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As I See It

FM may have bitten off more than she can chew

Terry portrait with tieNicola Sturgeon promised an ambitious programme and few would deny that the menu of new bills announced in parliament adds up to a feast of major changes.

Setting aside the First Minister’s radical plans for the running of schools and the increased funding for health care, the list of goodies for transforming the economy was enough to whet the appetite.

She now has to deliver and, as they say, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.

Reform of business rates, more funding for research and the film industry, the goal of a top ten place for Edinburgh in the fintech sector, stepping up the attainment of 100% superfast broadband, streamlining the planning system, setting up a National Manufacturing Institute, building more houses, and setting up a Scottish National Investment Bank….

That’s just a sample and those who have lobbied for one or more of these must be starting to believe in miracles.  Can Ms Sturgeon really present herself as the economy’s fairy godmother?

Given Scotland’s sluggish productivity and on-going battle with the tackling the deficit in the public finances questions are being asked about the implications for tax rises in order to pay for the new programme. Unless much of it remains on the wish list.

Apart from some concern about the cost of Ms Sturgeon’s green initiatives and deposit-return scheme the reaction from business was a bit of a giveaway: a broadly positive response with a dose of scepticism.

On the Scottish National Investment Bank – the one big unexpected announcement – the Scottish Chambers could only say it “looks forward to further clarity…and how it will operate in reality” echoed by CBI Scotland’s Hugh Aitken who said “we look forward to further details on the work and remit of the Scottish National Investment Bank”.

Clearly there has not been much pre-statement discussion on the idea, though it is an idea that has been around for some time and was a key plank of Labour’s manifesto. It is likely to build on the existing Scottish Investment Bank which has a good record of co-investment with other agencies and on similar banks in other countries.

Benny Higgins, the departing CEO at Tesco Bank, has accepted the job of building the foundations of the bank. It comes as no surprise that his “retirement” will not mean leaving the corporate world just yet and his input, as with fellow former RBS executive Ken Barclay on the rates review, will add valuable business insight into the workings of government.

Ms Sturgeon’s civil servants, however, must be wondering how the programme will be delivered, particularly as much of last year’s list of promises is yet to be instigated. The Scottish Tories pointed out at the weekend that less than a quarter of the bills proposed this time last year have been passed and that the 16 this time round will be added to the 11 already waiting in the queue.

And that’s just to introduce the legislation. Implementing it is another matter.


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