Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP): The Scottish National Party approach the Budget with some degree of success compared with last year, having secured measures relating to the tampon tax. We have not yet secured those on VAT relating to police and fire, but perhaps we can pursue them as the Budget winds its way through the House.
I am glad that this Government are picking up on the success of the Scottish Government, whose small business bonus scheme has for some years helped many small businesses across Scotland survive in these very difficult times. We are now moving towards a considered review of business rates, but we are including the business community in the process and will take until 2017 to establish what the new system might look like. We are taking our time to get it right. Our Government like to consider these things more carefully and we do not like to jump, as this Government seem to do, from one crisis to the next.
Similarly, a cross-party commission on local tax reform has looked at council tax in Scotland. The cross-party review carefully considered all the different options relating to council tax and how we could make it a fairer system. The review took evidence, had public meetings and came up with a set of recommendations to which all parties could sign up. That had real credibility and an evidence base behind it. The right thing to do is to give clarity and certainty in order to try to make tax fair.
It would be good if this Government took on board that lesson, because they are so different from ours in Scotland. They are in chaos over welfare reform. There is a black hole in the Chancellor’s Budget, and that is on top of the targets he has failed to meet. He is responsible for local government tax hikes—the social care precept is a tax hike by any other name. He also claims to be helping tenants by cutting 1% of social rent for those in housing association accommodation, but he is ignoring altogether the rise in private rents, which is contributing to the housing crisis in England.
Members may have heard me say during DCLG questions earlier that the Communities and Local Government Committee took evidence from Crisis and Shelter that suggested that soaring rents in the private rented sector are now the leading driver of homelessness in England. There are already 3,600 people sleeping rough every night in England, and that figure has gone up 30% in the past year. There has been a 250% increase in the past five years in the number of people who end up homeless because they cannot afford to pay their rent. We are taking a different approach to the issue in Scotland. Our recent housing legislation has provided greater protections for people in the private rented sector, as well as for those in the social rented sector who have long enjoyed protections.
Tenants are being forced into poverty. There is, of course, a place for the private rented sector in the housing mix, but in England families are increasingly being forced to rely on that sector. They have no certainty in their tenancies and they cannot afford to get by, while social rented properties are being sold off, left, right and centre, with nothing similar to replace them.
Mr Gareth Thomas (Harrow West) (Lab/Co-op): The Scottish Government have the power to control the housing market, so they could introduce a rent cap if they wanted to do so. Should not the regions of England have the same powers as Scotland to control our housing market, so that if our London Mayor and Assembly, for example, wanted to introduce more rent controls, they could do so?
Alison Thewliss: Yes, I think that would be a very useful idea. Rents in the private sector are soaring compared with those in the social rented sector, so it is perverse that this Government view the social rented sector as the source of the problem, not the acceleration of rents. That would be a useful power for local government in England.
It is evident to just about everybody outwith those on the Government Benches that the solution to the housing crisis is not starter homes starting at of £450,000. A salary of £77,000 with a deposit of £90,000 is the going rate for these starter homes, but that will not exist in perpetuity for the next generation, who will go back into the very expensive retail housing market.
The Budget includes a welcome commitment to combat homelessness, but the funds involved are a drop in the ocean, given the size and scale of the housing crisis facing England. Virtually nothing is happening to encourage growth in the social rented sector in local government and housing associations. This Government are providing a sticking plaster when the patient needs urgent CPR. In Scotland, homelessness is falling and we are continuing to invest in the social rented sector, despite the cuts we face from the Government down here.
I will now turn to issues relating to devolution deals and draw Members’ attention to the “Pitch Book” on the Scottish Cities Alliance website, which outlines the scale of the ambition for some of Scotland’s cities. This Government could be doing a lot more to support growth deals in Scotland. Work is already going on in my own city of Glasgow and the partnership authorities in that city deal. That is making a significant contribution to the growth of local economies, and doing so in a sustainable manner that brings people on board and gets them back into work in communities that have been neglected over generations and that are still recovering from the cuts of the Thatcher years.
I reiterate my and my colleagues’ disappointment about the Aberdeen city and shire deal. The plans were for an ambitious deal comprising a £2.9 billion infrastructure delivery programme and an associated investment fund. Members will appreciate our disappointment when the Chancellor could find only a measly £125 million down the back of the Treasury sofa. Aberdonians often get unfairly maligned for being thrawn, but this Chancellor is in a different league entirely when it comes to being stingy towards a city whose oil has kept the UK economy afloat for years. There is news that the Inverness and highlands city deal may be announced tomorrow in Inverness, and I welcome that development. The people of Inverness and the highland region have been waiting for some time—since before the elections last year, in fact—to hear whether they will receive anything from the UK Government.
Significant investment is required to grow the economy of Inverness and the highlands, and to provide opportunities that enable young people to stay in the area. For too long, the brightest and best have had to leave the highlands to seek their fortunes elsewhere—[Interruption.] Especially my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady). The technological advances that we have in 2016 give us real opportunities to reverse that trend, which has damaged the highlands for so long. Doing so would not only allow local young people to stay in the area, but attract new families to enjoy the excellent quality of life afforded by that part of the world. Inverness deserves its share of UK Government support to innovate and make changes. I urge the Chancellor and Ministers to be generous and to find the sums of money that the area needs to stimulate growth.
Young people are making life choices as we speak. They are filling in UCAS forms and deciding where they will go to take their next steps in life. They need to know that in this Budget, the UK Government, as well as the Scottish Government, are thinking of their futures.
George Kerevan (East Lothian) (SNP): I want to follow up on city deals. Is my hon. Friend aware that at the back of the queue is the city deal for Edinburgh and south-east Scotland, which includes my constituency? The Chancellor and the Minister have made a great to-do about the fact that negotiations have been opened, but waiting six months before opening negotiations does not constitute an announcement. That is not an announcement; it is delay, delay, delay.
Alison Thewliss: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend and with other colleagues from that part of the world, who are also here. I understand that the Edinburgh and south-east Scotland city deal team put in their bid in September last year. To open negotiations only now is an unacceptable delay in a region that needs that stimulus.
Select Committee reports on city deals have mentioned that they are often dictated by political imperatives. It seems as though Edinburgh’s deal sits nowhere in those political imperatives. We have waited and waited with bated breath for an announcement on the Edinburgh and south-east Scotland deal, but we have had no certainty about how well the plans have been received. It would be good to have an announcement soon, because the purdah period for the Scottish Parliament elections is imminent. There will then be a further purdah period for the EU referendum.
The people of Edinburgh deserve to know how their deal is being received and when work can get under way. It would be a shame if the ambitious proposal in the bid for £1 billion to improve infrastructure, skills and innovation were put on hold by an EU referendum. That £1 billion of investment could unlock an additional £3.2 billion of private sector investment in Edinburgh and south-east Scotland. Because the bid team is working collaboratively with Edinburgh University, surely the potential impact of the city region deal to the UK’s productivity and growth is deserving of an announcement of significant funds very soon.
There are fledgling deals in other parts of Scotland as well, and I would welcome early engagement by the UK Government in those deals. This morning, I met people involved with the Ayrshire growth deal, which involves ambitious proposals for the area to bring in greater science, technology and innovation and to make the most of the Prestwick hub—
Alan Brown (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (SNP): And beyond.
Alison Thewliss: There is lots of potential in the area, and indeed in Kilmarnock. The growth deal should help to encourage young people to stay in the area and to make their lives there, and it should attract back families who have moved away.
There are many ways in which Scotland looks at issues differently. Our population of 5 million allows us fleetness of foot and innovative thinking. In local government, housing, homelessness, city deals and a host of other areas we can lead the UK. I hope that the SNP’s involvement in this Parliament, however long or short that involvement may be, will allow Members to look to Scotland for ideas of civilisation.