Is our glass half-full or half-empty this morning? Do we want to dwell on the bad news or luxuriate in the good?
I could blog on the latest shift closer to total meltdown emanating from Europe but I won’t. Except to say I don’t care what the credit rating agencies say and neither should anyone else, especially the markets.
No, today we are happy, shiny people here in Scotland. Today, or perhaps, tomorrow the Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure and Capital Investment, Alex Neil MSP, stands up in Holyrood to tell us all about the Scottish Government’s £70 billion investment plan for growth.
Which is great. No, really. I’m trying to be a little ray of sunshine, given that the Scottish Government is doing what it said it would and what we all wanted, and welcome this without reservation. But I can’t help myself. Every time I hear about it or think on it, there’s a but in there somewhere.
So what’s my problem?
1. How many times does a supposed Parliamentary announcement need to be made outside of Parliament before it’s disallowed by the Presiding Officer. The plan was trailed a week ago with the announcement that the A9 was to be dualled by 2025. There was stuff in the papers this weekend, teasing us some more with the news that the A96 was also to be dualled and the Cabinet Secretary was interviewed on the BBC Politics Show, staking out his government’s ambition to have every city in Scotland linked by a superior road network. And now there is more on the airwaves this morning. By the time, he stands up to speak at Holyrood, there won’t be much point: we’ll have heard it all before. So, c’mon Tricia Marwick, show us your mettle as Presiding Officer and slap them down. George Reid did it to the Labour/Lib Dem Scottish Executive – Angus McKay I think, the hapless Minister who wasn’t allowed to make his announcement because he had trailed it in the media beforehand. This Scottish Government needs a wee short, sharp lesson.
2. Never mind the quality, feel the width is the over-riding impression I get from the announcements so far. Big projects. Statement activity. Oh so macho. Which is not to be totally churlish – there are some great infrastructure projects in there, the overall intention is great, but I’m just finding all this muscle flexing a little off-putting. I’m sure other women voters feel the same, and the SNP has to be careful. Having at last captured the hearts of women voters in Scotland, it needs to keep stroking their sensibilities to keep it that way. Where are the jobs for women – the other group badly affected in the jobs market in Scotland – in all these big building projects?
3. The influx of Poles and Eastern Europeans to help out the building, and other trades, when we were in our boom years was always over-exaggerated, particularly by those with a distasteful and dishonest agenda to peddle. But there is no denying that much of the construction industry relied on economic migrants to fill the skills and labour gaps. Now that they have all gone home – another exaggeration but many families have indeed returned to their homelands – how are we going to fill the jobs? It’s all very well there being a far bigger pool to pick from, what with the record levels of unemployment, but a lot of construction jobs require skills and qualifications. It’s do-able, but only if we have someone actively directing the whole show, to ensure that the modern apprenticeships are meaningful and enough are completed in order to give us the large number of workers the really big showpiece capital projects will require.
4. Scotland needs a better road network in its hinterlands. So hurrah for the projects announced so far. I await excitedly news of upgrading for the A75 – which is after all part of a Euro route no less and a strategic route to Scotland’s biggest commercial port. The same goes for the A77. If there is no news here, it will be hard to escape accusations of pork barrel. You are on notice here, dear government.
5. No matter how you dress it up, most of this money will still end up in the pockets of the private sector. Not a bad thing in itself but the implications of much of the work, the ongoing fiscal responsibility for maintaining the constructed objects, will sit with the public sector. At a time when revenues are declining. Huge chunks of the proposals on house-building involve private developers rather than local councils and housing associations (there’s a separate blogpost to come on this). And I’m not sure the criteria has been fully thought through. Roads and railways create a lot of jobs in the making, but far fewer beyond it. But they do create big revenue on-costs. Schools and hospitals, and smaller scale community based project, might be less headline -grabbing – though it’s good to see some project of this nature in the mix – and create less jobs in the short term. But in the long term they keep folk in jobs, and have a long term contribution to make to our future economic development. Better education (there is a definite link between environment and attainment), improved health, stuff that people need to be happening locally in community centres, libraries and the like. It all adds up to much longer term gain and potentially, if they are built to decent standards and high energy efficiency requirements, less not more cost in the future. And there is a more cyclical effect of the money and investment staying in public hands and pockets.
6. Sorry, but we’re back to the macho feel of all this. Big, bold and aspirational. Demonstrating the SNP Government’s ambitions for Scotland. They want landmark investments and statement projects because it suits not only the narrative but also the personalities involved here. This is men’s work. And all that appears to be missing from the list is a giant Angel-of-the-North style statue of our dear Leader. But I don’t want to give them ideas….