Orcadian Column, 13 January 2022

Happy New Year. As we enter 2022 with Covid restrictions still in place, the hope must be that the peak of this outbreak has been reached and a return to some semblance of normality can be achieved over the coming weeks. Learning to live with the virus will not be without its challenges, but is surely what must now be done.

Part of that process will involve a painstaking focus on recovery.  Economic recovery, certainly, given the toll Covid has taken on businesses and the country’s finances, but recovery too in relation to key public services, notably health and care. These were already under pressure pre-Covid, with serious capacity issues and waiting time targets that were seldom met, but the pandemic has exposed structural weaknesses that must be addressed as we look to rebuild.

In that context, it is baffling to hear the First Minister and those around her talking up the importance of making progress over the next 12 months towards another independence referendum. When ministerial responses routinely include explanations of why Covid is to blame for delays in everything from introducing RET and rolling out broadband to tackling the drugs death crisis and procuring new ferries, it’s hard to fathom how officials and Ministers can spare the time or resources for drafting legislation and White Papers on independence.

In terms of priorities, I strongly suspect most people in Orkney, and across Scotland, are rather more concerned about the growing energy and cost of living crisis, alongside the aforementioned pressure on public services.  

As a result of a sharp rise in global gas prices, households have already seen fuel bills jump over recent months. With the price’ cap’ due to be lifted again in April, those bills are expected to climb higher still, potentially by many hundreds of pounds. Even the prospect of this is causing understandable anxiety, not least here in Orkney where levels of fuel poverty are disproportionately high already. That anxiety, however, is not limited to those traditionally seen as more vulnerable.

To date, both the Scottish and UK Government have been slow to react, but both have a part to play. Longer term, we need to reduce our reliance on gas, particularly imports, by investing in renewables and improving the energy efficiency of homes and businesses. This will be costly, but not as costly or painful as failing to invest.

In the short term, though, steps must also be taken to mitigate the impact of price increases. This will involve scaling up and broadening the eligibility for existing schemes, while also looking at other targeted interventions. Funding this, in part, through a tax on businesses that have enjoyed windfall benefits during the pandemic and the rise in gas prices does not seem unreasonable.

At the same time, recent events offer a warning about the limitations and risks in ‘capping’ prices. However well-intentioned, the ‘cap’ forced many small energy companies into bankruptcy, reducing competition in the market, and ultimately leaving customers with unaffordable bills.

In some respects, this mirrors what we’ve seen with local government funding, where years of an SNP government ‘freeze’ on Council Tax left local authorities in a financial straightjacket, unable to raise funds needed to pay for key services. The latest SNP/Green budget now leaves Councils £370m out of pocket, forcing councillors to carry the can for cuts to services or large increases in Council Tax.

One can only imagine how the First Minister would react were the UK Government to behave towards her government the way she seems happy to treat Scotland’s local Councils. Council leaders of all political persuasions are rightly furious, with COSLA condemning the Scottish Government’s behaviour as an ‘attack on local democracy’.

There is still time for the SNP/Green coalition to rethink its approach to the budget, as well as work with UK counterparts to address the cost of energy crisis, both in the short and long term. These are the issues that matter most to people in 2022. Rather than exhausting time, energy and resource in stoking constitutional divisions, the First Minister should be making recovery her new year’s resolution.

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