Muted manifestos

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By Graeme Downie @GraemeDownie

Orbit Communications Director, Graeme Downie, harkens back to the halcyon days of manifestos and when campaigns used to be about trying to win.

 In previous parliamentary elections, the launch of the manifestos usually took place quickly after the beginning of the short campaign, contained numerous policies with nice bullet points and were, you know, the documents that parties campaigned on for the next six weeks.  Ah, those quaint, care-free days!

Since the campaign began some three weeks ago, so far only the Greens and Conservatives have bothered publishing a manifesto at all, the SNP have scheduled a launch for just two weeks before polling day and it seems as though Labour and the Lib Dems are deciding whether they are as well holding a quick photo-opp and clicking send on a PDF document rather than organise a launch!  So, why are manifestos so pointless in this election?

Well, first let’s acknowledge a bit of reality.  How many voters ever actually waited for all the manifestos to be published, read the policy commitments cover-to-cover and then made a rational decision on how to vote?  Very few I suspect so perhaps parties are just catching up with reality.

Afterall, the first two TV debates and surrounding announcements have done more to inform the public about policy and positioning than a manifesto launch event usually would and generated the same or greater media coverage.

But one of the main reasons for the lack of lustre for the old ways in this election is more straight-forward.  In previous Scottish Parliament elections, manifestos were essentially the beginning of the horse-trading for expected coalition negotiations of some kind.  Even in 2011, with the SNP ahead in the polls, there was still an expectation that a deal of some kind of deal might be needed.

This year, that is not the case.  The Scottish Conservatives acknowledged as much in their own manifesto this week, saying “It is clear that the SNP are on course to win the Scottish election.”  Instead the Tories and Labour are campaigning to come in second, the Greens are looking to increase seats within the single digits and the Lib Dems are battling against annihilation.  The feeling amongst the parties seems to be that you don’t need detailed policies to achieve any of that so why lay out radical ideas that might be stolen by the presumed winners.  But do voters in a democracy not deserve to see more fight and belief from these politicians rather than seeing them meekly accepting second place?

Which brings us to the SNP.  They will be the government come the morning of 5 May, almost certainly with a second, supposedly impossible, majority.  So surely their manifesto can be radical given they are going to win regardless?  Well, it might be but I would expect them to stick to their pragmatic approach, building on the perception of the electorate that they are a competent government standing up for Scotland.  And who can blame them, it’s a strategy that has worked since 2007 and surely it is incumbent upon the challengers to make up ground rather than the leader to abandon a winning strategy and risk falling back to the pack.

So, the muted manifestos this year are perhaps in keeping with the overall mood of the campaign itself.  A result already confirmed and no parties really trying to win anything other than a battle with their own expectations.

This post originally appeared on PubAffairs: http://www.publicaffairsnetworking.com/public-affairs-news.php

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Scottish Council housing services are improving – but budget cuts require more radical action

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By Kirsty Wells, Head of HouseMark Scotland @Kirsty_Wells

A new report published in March 2016 by Audit Scotland provided encouraging evidence that Scotland’s local authorities have made important progress in the levels of service they provide in housing, even in the face of ongoing cuts to funding.

Audit Scotland’s analysis of Councils’ performance during the 2014-15 financial year showed a significant increase in the proportion of local authority housing meeting Scottish Housing Quality Standards, up from 83.7% in 2013-14 to 90.4%. This is a huge improvement on the 53.6% of dwellings meeting those standards five years previously.

There has been similarly important progress in the number of Council dwellings that are classed as energy efficient, rising from 74.9% in 2010-11 and 94% in 2013-14 to 96.5% the following year.

More modest improvements were recorded in relation to the percentage of rent due but lost during the year due to properties being empty, down from 1.3% to 1.2% year-on-year. Similarly, the average time taken to complete non-emergency repairs to Council housing fell slightly from 10.2 days the previous year to 9.9 days in 2014-15.

The report’s findings suggest that local authorities are making continued efforts to get to grips with performance issues in housing and important progress has been made.

But the headline conclusion of the report perhaps gives more significant pause for thought. This was that, given the scale of cuts to local authority budgets anticipated in the years ahead, making incremental savings through improved performance will no longer be enough. Indeed, the report specifically concludes that: “The Accounts Commission continues to be concerned about councils’ slow progress in delivering services differently, rather than relying on incremental savings to existing models of service delivery.”

Whilst Housing Revenue Account ring-fencing means that housing department budgets may, in part, be protected from some of the budget pressures being faced by other  services, there is a clear expectation that housing departments must ensure they are delivering the best value for money for their tenants and for the public purse.  Like other council  services, housing staff  need to be looking at new ways of working to deliver these savings.

Defining what those new ways of working should be will be the next big challenge local government housing departments will have to grapple with as they seek to achieve a step change in performance that enables them to maintain high standards of service with reduced budgets.

The best way of doing this is to measure their costs, resources and performance against peer organisations, to identify examples of best in class and, wherever possible, to emulate these. That is why cost and resource benchmarking is such an important tool for housing providers to use in these financially constrained times.

Audit Scotland’s report conclusions seem to suggest that Scottish local authorities are still making insufficient use of such benchmarking to drive the significant step change in improving performance that will be required over the next few years.

Without that step change, the risk is that future audits of the performance of Scottish local authorities in relation to housing will start to show a decline in standards as budget cuts really begin to bite. To avoid that from happening, Scotland’s Councils should be acting right now to benchmark their operating costs and performance against as wide a pool of their peers as they can, including other types of housing provider and local authorities in other parts of the UK.

Through robust, validated benchmarking, there is an opportunity to achieve a different approach to service delivery in Scottish council housing. But the Audit Scotland report is also an important wake-up call that the time to act is now.

This blog first appeared in Scottish Housing News.

About HouseMark Scotland

HouseMark Scotland is the market-leading provider of social housing data and insight in the housing sector. Its mission is to drive improvement by providing the data and insight its members need to respond to change. More than 950 housing organisations are members of HouseMark across the UK, giving housing organisations unrivalled access to a wealth of baseline data to benchmark all aspects of their day-to-day performance and to drive continuous improvement.

HouseMark is jointly owned by the Chartered Institute of Housing and the National Housing Federation – two social housing sector not-for-profit organisations that reinvest their surpluses into the sector.

Why I’ve only voted Labour once

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By, Jordan Ferguson  @JordanwFerguson

Jordan Ferguson talks frankly about his own personal experience of falling out of love with Scottish Labour

With five weeks to go until we elect arguably the most powerful parliament Scotland has ever known I find myself party-less. That is to say I no longer have membership of a political party. I let my membership lapse last month through predictable forgetfulness and my refusal to arrange yet another direct debit.  So I decided to make the most of my unexpected political freedom and shop around a little.

After a month of high expectations it turns out I’m not green enough for the Greens, not liberal enough for the Liberals, not conservative enough for the Conservatives and, having no interest venturing as far left as Rise, was left with Labour.

Like most people from Glasgow, I was brought up to support Labour and overall I mostly agree with Labour policies. I grew up around the whole Cool Britannia thing and was just young enough to think Tony Blair was cool because he had Oasis at No. 10, although I am now however ashamed to admit I ever thought Noel or Liam were cool.  I like what Gordon Brown did as chancellor and most of what Labour achieved for Scotland. Thing is, the only time I ever voted Labour was 2010 and that was more a vote against the Tories.  So why have I only ever put an X in the box next to labour once?

It’s not because the candidates where I’ve lived have been bad they have been quite good at times. I just find the parties taste in leaders terrible.

Now, I’ve heard veteran members in pubs and podcasts praise Kezia’s leadership of the Scottish Labour Party and for the life of me cannot understand why. My assumption is she does a lot behind the scenes that only party members are aware of. Well that would make her a good politician not necessarily a good leader.

I genuinely cringe when I hear her talk at FMQs. She stirs up memories of sitting through countless university presentations when someone read a script on something they neither understood nor cared about.  She has just the right amount of media training to know to over emphasise key words but, to me, still comes off as disingenuous and entirely unnatural.

At FMQs, Kezia seems to follows a very simple format.  Open with an attack on the SNP, big or small, back up the statement with some mock outrage and then slot a question loosely relating to the first statement at the end. It seems to me as though her objective is to slag off the SNP and asking questions is really just an inconvenience for her.  Is this really the great Labour plan? A strategy modelled on Andy Dufresne’s escape from Shawshank, just chip away small amounts over 20 years and eventually you’ll break through.

Like it or not the SNP are quite popular in Scotland. They may not have won the independence referendum but they definitely won the Scottish people. They hold a majority government in a parliament designed specifically to stop any one party having a majority and come May that majority will probably increase.

They have realised a potential of the Scottish Parliament that Labour never could.  And let’s be honest, they have actually done a good job of being in Government. Even its record on education isn’t really as bad as Labour tries to make out.  Actually all attempts at vilifying them have backfired and given them more credibility. So maybe, just maybe, it is not a good idea to attack as Labour seem so determined to do.

I understand the role of the opposition is to hold the government to account but only when there is something to be held to account on. I thought with parliament dissolved she might see her role differently. As I watched the leaders debate I realised I was wrong.

The other leaders seemed to have moved away from the expected SNP bashing with Patrick Harvie staying remarkably quiet and Ruth Davidson choosing to target Labour in the fight for second place.

Either arrogance or ignorance has led to this positon where the party feels no need to justify past actions or even attempt to repair its reputation. Instead it seems to me that the Labour Party in Scotland only exists to destroy the SNP.  It seems to have no concern for its own reputation or in holding power. Instead it appears focussed on ruining one party so badly that it’s willing to destroy itself in order to do so.  As a result, I suspect I will remain in my party political no-mans land for a little while yet.

Scottish Parliament election is set to be a truly taxing affair

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By Alex Orr Alex_M_Orr

 

The issue of tax is set to form the key battleground for the political parties at the forthcoming Scottish Parliamentary elections on 5th May.

In April 2017, the Scottish Parliament will receive a package of powers. These include:

  • power to set the rates and bands of income tax on non-savings and non-dividend income
  • half the share of VAT receipts in Scotland being assigned to the Scottish government’s budget
  • and power over Air Passenger Duty and Aggregates LevySo, for the first time, significant powers will form a key plank of party manifestoes, and voters will face a spread of ideas and choices over the best balance of taxation and spending.

SNP

The SNP has said it will not adopt Mr Osborne’s announcement in the Budget to take anyone earning less than £45,000 out of the 40p tax rate. However, it does not intend to increase the 45p rate currently levied on those earning £150,000 or more a year.

The argument for not raising the top rate of income tax straight away is, according to Nicola Sturgeon, that this would see Scotland lose up to £30m a year due to income tax avoidance. She has however not ruled this out for future years and has asked the Council of Economic Advisers to see whether that risk can be mitigated.

George Osborne aims to put up the starting threshold for basic rate of tax from £11,000 to £12,500 by 2020. Nicola Sturgeon says she wants to put it up to £12,750 by the following year.

Scottish Labour

Scottish Labour has put on record that it does not want to see the threshold change north of the border. This is at odds with the UK party which has not objected to the Conservative government’s proposal.

Scottish Labour has also made clear that it wants to put 1p on tax rates in order to raise money “to protect public services”. It said it could give a rebate to those earning less than £20,000. In addition, it would like to see the highest rate of tax – affecting those earning more than £150,000 a year – raised from 45p to 50p.

Scottish Conservatives

A Scottish Conservative-appointed commission argued that the total tax burden should not rise any higher in Scotland than it is in the rest of the UK. It backs the Chancellor’s approach to thresholds, arguing that the proposals by the other political parties would make Scotland the most highly taxed part of the UK, but tax cuts look set to remain merely “aspirational”.

Scottish Liberal Democrats

The Scottish Liberal Democrats want a similar penny increase as Scottish Labour, aimed at protection of education spending. It also says it objects to the 40p threshold change.

Scottish Greens

The Scottish Greens have set out plans to introduce a new 60p rate of income tax for Scotland’s highest earners. The party wants the new rate to apply to those earning more than £150,000 and it also plans a new 43p rate, starting at £43,000.

The Scottish Greens have also said they want to reduce the income tax paid by those earning less than £26,500 a year.

Conclusion

Napoleon’s strategy of the centre has, rightly, become military gospel

The French emperor consistently put his army in the middle of two or more larger opponents, allowing him to fight, and usually defeat each army in turn, rather than facing an overwhelming combined force.

Like Napoleon, its tax proposals leave the SNP as broadly camped across the middle ground of Scottish politics as it could ever wish to be, opting for a tax policy that risks the minimum amount of harm, by having the minimum difference with Westminster. Nicer than the Tories, more responsible than Labour.

Though it may be tempting to raise the 45% rate of tax on those earning more than £150,000, that is a choice that it currently sees as more symbolic than useful in raising revenue.

Given its lead in the polls the SNP can almost certainly live until early May’s election with the tensions and inconsistencies of talking radical and redistributive on one hand, while acting safely centrist on the other.

Labour’s pitch looks like one that is aimed at its traditional core – a narrower appeal to a chunk of the more radical left, and is designed to outflank the SNP by being more “progressive”. That’s in the hope it can be peeled away from its recent adherence to the SNP but leaves its leader, Kezia Dugdale, being exposed on all fronts as being irresponsible for wanting to raise tax.

The Scottish Conservatives, in with a sniff of a chance of coming second in this election, are standing on a centre-right platform, positioning itself as the party of the UK and appealing to a traditional middle class following through opposing any proposed tax rises by other parties.

With the parties having set out their stalls on tax and spend, the Scottish electorate will for the first time face a spread of genuine choices in front of them when they enter polling stations on the 5thMay.

Will a silent majority save the status quo again?

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By Graeme Downie @graemedownie

As one of my friends said, it’s hard to resist writing a blog when you already have a title with a Richard Nixon reference, just as it is impossible for anyone who lived through the Scottish independence referendum to write anything about the forthcoming EU vote without referring to the events leading up to September 2014.

Sure, much of the debate from both sides 18 months ago might have been uninformed and bitter but politics was front and centre in Scotland, something clearly shown in the turnout of almost 85%.  Observers were living and dying by the daily polls which were largely in agreement that the outcome would most likely be a “No” vote, one infamous poll notwithstanding of course!

And yet, the “Yes” campaign were insistent, their data were telling a very different story.  Their vote was higher than was being polled because they were engaging with new voters who were more likely to be on their side and more motivated to turnout.

That motivation is a key point when examining the forthcoming EU referendum.  The feeling prior to September 2014 was that “Yes” voters were more motivated to vote, whereas “No” voters were ambivalent – they might say “No” in a poll but they lacked the passion and belief in the Union to show up and vote.  As it turned out the “No” vote was every bit as engaged and passionate as “Yes” and that is probably what swung the result in favour of the Better Together campaign.

So, what does that tell us about the forthcoming EU referendum?  Unlike the Scottish Referendum, since the Prime Minister confirmed the referendum date, there have been polls showing both sides in the lead, making the 19% of consistently undecided voters even more crucial.  Both campaigns need to engage with that group of undecideds and convince them not only that their side is right that it is important they actually vote, meaning they will have to answer a key question from the electorate, “Why should I care?”.

This brings us back to a motivation and a few questions.  Are UK voters as engaged with the EU debate as the Scottish electorate was in September 2014?  How many of the 19% of undecided vote will vote?  Which set of voters will have the higher turnout?

In the Scottish referendum, both sides could appeal to identity and history, one with the Saltire and one with the Union Flag.  For the EU campaign, whilst the Leave campaign can wrap itself in the red, white and blue to encourage voters to their side, it is hard to imagine Remain doing that with the 12 stars to the same effect.  That could lead to a larger motivated vote to leave the UK, with many in the middle shrugging their shoulders and not showing up at all.

Remain must show passion and appeal to the heart as well as the head of electorate otherwise we could see a UK-wide turnout of around 55% with no silent majority out there to the rescue of the status quo as it did in September 2014.

Tax changes will harm rental market in rural areas

 

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Amanda Wiewiorka Owner / Company Director, Wardhaugh Property

With over 50 years’ experience, Wardhaugh has adapted to many changes in the housing rental market in Angus but we are currently facing a combination of tax changes which will hurt small investors, leading to an insufficient supply of suitable rental accommodation to meet demand in the area.

Unlike areas such as Dundee, where the largest demand is for flats, in Angus we see more families looking to rent larger homes.  The reasons for families choosing to rent are varied but can include the need to be flexible for employment reasons, concerns over interest rates or simply preferring not to be saddled with the extra responsibilities that come from owning a home.

Providing that type of quality housing in areas like Arbroath and Forfar, in common with other rural areas across Scotland, relies heavily on small investors.  Without the commitment of local landlords it is hard to create the necessary supply to meet demand.  Sadly, two new tax measures announced in London and Edinburgh have threatened our market here in Angus.

The first, dubbed the “Alice in Wonderland” tax, was announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer at Westminster and restricts tax relief on residential properties owned by individual landlords to the basic rate of income tax.  This will disproportionately harm single-property and small portfolio landlords who, like other businesses, were previously taxed on profit but will now be taxed on their whole income.  I find it shocking that landlords with a small number of properties will be hit by this, whilst massive financial operations with thousands of homes under their control will be able to dodge this new tax entirely.

At the same time, the Scottish Government has announced that an extra 3% will be added to the Land & Buildings Transactions Tax (LBTT) for the purchase of second homes.  Whilst larger companies will be able to adsorb this cost through complex financial management, it will make life much harder for smaller players with tight margins looking to invest.

The joint effect of these changes could have a devastating effect on the rental market in Angus, driving small landlords out of the area and exacerbating the shortage of available properties.  I was recently speaking to one landlord who will be selling his portfolio of 4 properties very soon as a result of these changes.

At Wardhaugh, we are working to make sure our landlords are aware of these changes and doing all we can to make sure still feel able to maintain their properties in the area but it is difficult when many feel victimised and left at a significant disadvantage compared to the larger, impersonal investors from outside our community.

The importance of building a good reputation

Alex Bruce 04
Alex Bruce @alexandersbruce

“No such thing as bad publicity” goes the old adage. But for the construction sector, conveying the right image is increasingly critical.

Many companies don’t give their reputation much thought. After all, order books are full and clients seem generally happy so why worry?

While true for now, most contractors also know from bitter experience how fierce competition for new business now is and how perilously thin profit margins have become.

Against that background, a little investment towards managing your reputation and promoting your achievements can go a very long way when it comes to winning your next contract.

Faced with a choice between a contractor who can actively demonstrate their credentials through regular media coverage and public recognition and one who makes those claims purely on paper, the decision for the client becomes a very easy one.

The issue of reputation doesn’t stop at the front line of new business opportunities either.

One of the biggest issues industry employers now face is to find suitably skilled workers to work for them. Faced with an ageing workforce and a chronic shortage of new talent, recruiting and retaining the skills your business needs to grow is a real challenge.

Ironically, statistics show that the average salary of someone working in the construction sector compares very favourably with other sectors of the Scottish economy, surpassed only by banking, finance and offshore oil and gas.

But preconceptions about the industry and career prospects within it have proved very difficult to shift. Careers advice in schools has come in for some sharp criticism from the industry in recent times. Some of it is entirely justified as politicians have sought to reduce the skills issue to a headline-grabbing apprenticeship numbers game.

Sadly, there is a lack of recognition for the superior quality of the four year indentured apprenticeship framework offered as standard in the traditional building trades. In that context, measures such as the suggested introduction of foundation apprenticeships risk devaluing the qualification and real damage to the development of specialist construction skills.

At the same time, the tradition of local officers from CITB going out and regularly banging the industry drum in local secondary schools seems to be on the way out as CITB’s remit adapts to new UK Government proposals for an apprenticeship levy on all large employers.

Hence, there is a growing expectation that building sector employers should be carrying out this missionary work themselves. What is more, your skills search will be that much easier if you can get in front of school pupils at an early stage and convince them why they should choose a career not only in the construction industry generally but with your company in particular.

Ultimately, it could mean the difference between having enthusiastic candidates approach you proactively about employment opportunities and having to go out and find those candidates, only to find they’ve already been put off a career in construction by their careers adviser – or worse yet, they’ve already taken an apprenticeship with a competitor that did take the trouble to come and talk to them in school when they were starting to think about careers.

What’s more, once recruited, your workforce needs to know they’re working for a company they can take pride in. Sustaining and promoting your company’s reputation is equally important to maintain internal morale and get the very best out of your team.

More than many other industries, building sector employers frequently suffer from having their own reputations tarnished by the poor practice of a small minority of rogue traders.

Once again, making the extra effort to manage your own company’s reputation can yield big returns with potential customers spooked by horror stories of botched jobs and bills spiralling out of control. At the sharp end, it could make the crucial difference between them going ahead with the work or putting it off for another day.

Whether to give you that crucial edge in the competition for new work, to attract and retain the skills and talent your company needs for the future or give customers the confidence they need to appoint you, managing your reputation and actively promoting your business has never been more crucial to future success.

This article first appeared in Project Scotland.