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Policy Newsletter – August 2021 – Agreeing To agree

In his second monthly Policy Newsletter, Craig Dalzell examines the proposed SNP/Green cooperation agreement and the shared policies that could be strengthened by work done by Common Weal.

First, some upfront disclosure. I am currently a member of the Scottish Green Party (though I don’t hold any official office within the party nor am I currently a member of any of the governing committees). This means that I shall have a vote on the August 28th alongside the rest of the Scottish Green membership on the proposed cooperation agreement between the Scottish Government and the Green Parliamentary Group. Should the members vote by simple majority against this deal or should it fail a 2/3rds majority vote at the party’s governing council then the co-leaders of the party are constitutionally bound to reject the deal. By contrast, the SNP’s governing body – the NEC – has already voted unanimously in favour of the deal and ordinary members will only be granted a “consultative ballot” on it.

This newsletter isn’t the platform for me to go into detail on which way I intend to vote one way or the other but it is one to examine the policy implications of this proposed deal whether it goes ahead or not.

Last Friday the proposal finalised its negotiations and was presented to Parliament and then the public. It takes the form of two documents. The first being the structural arrangement between the two parties. The proposal is less than a full coalition where the Greens would be formally part of Government with ministerial positions and a full shared platform with the SNP. (Scotland last saw this arrangement with the Labour/Lib Dem coalitions that ran Scotland from 1999 till 2007.) It is however more than a “Confidence & Supply” agreement where the Greens would promise to support the government in the annual budget vote and in any “no confidence” motions” but would otherwise be independent and able to vote for or against policies as they wish. It also represents a much closer alliance than was seen between the SNP and the Greens in the 2007-2011 Parliament where the Greens promised to support ministerial appointments (without which, the Government couldn’t be formally created) but “Confidence and Supply” was only agreed on an ad-hoc basis – especially in the run up to each budget.

If this deal goes ahead, the Greens will not formally enter Government but will gain two ministers (who they will be and what they will do is yet to be announced) and will be expected to grant Confidence & Supply as well as both groups promising to closely on policy development (including promising to not surprise the other with amendments or policy motions).

The Greens will be expected to uphold “Cabinet Responsibility” (i.e. agree to agree with and not criticise the Government) on all Government policies with – and this is why it’s not a full coalition – the exception of certain key areas of disagreement such as the future of Free Ports, NATO membership, the legal nature of sex work, the regulation of private schools and economic objectives such as maximising GDP. On these areas, the Greens will be free to uphold their own distinct policy platforms. Should a Green MSP present a Members’ Bill to Parliament, the Scottish Government is not bound to support it but must consider it in “good faith” alongside the second document – the agreed shared policy programme.

This programme lays out where and to what extent the SNP and Greens either already agree with each other on something or they have been willing to come to agreement over the course of the negotiations for the proposed deal. It is quite important to recognise that mutual agreement has already been achieved here because it means that, even if the deal does not go ahead, there is no ideological reason why any of the policies should not be supported anyway. The votes in the Parliament are already guaranteed and I would challenge either group to say they’d be happy to stand up to the public and say something like “I’m sorry, the deal fell through so all you tenants can’t have your rent controls now”. I would instead hope that most or all of this shared platform makes it into next month’s Programme for Government regardless of the outcome of the agreement. All that would change is the manner of the delivery.

This is not to say that everything in the Shared Platform is currently a deliverable however. Much of it relies on statements of intent and future consultations rather than the actual “do” of a political promise.

Take, for example, the promise to replace Council Tax – something that has been a perennial promise since the start of devolution. The shared platform promises the formation of a working group on Council Tax and deliberative engagement up to and including a Citizens’ Assembly on Council Tax. We’ve seen this all before albeit via public consultation instead of Citizens’ Assemblies which are now the vogue (which is not to say that we’re not a fan of them here at Common Weal and we enthusiastically engaged with the recent Scottish Climate Assembly.

Every single investigation into Council Tax over more than a decade has come back saying that it is not fit for purpose, never was and should be replaced as soon as possible. (Seriously. To see instantly how absurd the tax is, try asking if you could have your income tax calculated based on what your salary was in 1992).

In 2020 Common Weal published our policy paper on how Council Tax could be replaced in a way that a) would be revenue neutral compared to current budgets (and adjustable from there), b) could easily fit into the combined national and local control laid out by the Shared Platform proposal, c) would be a much fairer way of linking tax to property value, and d) could raise additional revenue through the taxing of land. We would be more than happy to engage with the Greens and Scottish Government on how this could be implemented, but surely no-one can be content to shove this issue into even longer grass?

There are other areas in the Shared Platform that are a little less vague in terms of commitment – the aforementioned Rent Controls and tenants’ rights for instance – but there are still issues around the right way to do this and ways that could be detrimental to tenants despite good intentions.

In the last Parliamentary session, Common Weal strongly supported Labour MSP Pauline McNeil in her campaign for a “Mary Barbour Bill” of rent controls. We both recognised that the bill itself was not as effective as it could be but it had had to be significantly watered down to gain any kind of support in Parliament (which ended up being a moot point as the bill timed out at the dissolution of Parliament before the May elections). Under that version, rent would be linked to inflation which would significantly limit the rate of rent increases for many (though not all) tenants but it wouldn’t create a hard ceiling or help to reduce already extortionate rents. We detailed in our response to the consultation how this could lead to adverse effects. Instead we proposed, in a joint paper with Living Rent ,a scheme of rent controls that would be linked not to the “market value” of a property but to its quality and state of repair. (See this thread on Twitter for a list of horror stories of landlords refusing to maintain and make basic repairs to properties, and ask if they might be more willing to do so if the rent they could charge was reduced possibly to zero until they do).

Naturally, no deal involving the Greens would be without some stronger policies regarding the environment and the Green New Deal (notwithstanding the fact that oil and gas, growth-based economics and direct financial support for aerospace businesses are all on the excluded policies list). However with the IPCC 2021 report now out, COP26 fast approaching and the climate emergency not far behind – there is still remarkably little in the agreement that goes much further than policies already announced. This is particularly the case for the broad scope on housing where the promise to “reform” Energy Performance Certificates is re-stated alongside the intention to cling to them, despite Common Weal and others showing how badly they reflect actual energy performance in buildings and that a viable replacement is possible.

The agreement hints at better building regulations and includes mention of “explicit support for PassivHaus and equivalent standards” but is still concerned more with decarbonising heat which, while important, is not the only part of the Green New Deal (We have shown that doing this badly without a comprehensive insulation standard could increase fuel poverty). This is still a far cry from the Climate Assembly’s demand for all buildings to be constructed to passive standards within five years. £400 million over the next five years to improve insulation and start building district heat networks is a start, but represents less than 1% of the cost we have calculated would be needed to roll out this vital work across the entire country, but covers more than 20% of the time remaining to do the job. I agree that Scotland cannot complete a Green New Deal without the powers of independence but Part Two of our Resilient Scotland Plan plan has shown what we can do within the powers of devolution to take us as far down that roadmap as possible before we put the choice to continue or not to the people in the independence referendum that the agreement (and both parties individually) have promised before the end of this Parliament.

I highly encourage folk to read through the details of this proposed deal – especially if you have a vote in whether it goes ahead or not.

It’s possibly no coincidence that many of the shared policies are very similar to or could easily be informed by extant Common Weal policy but the important factor in this agreement is not the document of promises but the will to enact them. Now that those shared policies have been agreed, there is little in Parliament that can stop them happening even without a deal. They can and should happen quickly (at a recent internal Q&A Lorna Slater repeated a boast from the New Zealand Greens that they got the ball rolling on everything in their shared programme within six months) and this includes the policies where the aspiration is ahead of the plan to meet it.

The success or failure of this Parliament and our last chance to avert the climate emergency will hinge on whether or not the SNP and Greens can rise to and exceed those aspirations, show us precisely what they both mean by them and then – most important of all – actually do the things they’ve both agreed must be done.

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