FROM ferries running over budget to ongoing background noise on the SNP’s financial affairs, there is no shortage of fiscal controversy commanding the attention of First Minister Humza Yousaf. But there is one aspect of business matters that perhaps offers grounds for encouragement for the Yousaf administration.

Following three difficult years during which relations with the business world became strained amid the pressures of the pandemic, Mr Yousaf has taken some welcome steps to repair links that, in some cases, had become frayed under the leadership of his predecessor Nicola Sturgeon.

Moves to postpone and modify the deposit return scheme, and a pledge to rethink controversial plans to ban alcohol advertising, gave Mr Yousaf some early breathing space, and signalled his willingness to listen to the concerns of business.

Those decisions were announced as Mr Yousaf pledged a “new deal” for business which was fleshed out further this week, with the announcement of a new body to address some of the frustrations that have been aired by the business community in recent years.

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A new group has been set up to strengthen links between the government and the private sector, with a remit to focus on economic conditions and performance, ensuring the best environment to do business, and the transition to a well-being economy.

The new deal for business group, which was due to have its first meeting yesterday, is co-chaired by Dr Poonam Malik, head of investments at the University of Strathclyde, and Wellbeing Economy Secretary Neil Gray, with members including representatives of groups such as the Scottish Retail Consortium, Scottish Tourism Alliance, and the Fraser of Allander Institute at the University of Strathclyde.

Dr Malik said: “My experience has shown me that improved collaboration and meaningful engagement can bring about positive change in growing economies and support businesses with purpose to have a positive impact on communities.

“We will take a refreshed approach to our common vision and shared economic goals to deliver a healthy and happy future with the equitable and fair society that we all aspire to.”

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Those are certainly optimistic words, and it was encouraging to read that the aims of the new group go straight to the heart of misgivings that parts of the business community have come to hold. These include a commitment to involve business at the earliest stages of policy development, and for the impact of new regulations to be properly assessed before they are launched in the real world.

Having endured months of concern over the ramifications of the deposit return scheme and the alcohol advertising proposals, the impact of which business leaders warned would be existential for some firms, these pledges are likely to have provided some comfort that things could change for the better under Mr Yousaf.

Colin Borland, director of devolved nations at the Federation of Small Businesses, is “hopeful” things will take a turn for the better. He said: “When better to say, 'right, let’s take a step back, let’s look at everything right across the board' and try and get a proper impact assessment of what this is going to look like in the economy.

“Not everything in the garden is rosy, but there are definitely signs that some things are better than they were six months ago.”

Establishing a willingness to work closely together and collaborate on common goals is a good place to start and will hopefully allow some of the festering mistrust to dissipate. New voices and a new approach can make all the difference in situations like these, and it will be crucial that this spirit of co-operation is maintained as firms battle the current economic headwinds, not to mention the numerous pieces of regulation coming their way.

There will certainly be plenty of competing interests jostling for the attention of Mr Yousaf in the coming months.

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In the tourism industry, which was especially badly hit by the pandemic, concern has been expressed over the First Minister’s plans for easing the country’s housing shortage by changing the way second and empty homes are taxed.

The measures could give councils the power to double the full rate of council tax on second homes from April 2024 by bringing them into line with long-term empty homes. Views are also being sought on whether there should be changes to the definition of when a property offering self-catering accommodation becomes liable for business rates.

The proposals come as short-let operators prepare for a new licensing regime that is due to be introduced in October, and it is fair to say not everyone in the tourism industry is impressed.

“It seems extraordinary that people seem unable to grasp the difference between a second home and a self-catering business,” said Fiona Campbell, chief executive of the Association of Scotland’s Self-Caterers.

“They are totally different things and should not be treated the same. Self-catering businesses provide social and economic benefits for communities and local economies. Second homes lie empty for much of the year, providing no benefits whatsoever.”

The Scottish Retail Consortium, meanwhile, is looking for Mr Yousaf to ensure his administration fulfils a specific pledge on business rates made in the SNP’s 2021 election manifesto.

The retail group wants the Scottish Government to stick to its commitment to restore parity with England with regard to the higher property rate, which is applied to non-domestic properties with a rateable value of £100,000 or more in Scotland. This was a recommendation initially made by the Barclay review of business rates in Scotland in 2017.

The Scottish Government said this week that a consultative sub-group to the new deal for business group would be established to advise on further enhancements to the non-domestic rates system, following the final implementation of the Barclay review.

A ministerial statement on the delivery of the Barclay report is due to be made in the Scottish Parliament today.

This, along with how Mr Yousaf and his ministers respond to concerns about other new regulations his administration is introducing, will be closely watched by the business community.