Who’s potentially In and out in Nicola Sturgeon’s new team

Orbit Communications - Alex Orr 01
Alex Orr alex_m_orr

Tomorrow Nicola Sturgeon will be re-elected as First Minister tomorrow by the Scottish Parliament, after which she is expected to announce her new Government team of Cabinet Secretaries and Ministers.

So far she has already announced plans for a new cabinet post of Economy Secretary, splitting the responsibilities of the current Finance and Economic Growth brief held by John Swinney.  Ms Sturgeon said the new powers over tax and welfare and the current economic challenges posed by unemployment figures and other difficulties facing businesses, including in the North Sea and Clyde shipyards, means a new cabinet secretary for economic growth is necessary.

Ms Sturgeon said the post holder’s responsibility would be to “stimulate growth, boost productivity and create jobs”, allowing the Finance Secretary to focus on the new tax and welfare powers that Holyrood will have for the first time.

If Mr Swinney remains in one of the two finance and economy posts it could mean promotion for another who has performed well and, given Ms. Sturgeon’s commitment to a gender balanced cabinet it is possible the roles, which would be considered the most senior positions after the First Minister could be split between a man and a woman, likely meaning a major reshuffle is on the cards around the Cabinet table.

Possible contenders include Infrastructure Secretary, Keith Brown, seen as a safe and competent Cabinet Secretary since his promotion from transport when he steadied the ship after Stewart Stevenson was forced to resign. Transport Minister, Derek Mackay, is another who could be promoted to a cabinet secretary role.

Angela Constance is expected to be moved from the education brief and the post will be one of the most important in Ms Sturgeon’s new government following her commitment to tackle the attainment gap between the most and least affluent pupils.

Pollok MSP, Humza Yousaf, is developing a growing reputation within the party and is close to Ms Sturgeon. After spending most of his first term as external affairs minister he could be in line for promotion.

New MSP, Jeane Freeman, could be catapulted straight into government with her experience already as a government adviser and enhanced reputation during the referendum campaign whilst former MSP, Shirley-Anne Somerville, destined for government before she lost her seat in 2011, could be in line for another job on her return.

With some junior ministers not returning to Parliament there are some posts to be filled and opportunities for long-standing MSPs and new faces to make their mark lower down the ministerial ladder.  Housing Minister, Margaret Burgess MSP, did not seek re-election, like fellow Local Government Minister Marco Biagi and environment minister, Aileen McLeod lost her seat, leaving three junior posts to be filled.

Having secured her personal mandate, where previously she had inherited the post from Alex Salmond, along with his team, the new First Minister will now feel fully free to shape the new administration as she sees fit.

 

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The EU, an opportunity to celebrate it and all it has achieved

Orbit Communications - Alex Orr 01
Alex Orr Alex_M_Orr

On Europe Day (9th May), Alex Orr, Managing Director of Orbit Communications gives his personal view on the era of peace and stability the European Union (EU) has delivered.

Today events take place across Scotland and the rest of the European Union (EU) to mark Europe Day, an annual celebration of peace and unity across the continent.

Thousands of people will take part in visits, debates, concerts and other events to mark the day and raise awareness of the EU. Europe Day is especially relevant this year, given the impending referendum in the UK on EU membership in just over six weeks’ time on 23rd June.

The day is also known as Schuman Day, commemorating the historical declaration 66 years ago on 9th May, 1950 by the French foreign minister, Robert Schuman, which marked the first move towards the creation of the European Union. Europe had just come out of the Second World War, a conflict that had nearly destroyed the continent and split it between two spheres of influence.

In a desire not to repeat such destruction there was a great deal of momentum towards European co-operation, which would make war between Europe’s nations unthinkable. Wartime British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, standing next to Robert Schuman, had called for Franco-German reconciliation in a united Europe in a speech in July 1946.

Schuman’s vision was to create a European institution that would pool and manage coal and steel production. Through the Schuman Declaration the French foreign minister proposed the creation of a supranational European institution. This led firstly to the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) the following year. It was also the forerunner of several other European Communities and also what is now the EU.

The ECSC was founded on the principle that tying former arch-enemies economically together – originally through the weapons of war of coal and steel – would assist in ending the horrors of such conflicts and deliver much-needed reconciliation. And it has proven to be highly successful in transforming a previously warring continent, acting as the foundation of peace after centuries of bloodshed.

The delivery of peace, stability and prosperity are just some of the reasons why we should vote to remain in the EU in the June referendum, to see the bigger picture of the benefits that our membership brings.

Since the Schuman Declaration nations in Europe have forged closer links and come together to reach common solutions to common problems, keeping the peace and enhancing our collective security.

For those who are fighting for the values of freedom and democracy across the world the EU has been an inspiration, and for those member states formerly under the jackboot of dictatorship and Communism membership of the EU acted as a beacon of hope.

As we look towards the referendum, in a matter of weeks, it does no harm in being reminded what we have enjoyed, the precious gift of more than 60 years of peace, stability and prosperity in a previously war ravaged continent. This, all for the equivalent of a contribution to the EU of 26p a day from each and every one of us.

The EU is not perfect, far from it, but to leave would be to row against the tide of history and Europe Day gives us a chance to celebrate the EU and its many achievements.

SNP fall short, a good night for the Tories and Labour struggle – the outcome of the 2016 election  

 

Orbit Communications - Alex Orr 01
Alex Orr @Alex_m_Orr

The SNP has won an historic third term in the Scottish Parliamentary election, but has fallen two seats short of winning an overall majority, meaning that it will have to do deals with opposition parties in the Scottish Parliament.

However, the real story of the night was the meteoric rise in Tory fortunes, pushing Kezia Dugdale’s Labour Party, whose vote collapsed, into third place.

The Conservatives secured 31 seats, more than double those it previously held (15), with leader Ruth Davidson winning the constituency of Edinburgh Central (formerly SNP) and Jackson Carlaw winning the formerly Labour seat of Eastwood.

The Conservatives took two of the three seats covering Dumfries and Galloway and the Scottish Borders. Finlay Carson held Galloway and West Dumfries, while Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire was held by John Lamont.

The Tories also won Aberdeenshire West from the SNP after a major swing in the vote. Alexander Burnett was elected after the party’s share surged 17% to leave Dennis Robertson in second place.

It was a night of woe for the Labour Party, with its number of seats collapsing from 37 to 24 (a drop of 13).

There were however some rare successes for Labour, with Daniel Johnson winning the seat of Edinburgh Southern; Iain Gray holding onto his seat in East Lothian and Jackie Baillie narrowly holding the seat of Dumbarton.

The results will however leave Kezia Dugdale, the Scottish Labour leader who had hoped her call for a new 50p income tax rate would boost the party’s popularity, facing calls to consider her future.

With six seats (an increase from two) the Scottish Greens pushed the Lib Dems into fifth place, who despite some notable exceptions in North East Fife and Edinburgh Western, held the same number of seats as in 2011 (five).

The legacy of the independence referendum is still alive and well in Scotland and voting allegiances should be seen through the prism of that vote, split between Unionist and Nationalist.

It has been estimated that c. 90% of those who voted Yes to independence backed the SNP, and for those opposing it the clear and coherent Conservative message of no second referendum, delivered by a charismatic leader in the shape of Ruth Davidson, was highly successful. She was also seen by the electorate as a more credible alternative to Kezia Dugdale in holding the SNP to account.

This strategy, galvanizing the Unionist vote, saw the Conservative share of the vote increase by over 8% in constituency seats and 10% in regional seats. It therefore proved highly successful in seats which had previously voted No in the independence referendum. Hence its achievement in winning seats in the Borders, Dumfries and Galloway and in Aberdeenshire.

In North East Fife and Edinburgh West strong local campaigns by the Liberal Democrats helped to unseat SNP incumbents, as well as Unionist voters galvanized in seeing that party as the best means to overturn the SNP.

Scotland is indeed a divided nation, not between right and left, but between those supporting independence and those backing the Union. It was something the Conservatives strongly exploited and it has proven highly successful.

With an SNP Government in power facing a Conservative opposition, the next five years will prove highly interesting.

 

Supporting responsible private landlords can help MSPs solve housing crisis

John - Headshot - October 2015
John Blackwood Chief Executive, Scottish Association of Landlords

During the campaign, all parties rightly put solving Scotland’s housing crisis at the top of their agenda.  Whilst the length of this Parliamentary term provides an opportunity to achieve this, it is essential is that all of our weapons are brought to bear, including recognising the role that private landlords can play. 

SAL represents the growing number of landlords with a small portfolio who are, in essence, small businesses.  They operate on very small margins whilst trying to deliver high-quality rented homes to those who want them.  All of them support local supply chains by hiring builders, electricians, plumbers or the other trades required to maintain and improve their properties.

They are also willing and able to increase housing supply, whilst being socially responsible.  To mobilise this group, the government only needs to make very small policy moves to signal to landlords that they have their support.

For example, private landlords already work to bring derelict housing back in to use and provide it at low-rent levels to reduce pressure on social housing.  If this investment could be encouraged across the country, thousands of homes could be brought back in to use where they are needed, guaranteeing the landlord an income and giving the council access to high-quality accommodation.

MSPs could also help the overwhelming number of responsible private landlords in Scotland by reviewing the regulation of the sector.  Landlords are in favour of proportionate regulation, particularly in areas such as electrical safety or energy efficiency which also protect their property, provided it is enforced.  Currently, landlords who comply with regulations can find themselves undercut by rogue players who almost never face any penalties.  Were the government to work with us to implement effective regulations, they could improve housing conditions and raise the standards for all private rented accommodation.

Mutually beneficial investment and effective regulation are just two of the ways I hope the new Parliament will seek to engage with landlords over the next five years.  Our message to MSPs is simple.  Landlords want to help solve the housing crisis, work with us and we can have a responsible, sector which can help solve Scotland’s housing crisis.

Muted manifestos

Orbit Communications - Graeme Downie 03
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

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.