Malcolm argues for greater support for further eductation, housing, and sustainable travel
Debate on the Scottish Budget 2012-13 Malcolm Chisholm (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab):
It is quite right that we concentrate in the debate on the decisions that the Scottish Government must make within its powers and resources, but I must first address a point that Chic Brodie and Kenneth Gibson made. SNP members are spreading about a new myth, which is that somehow Labour and the Conservatives at Westminster have the same economic policy - the cabinet secretary, being a more reasonable man, merely implied that that is the case. The fact is that the economic policy of Labour at Westminster has not changed.

We remain adamant that the cuts that are being made are going too far and too fast. Mr Swinney quoted the IMF, which said that the overvigorous deficit reduction strategy is having an entirely negative effect on growth and employment and indeed on the longer-term prospects for reducing the deficit, and I quite agree.

Let us concentrate on what we can do in the Scottish Parliament.

Mary Scanlon:

Will the member give way?

Malcolm Chisholm:

I will do so in a moment.

As Kenneth Macintosh said, there is a larger measure of agreement about what Labour is proposing than people might think that there is. From the front benches, Ken Macintosh emphasised colleges and housing. I will talk about those two subjects, although if I have time I will also talk briefly about the budget for sustainable and active travel, which the Infrastructure and Capital Investment Committee, of which I am a member, has been considering.

We can address the problems of the housing and further education budgets within the money that has not been allocated. It might also be possible to make some shifts, but such a significant sum is available in the unallocated moneys, particularly in relation to capital, that there is ample scope to spend more on housing and FE. The two areas tick all the boxes that we want to tick: the economics box, the employment box, the social justice box and the preventative spend box.

Why on earth is a Government that claims to prioritise youth employment cutting the FE budget by 20 per cent, with the cut front loaded at 13 per cent next year, on top of 10 per cent this year? Perhaps a 10 per cent cut can be accommodated this year through efficiencies of various kinds, but can that be repeated next year? I very much doubt it. The Government’s decision is illogical and I hope that it will be reversed.

We all know about the social need for housing, but we must also remember what a profound boost to the economy a house building programme would provide. We are told that we will get 4,000 social rented houses a year. Notwithstanding that many of the organisations that know about such things are a bit sceptical about that happening, that is 2,000 fewer houses than were promised in the manifesto and will in no way meet our crying and urgent need for more houses.

Last week I visited the City of Edinburgh Council and East Lothian Council, in relation to the 2012 commitment on homelessness, and both councils told me that they will really struggle to meet the objective. There is an urgent need for more social rented housing for social, employment, economic and climate change purposes, so let us ensure that unallocated capital goes into the area, as the Infrastructure and Capital Investment Committee recommended in its report to the Finance Committee.

Paul Wheelhouse:
Does the member welcome, as I do, East Lothian Council’s decision to buy back houses on the open market, to increase the supply of social housing at the pace that he says is necessary?

Malcolm Chisholm:

That is certainly one of the things that the council is having to do, but the approach will not in itself solve the council’s problem.

I mentioned the Infrastructure and Capital Investment Committee’s report. There is not just agreement among many Opposition parties; the reports of many committees, which of course have an SNP majority, say much the same thing and ask that the number 1 priority be that unallocated capital be given to housing.

On active and sustainable travel, we are talking about relatively small sums of money. If we took £1 million from every line in the transport budget we could probably address most of the concerns that I will raise. I will focus on three recommendations of the Infrastructure and Capital Investment Committee. The committee recommended that the future transport fund “be focused on capital projects that provide high economic return”, with a particular focus on cycling, because a 10 per cent modal shift to cycling is required under the report on proposals and policies under the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009. However, there is a massive cut to the cycling budget. Sustrans has received £5 million a year, but it will now get £1.5 million, possibly over two years, but perhaps four - it is not clear.

Another recommendation was that “the Scottish Government should give consideration to setting the active travel budget as a proportion of total transport spending.”

The Government said in its response to the committee that it refused to do that. We know why - it is because, last year, the figure was 1.21 per cent of the overall transport budget, whereas next year it will be 0.67 per cent. The figure will reduce from £25 million this year to £16 million next year. The committee also recommended that the cabinet secretary should maintain cycling, walking and safer streets funding at the current level of £7.5 million a year, but it has been reduced to £6 million.

The cabinet secretary is going against not only what Opposition members say, but what his own party’s members have said in committees. The freight facilities grant, which is a further small amount of money in the sustainable travel budget, will go down from £2 million to £0.75 million. The availability of that funding has been critical to shifting freight from road to rail.

In my remaining few seconds, I point out that the issues can be dealt with by small shifts in the transport budget. By taking £1 million or £2 million away from some of the many lines in that budget, I hope that the issues can be addressed without having to invade any other budget.
January 25th 2012