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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Work For Life

“Somewhere along the way we’ve gotten the message that the more we struggle and the more we suffer, the more valuable we will become and the more successful we’ll eventually be. And so we overwork ourselves, overschedule ourselves, and become “busier than thou” because we think there’s some sort of prize on the other side of the pain we cause ourselves. And you know what? There’s no prize. All you get from suffering is more suffering.” – Kate Northrup

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We’re currently living through an era of great change – “Interesting Times”, as the old curse goes – and the way we work is changing with it. During these moments of change we often wonder what it would take to make things go “back to normal” even if there is no “normal” to go back to – or whether we should even try given the problems we all knew existed in that “old normal”.

During the Covid lockdowns of the last few years many of us were suddenly thrust into a new normal when it came to work as our offices were closed and we started working from home (and yes, I’m one of the lucky ones who were able to do this. Not every job can be worked from home. Not every home can be easily worked from).

For many, the transition was a difficult one. For many others though, the transition to home working brought many positives, including no longer having to spend several hours a day commuting. One of the advantages I’ve personally found is the increased flexibility to step away from my desk for a few moments to take a break or get something done around the house (even if it’s just to put a load of washing on) rather than having to wait till I’m home, knackered and would rather do anything else.

image_2022-09-05_103902942(Image Source: The Centre for Ageing Better)

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We Need To Talk About: GERS (2021-22 Edition)

“They were learning fast, or at least collecting data, which they considered to be the same as learning.” – Terry Pratchett

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You can also read my previous work on GERS on this blog behind the following links: 2013-142014-152015-162016-172017-182018-19, 2019-20 and 2020-21.

Welcome to the second year of the Covid Discontinuity. As I noted last year, we’re in the middle of the worst possible thing that can happen to a statistician – a major event that throws out all of the carefully plotted trends and predictions. Last year I also used the phrase dreaded of every economic seer or scryer – “If things go back to normal next year…”

Well, they didn’t. Covid continued despite the best efforts of politicians in Scotland and the UK to ignore it, Brexit bit harder, the economic turmoil blamed on the escalating war in Ukraine caused a major fuel crisis that threatens to harm millions in the UK, inflation and interest rate spikes combined with continued wage repression raise the very real threat of a second Winter of Discontent and around Europe and the UK will be hosting Eurovision despite only coming second place.

In purely budgetary terms, this year’s GERS report suggests that Scotland’s finances do seem to be improving somewhat as the Covid support money slows down or stops completely (Don’t look at the ongoing pandemic, lost work and productivity due to illness or future increased health spending though…also don’t look at the massive looming catastrophe as cuts to social care are causing the NHS in England to grind to a halt and may be responsible for around 500 deaths a week in England alone…). The notional Scottish “deficit” is £23.7 billion – still higher than the pre-Covid trend of around £15 billion but down from last year’s exceptional £36.5 billion.

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