Jeremy Hunt’s Budget left the SNP’s leadership hopefuls with major questions to answer as Holyrood was handed an extra £320 million.
An expansion of free childcare south of the border was one of the most eye-catching announcements in the chancellor’s spending plans, alongside pension changes, a fuel duty freeze and a three-month extension of the energy price cap.
Several measures have already directed pressure at the Scottish Government, as well as the three candidates seeking to replace Nicola Sturgeon as first minister.
Here are five of the key questions being asked.
1. Will SNP speed-up free childcare expansion?
Mr Hunt announced that working parents in England will be offered 30 hours of free childcare for every child over the age of nine months by September 2025.
Additional funding for nurseries, childminders and school 8am to 6pm “wraparound” care was also pledged for families south of the border.
Extending free childcare to all children over 9 months really is a big extension of the welfare state. Prob. about doubles childcare spending. We've been edging in this direction for a good 20 years. This is a new leg of the welfare state finally nearing its end point.
— Paul Johnson (@PJTheEconomist) March 15, 2023
In Scotland, there is already about 30 hours of free childcare offered per week, but it only covers three and four-year-old youngsters, and some two-year-olds.
The SNP has committed to expanding it for one and two-year-olds, but ministers are already now coming under pressure to accelerate the plans.
They have been told to use the £320m uplift in Holyrood’s funding that will come in the wake of Mr Hunt’s spending decisions south of the border.
Flexible childcare can have huge benefits for families.
Liberal Democrat MP Christine Jardine said: “Extra money for some families will be a step in the right direction but there are big questions about the infrastructure and staffing needed for such an expansion. No wonder this policy won’t come into force for some time.
“Nevertheless, it’s clear that flexible childcare can have huge benefits for families so I hope that the Scottish Government will now move forward with plans to expand access too.”
Humza Yousaf, one of three candidates bidding to succeed Nicola Sturgeon as first minister, previously vowed to roll out the expansion in his first budget if he wins.
Deputy First Minister John Swinney said: “The limited additional money for the Scottish Government’s Budget is welcome but will not go far enough and in the long-term our capital funding will fall in real-terms.
“Without extra funding, we will have to find money from within the Scottish Budget to invest in public services, provide fair pay rises and help people with the cost of living.”
2. Could local swimming pools be saved?
The Budget contained £63m of funding to keep swimming pools open in England, with the Holyrood government to receive a extra cash under the Barnett formula as a result.
SNP ministers have already faced calls to use the money to save Scottish pools.
Important announcement by @Jeremy_Hunt of £63m fund to keep swimming pools open. We now need to see this replicated by the Scottish Govt, using Barnett consequentials, to help keeps pools like the one in Perth open. #Budget2023
— Murdo Fraser (@murdo_fraser) March 15, 2023
Earlier this month, Sport Aberdeen announced it would be forced to shut Bucksburn pool – and the Beach Leisure Centre – after the council axed £700,000 support.
More than 8,000 people have petitioned authorities to save the much-loved community facility.
Similarly, almost 5,500 people signed a petition to keep Perth Leisure Pool open.
Its board of directors meets this week to decide whether or not it stays open.
On Wednesday, Scottish Finance Secretary Kate Forbes told us: “We need to work closely with local government to invest in all local facilities.
“Swimming pools are key not just for having a healthy population, but swimming lessons keep children safe.”
3. Is a new cross-border nuclear row brewing?
The chancellor announced the creation of “Great British Nuclear”, saying it would safeguard energy security by delivering new nuclear projects.
He also said nuclear power would now be classed as “environmentally sustainable”, subject to consultation, enabling it to access the same incentives as renewables.
The SNP has long vowed to block new nuclear power stations in Scotland.
On Twitter, SNP MP Hannah Bardell said the Budget announcements were “utterly irresponsible and ridiculous”.
The Chancellor literally reinventing reality by classing Nuclear energy as ‘environmentally sustainable’.
Utterly irresponsible and ridiculous. ☢️ 🙄#Budget2023
— Hannah Bardell SNP MP 🏴🏳️🌈🏳️⚧️ (@HannahB4LiviMP) March 15, 2023
4. Where will Scotland’s new investment zone be?
While confirming the locations of a dozen new “investment zones” in England, Mr Hunt also announced there would be at least one in each of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The areas could be similar to the “freeports” which were announced recently, with the Firth of Forth and Cromarty Firth winning the race to host two north of the border.
They would have access to enhanced rates of capital allowance, structures and buildings allowance, and in England they would benefit from relief from stamp duty, business rates and employer National Insurance contributions.
Up to £80m of support could be offered for sites totalling 600 hectares.
5. Which local schemes will get a Budget boost?
One local project to benefit from the Budget will be the Cloddach Bridge, near Birnie in Moray, which will receive £1.5m to help it re-open after more than a year.
The announcement of the money for the constituency of Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross comes after the local authority said the re-opening would be delayed due to a funding shortfall.
Mr Ross said: “I share the frustration that many people have at the ongoing closure of the Cloddach Bridge.
“This was only compounded last month when Moray Council delayed making a decision on its re-opening due to not having the funding required.
“I am absolutely delighted that the Chancellor has delivered £1.5 million worth of funding towards re-opening this bridge which provides such a crucial link for communities here in Moray.
“It really is fantastic news and a positive step forward to finally opening this bridge.”
Meanwhile, the UK Government said it was investing £300,000 from its Community Ownership Fund to help Forres Area Community Trust transform Forres Town Hall.
A further £280,000 from the same funding pot will be used to enable Dornie & District Community Trust to turn a former shop into a new community hub at Dornie in Lochalsh.
And £44,332 will assist Inspire Inveraray to purchase Inverarary pier in Argyll from its current owner.