Green manifesto leaves questions to be answered

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by James Maxwell

On Tuesday the Scottish Green Party became the last of Scotland’s five main parties to launch its manifesto.

In the brief introductory tract, party co-conveners Patrick Harvie and Eleanor Scott make the case for both a more equitable, economically just society and a new politics built around progressive environmentalist principles:

“Our society is an increasingly unequal, unhealthy and unjust place”, they write.  “Our economy has for years been based on speculation and debt, and dependent on the exploitation of people and natural resources.  Our environment has been impoverished, degraded and polluted.  Something has to give.”

Among the most significant policies outlined in the document are:

  • The scrapping of plans to construct a new road bridge over the Forth
  • The scrapping of plans to build the Aberdeen Western bypass
  • A publicly funded home insulation scheme
  • The introduction of a Land Value Tax to replace the Council Tax

The last of these pledges represents Green policy making at its most radical.  The Land Value Tax (LVT), which would begin at a rate of 3p in the pound for all eligible households and 8p in the pound for businesses, is designed to shift the burden of local government taxation onto the richest 15 per cent of Scots, thereby easing the financial pressure currently bearing down on the middle and working class majority.

Only Scotland’s most expensive properties would be subject to the full effect of the tariff, from which the extra revenue generated – estimated at £1bn by the Greens’ number crunchers – would be used to “end the squeeze on local government services and reduce councils’ reliance on their grant from the Scottish Government”.

However, the manifesto fails to provide a credible or practicable timetable for the implementation of the LVT.  It assumes it could be introduced in 2012 at the earliest, but the party’s own preceding LVT policy paper, prepared by author and land campaigner Andy Wightman in the autumn of last year, proposes 2015 as the target year for introduction, and even that is dependent on the accelerated completion of a Scottish Land Register (identifying the distribution and ownership of land) by up to 10 years.

Further, there is no indication that the party has calculated the likely cost of an appeals process, nor of transition arrangements – also identified by Wightman – for the 13% of householders who would face substantial increases in their local tax payments.

These challenges have the potential to both significantly delay the introduction of the LVT and reduce the revenues it could generate during the lifetime of the next parliament.

Meanwhile, the manifesto signals a retreat on other tax proposals.  At the party’s autumn conference last year plans were announced to use the Scottish Parliament’s tax varying powers to their full effect by raising the Variable Rate to its limit of 3p in the pound.  This underpinned the Greens’ claim to occupy the moral high ground on cuts and allowed them to accuse the other parties – principally the SNP, which opposes the use of the Variable Rate – of preferring to slash expenditure on public services than to raise taxes.

Now, however, the Greens favour raising the Variable Rate by just 0.5p in the pound, an implicit acknowledgement that any more substantial an increase would be regressive, mainly because it would disproportionately affect people on low incomes at a time of high inflation and stagnant or declining salaries.

Nonetheless, the manifesto contains some genuinely compelling ideas, including a Gender Analysis Budget to assess the likely consequences Westminster’s cuts will have on women and the creation of a Scottish ‘Grameen’ Bank to fund microfinance loans, especially to young entrepreneurs.

Further, despite the timetabling problems of the LVT and the watering down of earlier income tax ambitions, the £1.8bn the Greens would save from the scrapping of the Forth Replacement Crossing allows them to offer pledges distinct from the other parties, like £940m for affordable housing, £650m for public transport infrastructure and £500 for energy efficiency measures, among other things.

These policies, together with a commitment to Scottish self-governance, unwavering opposition to new nuclear power stations and the Trident nuclear weapons system and support for free universal higher education, make the Scottish Greens in some ways the natural ideological bedfellows of the Nationalists.

Yet whether or not this general convergence of principle will translate into a practical political convergence at Holyrood after May 5th is anyone’s guess.