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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 November 2007, 11:42 GMT
No room in bold budget proposals
Andrew Black
Political reporter, BBC Scotland news website

Now that the dust has settled following the delivery of the SNP government's historic first budget one thing is clear - these are bold plans, and there's no room for manoeuvre.

John Swinney and Alex Salmond
Mr Swinney said there was no emergency fund

After several weeks of arguing backwards and forwards over just what "1,000 more police" actually means, Scotland's Finance Secretary John Swinney has been refreshingly direct about what can and can't be achieved over the next three years, as the Scottish Government prepares to spend nearly 100bn.

He has admitted that, amid his assertion that the Treasury settlement is the tightest since devolution, the government can't do everything.

So, in order to meet aspirations, the public sector efficiency savings target has been raised to an ambitious 2% per year to free up 1.6bn. And this will be met, ministers insisted, without the need for compulsory redundancies.

But more significantly, there is no contingency fund.

That means that if cash is needed in case of an emergency, it will have to come from an existing budget. It's that simple.

Crunch vote

As Mr Swinney put it, this is a "zero sum game", but better that, he said, than any unspent money going back to the Treasury coffers.

And then there was the deal to freeze council tax - in effect a 2.7% cut said ministers - worth an estimated 70m.

As well as the likely welcome from the Scots public, the announcement is also sure to reverberate in town halls across the rest of the UK - which is exactly what the SNP wants.

The deal also means Scotland's councils will get 34.7bn over the next three years, with more freedom than previously to spend it how they like.

Again, Mr Swinney has laid his cards on the table. Local authorities, he said, were free to pass up the deal, "but it involves saying to members of the public your council tax is going up despite the fact the government has put in place the resources to freeze council tax".

John Swinney reading at his desk
Mr Swinney said being prudent was the key to spending success

The minority SNP administration has had to make some concessions, though.

Ministers have been reluctantly pressed into going ahead with the Edinburgh trams project and a manifesto commitment to scrap student debt, at a cost of 40m a year, has been shelved.

This was seized on by Labour, but Mr Swinney pointed out there was not likely to be enough support in the Holyrood chamber to make it happen anyway.

Ministers will also press ahead with another key commitment to cut class sizes to no more than 18 for P1 to P3, but without a costing in the budget document, or a proper timescale to implement it.

That would be one for the new council agreement, Mr Swinney said.

And the air route development, which supports the aviation industry, looks to be on a one-way ticket out of Scotland.

That should get the Greens on board, whose two votes may prove crucial in getting the budget through parliament.

The budget plans have been unveiled, but there is still some way to go.

There will now follow several stages of parliamentary scrutiny, before the final, crunch vote at the beginning of 2008.


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