The good news is that Scotland’s population is higher than at any point in history, according to the 2023 census.
The bad news is that new housebuilding to accommodate a growing population is being hampered by the Scottish Government’s obsession with beating the UK government to the Net Zero deadline.
The UK is legally obliged to cut its net CO2 emissions to zero by 2050. Since everything in Scottish politics in the era of devolution is about being “better” than England, the Scottish Government plans to achieve Net Zero five years earlier.
As part of this plan, the Holyrood administration has decreed that no new housing from next spring can have a gas boiler installed, with more environmentally-friendly (though often more expensive) alternatives being mandated instead. As with most such initiatives, this has two chief effects: the main one is making Scottish ministers, particularly those from the Scottish Greens, feel good about themselves. The other is that ordinary Scots looking for a new home will have to pay more. Job done!
Warnings that heat pumps, the Scottish Government’s preferred alternative to gas boilers, are not suited to homes in Scotland came earlier this year from Lord Haughey, a respected Glasgow business leader whose company supplies heat pumps and therefore knows a thing or two about them.
Lord Haughey said: “I have a heat pump company and following [Net Zero Buildings Minister] Patrick Harvie’s announcement, I should really be jumping for joy. But the truth of the matter is that heat pumps don’t work as efficiently in Scotland as they do in other countries.”
Meanwhile, Homes for Scotland, which represents house builders north of the Border, has warned that developments across the country were being downsized thanks to the SNP/Green government’s imminent ban on new homes with gas boilers.
Labour, like the SNP, are seeking to win voters’ favour by embellishing their green credentials, which means they’re facing a similar political conundrum. Yesterday the Conservatives challenged Keir Starmer to say whether a Labour government would press ahead with forcing millions of homes to convert to heat pumps. Worryingly, Ed Miliband, the shadow energy secretary, said the party’s plans would be revealed after the general election, which is an admittedly radical departure from the political tradition of inviting voters’ judgment on your manifesto in advance of polling day.
After a summer of failed and lacklustre announcements that were supposed to restore the political initiative to the government (Small Boats Week, anyone?), the prime minister has succeeded, at least for now, in catching the opposition off guard. A week that started off with a seemingly rushed, late night announcement that the Net Zero agenda would be watered down in order to spare voters financial pain, has captured the news agenda and has even survived the disapproval of former American vice president Al Gore.
That debate has moved on to the specifics of exactly how Britain can reach a point where it emits no net amount of CO2 into the atmosphere, and how much that will cost individual families – a debate that all the main parties have conspired to avoid until now. Because Labour – and parts of the Conservative Party – never anticipated that any leading politician would actually raise these concerns publicly, they were entirely unprepared for Sunak’s announcement and the challenge that followed it.
The drive towards Net Zero is too important to be driven by politicians alone, without the support and understanding of the people they represent. Yet that support has, until now, been assumed rather than won. Even if Sunak ultimately fails in his attempt to turn the tide of public opinion and revive his government’s fortunes, he has performed a public service by starting a debate and seeking the opinion of voters on how much they’re prepared to pay for their leaders’ ambitions.
Labour needs to stop avoiding that debate. No party that seeks to govern, far less one that seems to be on a trajectory to win big in next year’s general election, should be allowed to present a pig in a poke to the country in advance of polling day. We need to know how much Labour’s plans will cost each family, and whether many of us will be able to afford the bright green future the party is offering.