Scotland’s Finance Secretary, John Swinney, is to present his budget plans this Wednesday, 16th December. It is no coincidence – but is illuminating – that a national meeting of Scotland’s council leaders has been called for the same day.
Mr Swinney has warned in advance that he faces ‘tough choices’ in dramatically reducing budgets in some key areas.
The Finance Secretary’s approach to reducing budgets has been laid bare in recent days.
As For Argyll has published, documented facts, dates and chronologies, now in the public domain, show that he alone bears the original and continuing responsibility for the gambles he took with abandoning, all but completely, the funding of key structural maintenance on the Forth Road Bridge.
The severe economic hit on Scottish businesses from the closure of the bridge at this crucial time of the year is Mr Swinney’s sole responsibility. He was very much at the helm – as Finance Secretary with exclusive responsibility also for infrastructure and investment from 2007 until late 2011. This was the period when every one of the damaging mistakes was made.
- The Forth Road Bridge tolls were formally abolished in February 2008 – depriving the Forth Estuary Transport Authority [FETA] of what had then been £16 million annual revenue from these tolls – revenue FETA used to pay for essential structural repairs and maintenance to an ageing bridge. The Finance Secretary never replaced that revenue from government funds. It was a mighty net loss.
- The already delayed £10.2 million contract which would have seen repaired ‘all‘ the crucial truss-end links was eventually put out to tender in 2010 – and cancelled in that same year. Nothing was then done until 2015, with three quarters of the known repairs necessary long before 2010 remaining unaddressed today.
- In 2011, Mr Swinney cut the three year budget of FETA to 2015 by a mammoth 65% – a matter noted in the Audit Scotland report on FETA at that time. This left FETA without adequate means to carry out essential structural repairs, noting formally that this would increase the risk of structural insecurity in the bridge.
- At the same time, Mr Swinney put FETA on three year notice of dissolution [with no indication of funding for the last three months of its life]. Its responsibilities were to be handed over to a then unknown contractor, with Amey later appointed and assuming control on 1st June this year, 2015.
Ruth Davidson was the only opposition politician to nail the heart of the matter, saying at First Minister’s Questions at Holyrood last Thursday, that Mr Swinney had simply gambled that the current Forth Road Bridge would hold out without repairs until the new Queensferry crossing was ready in 2017.
Did he put the millions saved from cutting the FETA budget to the cost of the new bridge – from whose budget he is now taking the money for the emergency repairs that see the Forth Road Bridge closed into 2016? He certainly did not put those freed up millions into health and education, both of which have actually experienced substantial underspending for several years.
Each of these three actions were the key critical failures of judgment that led directly to the necessary sudden closure of the vital Forth Road Bridge for essential repairs ensuring the safety of its users.
Every one of these key misjudgments was made by Mr Swinney himself.
To his eternal discredit, the Finance Secretary has sung dumb, saying not one word, putting his hand up to absolutely nothing, keeping schtum, staying mum, leaving to swing in the media storm the hapless Transport Secretary who got caught holding the toxic parcel when the music stopped.
This adds moral cowardice to the most irresponsible of ministerial misjudgments.
We hold the major media responsible for not having the guts to nail this responsibility to its real source- the Finance Secretary; and for being guilty of harrassing the Transport Minister – an obvious peripheral figure in the matter – to whip up a convenient decoy for the fully culpable Deputy First Minister in the hope of scoring brownie points from an administration that operates through the liberal dispensation of fear and favour.
The ‘home free’ Finance Secretary is, as usual, trying to pin the blame on Westminster for the pain he is about to dispense in his budget cuts on Wednesday. He has now to find the extra cost of putting the Forth Road Bridge right. That too will somehow turn out to be down to Westminster. Prepare to snigger.
The reality is that what is ‘tough’ is the action Mr Swinney ought to be taking in raising money to lessen key service cuts from the powers he already has – an action apparently too tough to face. It is easier to let the people suffer in service cuts neatly deflected to local government through cuts to their budgets – and to blame Westminster. The Finance Secretary needs to man up.
Mr Swinney is saying piously that he will ‘continue’ to protect the NHS, education and policing – having the brass to ignore the fact that his serial underspending – to what covert end, one must inquire – has regularly cut the available budgets for heath and education.
How will we know what proportion of those tough cuts to come are made necessary to claw back the unexpected cost of the emergency repairs to which Mr Swinney left the Forth Road Bridge vulnerable?
Whatever he does on Wednesday and whatever he does from now on, the Finance Secretary is now damaged goods.
He has been shown to be catastrophically astray in his strategic financial judgements; as much of a gambler as was Alex; and as courageous in owning up as the archetypal yellow belly claiming that it was ‘a big boy who did it and ran away’.