FM outlines legislative programme
Sturgeon sets out policies and heads for six more years in power
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon today effectively gave herself six more years at the head of the Scottish Government after declaring the next parliament will run until 2021 to avoid clashing with the Westminster General Election a year earlier.
With little prospect of Labour gaining ground on the SNP before next year’s poll it means Ms Sturgeon is poised to become the longest-serving First Minister.
Some pundits even believe that Labour will not recover by 2021, which would extend the SNP’s hold on power until the middle of the next decade.
Ms Sturgeon today declared education and equality as the twin themes of her legislative programme which will include implementation of measures devolved under the Smith Commission process.
There will be a cut in air passenger duty from 2018, and a Scottish rate of income tax for 2016/17 in the forthcoming budget. There will be a number of measures to help business including continuation of the small business bonus. Fees for employment tribunals will be abolished and there is to be a review of the planning system.
She vowed to “vigorously oppose” Conservative plans to make it harder for trade unions to go on strike, accusing the Tories of seeking “to undermine the rights of unions to fairly and reasonably represent their members”.
Announcing eight bills to be introduced this session, the First Minister said there would be a new system of national testing in schools. “Improving school attainment is arguably the single most important objective in this Programme for Government,” she said.
“Improving it overall and closing the gap between children in our most and least deprived areas is fundamental to our aim of making Scotland fairer and more prosperous.”
The Federation of Small Businesses’ (FSB) Scottish Policy Convener, Andy Willox, said: “At a time when businesses are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit staff with the right skills, the major focus on educational attainment should get an A pass.
“The news that the small business bonus is set to continue across the next parliament is similarly welcome and will help many small businesses plan more effectively over the medium term.
“New support for micro finance through a £40m SME Holding Fund will help more budding entrepreneurs take the first step towards realising their full potential. It is through entrepreneurship that we will drive real social mobility in our communities. It is by backing small business that we will deliver wealthier, more resilient local economies in which everyone has the chance to succeed.
“Elsewhere, we need to make sure that abolishing fees for employment tribunals doesn’t open the floodgates to vexatious claims. Even when cases have no merit, businesses need to spend time and money responding to them – time that should be spent doing business.”
Plans to introduce a power for local rent controls in ‘high-pressure’ rental areas in Scotland could deter investment in Scotland’s private rented sector (PRS) and curtail much-needed housing supply, according to the Scottish Property Federation (SPF).
The SPF issued the warning as Ms Sturgeon outlined plans to introduce local rent controls through a Private Tenancies Bill as part of the SNP’s legislative programme for the next eight months.
Over the last few months, Scotland has seen significant investment into the build-to-rent sector, with La Salle Investment Management recently announcing the £127m purchase of Dandara’s Forbes Place scheme in Aberdeen and Grosvenor submitting plans for 400 purpose built rental units in Edinburgh. The EDI group has also announced plans for PRS homes at India Quay, Edinburgh, as has Whiteburn Projects in Dundee.
The SPF is concerned that even the possibility of rent controls could sound the death knell for future investment in the build-to-rent market. It says it has the potential to rapidly boost Scotland’s housing supply, which needs to be increased dramatically across all tenures if the current housing shortage is to be resolved.
David Melhuish, director of the SPF, said: “We will consider the detail of the Bill carefully when it is published but we have been trying to encourage investment into Scotland’s purpose-built rental market for a long time, and it has been great to see momentum build over the past few months with some big deals taking place.
“A clear message we have had from the industry, however, is that the mere prospect of rent controls, could be enough to spook potential investors bring us back to square one again.
“If the Scottish Government wants to increase housing supply, then the introduction of rent controls is not the way to do it.”
Homes For Scotland also said the introduction of local rent controls would undermine attempts to expand capacity in the Private Rented Sector by attracting institutional investment to deliver large-scale, purpose-built development.
PRS Champion Gerry More said: “I am therefore concerned that this move could prove counter-productive since these pressurised areas are exactly where investment to increase the supply and quality of PRS properties is needed most.”
The group welcomed the review of the planning system and the commitment of £195m to support a successor scheme to Help to Buy over the next three years.
However, it was felt the Help to Buy replacement was not sufficient. Commenting on the Scottish Government’s new shared equity scheme, Jason Hogg, director of residential and development land for JLL in Scotland said: “The introduction of new shared equity scheme is a welcome relief after the vacuum left by the end of Help to Buy in Scotland.
“However, without any further details regarding the eligibility or operation of the scheme, we’re still facing another three months of stagnation.
“Secondly, we question whether the sum of funding – £195m spread over three years – is really enough to satisfy demand. Based on the Scottish Government’s previous Help to Buy budget of £100m for volume housebuilders which only lasted six weeks, we would have to say it’s nowhere near enough.”