This week’s return to business for the Scottish Parliament was an opportunity to address the hopes of people in every community across the country. Making Scotland a fairer, progressive, more democratic country is something there’s broad agreement on but it’s an agenda that has needs a far bolder approach at Holyrood.
I’m reminded of the very blunt response given by a Swedish commentator when author and National columnist Lesley Riddoch explained the convoluted and remote way that local services are currently funded in Scotland: “Don’t you trust yourselves?”
That question of trust is central to the challenges our communities face. There’s no shortage of examples of harmful decisions being made in town and city chambers.
Take for example the recent introduction of eye-watering charges for music tuition. Take-up rates for school music lessons have fallen sharply as a result, meaning huge numbers of young people are being denied the opportunities they bring. Music lessons build language skills, improve concentration, boost academic achievement and inspire creativity.
In West Lothian parents now face a £354 annual charge for lessons and the number of pupils taking part has fallen from 1,800 to 260. It’s £280 in East Lothian, where the number has dropped from 1,500 to 350.
Teaching union the EIS has rightly pointed out that many parents, including those in work but struggling financially, are pulling their children out of lessons. We’re going to see a generation of children excluded from taking part in our national orchestras, choirs and bands. Acclaimed violinist Nicola Benedetti and percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie are among the high-profile names who have voiced concerns.
This is only one example of the situation facing local communities. Free services like swimming are being lost, and vital services like social care are being cut back or seeing charges hiked.
But the responsibility doesn’t lie only with our councils. Of course the UK Government’s austerity ideology has set the agenda, but it shouldn’t be used as an excuse. As the Greens’ constructive approach to the Scottish budget has shown, we don’t need to hand that austerity down to communities; solutions can be found if the will is there. The scale of the challenge can only be met in the long term if we give councils the fiscal powers they need, instead of an annual haggle over the block grant.
This week’s Programme for Government understandably had a strong focus on supporting the economy as we face the cliff-edge of the Tories’ hard Brexit. There were more than a few measures the Greens will welcome, and work positively on. But it should have addressed the urgent need for reform of local finance.
The First Minister said she was committed to a “strong partnership” between central and local government, so let’s see that in action by giving councils the kind of powers that normal European local government has.
Take for example tourism. A modest tax on hotels, hostels and holiday lets is normal in other European cities and enjoys broad support in Edinburgh where the city council is run by an SNP-Labour coalition. Promoters of the Edinburgh Fringe have also signalled their backing in light of record ticket sales.
Edinburgh attracts around 4 million visitors a year and the council estimates that a charge of £1 per person per night could generate £11m. The point that Greens have been making isn’t about what level such a charge should be but about the principle that local government should be free to choose, instead of having their hands tied by Ministers.
The expectation was built up for years that the Council Tax would be replaced with a more modern and fair tax. We’ve had endless reviews, commissions, inquiries and proposals. It’s long overdue that we took action.
We know from opinion polling that most Scots want to free up our local councils. Given the choice, most of us think councils should have new powers to raise revenue from things like tourism, property and land, while very few think they should stick to existing ways of generating funds such as cutting services, selling off assets or increasing fees and charges.
And we know support for local tax powers is strong across the political spectrum.
I’m proud that positive Green influence led to a fairer system of income tax and reversed proposed cuts to the local government grant but the need for wider reform remains. It’s time to free up local communities to make their own democratic choices, including about the taxes they pay and the services they need.
As Lesley Riddoch pointed out ahead of the council elections last year: “Only the Greens have seriously questioned the stultifying inefficiency of Scotland’s big-is-beautiful democratic fixation.”
It’s a challenge we will continue to bring as the prospect of better democracy and stronger public services is a prize worth winning.