Only independence can truly reform Scotland’s environment

Next Thursday will be the last day of this parliamentary term, and of my first full parliamentary year. It’s a year that has highlighted Scotland’s immense potential but also the severe limitations of devolution.

Being in Parliament has taken some getting used to. My own political career is rooted in community and environmental activism and working with other activists to push from the outside to bring about change. Sometimes that meant engaging with politicians, but I had never held elected office until last year’s election.

Having been on both sides of the conversations, it is vital that we have progressive people working together both inside and outside of Parliament. In fact, it is vital for democracy that we do. MSPs benefit from the input and participation of experts, campaigners, activists and local people coming together to inform us and our work.

One of the things I am proudest of is the work I have done on the Good Food Nation Bill, which places a duty on local authorities, health boards and other public bodies to publish Good Food Nation Plans to move every part of the country towards this vision.

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As a member of the Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee, I was part of the group of MSPs that led parliamentary scrutiny of the Bill.

Following constructive discussions with campaigners and experts, I successfully lodged an amendment to ensure that the system we are establishing will be overseen by an independent Food Commission, with broad expertise and understanding of all aspects of the food system.

The Commission will play a key role in encouraging good health, promoting local and environmentally friendly food, improving animal welfare, and supporting the transition of Scotland’s food system to net-zero.

The amendment may have been in my name, but it would not have happened without the support of the Scottish Food Coalition and numerous other stakeholders who fed into the debate, informed it and helped me to make the case.

It is that same spirit of cooperation and working together that can fuel our move to a fairer, greener and better future.

It has been a genuinely invigorating process, but that is definitely not always the case. If the positive collaboration has been the highlight of my first year as an MSP, then the main drawback has been the severe limitations of the current constitutional settlement.

I will always favor localized decision making, which is one reason why I support independence. But almost every time we work on new legislation, the constraints and limitations of the Union become even more apparent.

One of my other roles in Parliament is convenor of the Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee. One issue I have been looking at in this capacity is retrofitting. At present there is a 20% VAT rate on construction works for existing buildings. Voices from across the industry tell us a variation in VAT could be the single most significant change in rebuilding the sector. But it’s not a change that we have the power to make.

This is just one example of the kind of blocks that exist in almost every single policy area. Take energy policy, for example. Think what we could be with the full powers of a normal independent country.

In the Highland and Islands, many of the people I represent are paying more for electricity generated on their doorsteps. It is an ongoing injustice for communities who can see wind turbines from their windows at the same time as far too many of them are living in fuel poverty.

With Greens in government we are getting on with the task of delivering a Just Transition. We are committed to securing a green future for our communities, with Green jobs funding for Moray and the North East, where the bulk of our fossil fuel jobs are based, and are doing all we can to expand Scotland’s capacity to produce renewable energy.

Independence would allow us to go so much further and remove the political and fiscal constraints imposed by Westminster. If we had the power, we could make the investment that is needed and reform our national grid. This could immediately and considerably reduce people’s electricity bills.

These are the powers I was campaigning for in 2014, when I threw myself into the referendum. It was something I felt strongly about then and am even more convinced of now.

But independence can’t mean simply taking power away from Westminster and keeping it in Edinburgh. It has to mean a radical and transformative approach to democracy that empowers local communities.

As an MSP for the Highlands and Islands, I can see the disconnect between local people and the decisions that are made on their behalf, whether it is in terms of land, planning, or the delivery of local services.

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With so many inhabited islands, we have unique issues that will be much better understood and responded to with local solutions. I want our politics to be positive, collaborative and informed by experience, just like the Good Food Nation process.

This has been a very positive first year. We have achieved a lot with the passing of the Good Food Nation Bill, the doubling of the child payment, the introduction of free bus travel for everyone under 22 and the delivery of record funding for wildlife, nature, active travel and recycling.

But I can also see an alternative reality where we voted Yes in 2014. I can see the transformative impact that we could have had. In that reality, we could have taken a better path throughout the pandemic and taken even more of the bold and ambitious steps that are needed to build a fairer and greener future.

I don’t want the next generation of MSPs and campaigners or the people they represent to come up against the same blocks and barriers as we have. I want them to have all of the powers they need to do things differently.

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