the Scottish Elections

Greening Your Vote in the Scottish Elections

SGPlogoI’ve mentioned in a previous post that we in the Greens general regard the First Past the Post voting system as an unfair and unrepresentative system. It punishes all of those parties which poll less than about 35% of the electorate with fewer seats than they deserve whilst rewarding those parties which can achieve just slightly more than that with almost all of the power. For a smaller party like the Greens this means that looking for seats within the constituency vote is a particularly difficult enterprise and, in all likelyhood, would result in a waste of resources more effectively spent elsewhere.

For this reason it is very likely that you, as a voter, will not see a Green candidate on your constituency ballot paper next year (although exceptions like party co-convenor Patrick Harvie’s campaign in Kelvin will be one to seriously watch).

The great advantage within Scottish politics, however, lies in the Regional ballot. I’ve detailed in my How Scotland Votes article how this ballot is used to ensure proportionality within the parliament as a whole but this article intends to deal with another of its great strengths. The regional ballot allows voters who may describe themselves as “traditional” voters of one party to compliment or nuance their voting intentions by voting for another party as well.

I will here argue that in the Holyrood elections next year there is great scope for many voters to consider seeing a regional vote for the Greens not as a “splitting” of their vote but as a strengthening of it. Even when your “traditional” Constituency affiliation has been with the Labour party or the Liberal Democrats or with the SNP there is much that you may also find appealing within Green politics and much which may lead to you to giving us your Regional vote.

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