It is past time for action on Council Tax

Derek Mackay has unveiled his tax and spending plans for next year. For a minority Government, that’s only half the story. He must now find a way of securing the consent of at least one other party for the budget to pass at Holyrood.

This is the twelfth budget the SNP have presented to Holyrood since they came to power. While the Conservatives and much of the media like to pretend that there’s a binary split between parties which always support or always oppose the SNP, the truth is very different. In reality the Greens have voted in favour of four SNP budgets in those dozen years. And the Tories themselves? They also voted for four budgets in the same period.

The responsibility of opposition parties is to put forward positive and workable ideas for change, and strive for agreement whenever possible. We also have a responsibility to stick to our principles and, if the Government refuses to listen, we are right to vote them down.

That’s the approach the Greens have always taken. In recent years that has meant standing up for local services which have faced the brunt of the cuts. Last year we showed that a radical reform of income tax could result in fairer taxation, protecting low earners, while putting the Scottish budget back into growth. As a result, local services got a real terms increase instead of the deep cut Derek Mackay had proposed.

But we also made it clear that the only way to avoid an annual haggle over local cuts was fundamental reform of local taxation, just as the Greens, Labour, Lib Dems and the SNP had agreed just three years ago.

Since then, that reform agenda has stalled and the Scottish Government has shown no leadership in working toward the replacement of Council Tax, the most unfair and regressive tax in Scotland.

This week’s budget statement did nothing to change that. There have been no solid commitments either on Council Tax replacement or on other ways of broadening the local tax base. As for direct council funding Mr Mackay’s familiar sleight-of-hand routine tries to present his budget as an increase, but once we take account of new national policies which the Scottish Government is forcing councils to fund from that settlement, the funds for core services are actually being cut by hundreds of millions.

The consequence, if the budget passes as it stands, will be to force councils to raise the unfair Council Tax again, as well as cutting vital services and hiking fees and charges.

I do want to give credit where it’s due.  On income tax, the Government has again backed the Greens’ view that we need to keep moving in a progressive direction, and they won’t copy the Tories’ giveaway to higher earners. But unless councils are given the powers they need to apply the same principle locally, the service cuts they will be forced to make will hit hardest against people on the lowest incomes.

Our members overwhelmingly agreed at our conference that meaningful progress on local tax reform is a precondition for entering budget talks. We’re keen to achieve that progress, but the ball is very much in the Government’s court.

Over the years we’ve done more than any other party to offer detailed, workable plans on fairer local taxes. But all we hear from the Government is that they are “open to dialogue”. We’ve been trying to have that dialogue for years, and it is past time for action now.

It’s not as if we’re asking anything of the SNP that they fundamentally oppose, like Willie Rennie’s absurd insistence that they abandon independence! The Green proposal is consistent with the SNP’s own policy that the Council Tax should end. And across Scotland SNP councillors are now in administration in 15 Scottish councils, facing decisions to close libraries and community centres, increase charges for public services, and slash waste collections. Neither they nor Derek Mackay can claim they had no choice when Greens have presented a clear alternative.

Glasgow for example could face a funding gap of some £60 million. Council leader Susan Aitken rightly sees Glasgow as a global city, but what sets Glasgow apart from cities it aspires to emulate, like Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Berlin, is the remarkable extent to which its hands are tied by national government.

Most modern European democracies have strong municipalities and regions. They don’t just understand their local areas better than national government; being more locally accountable they also build stronger trust and participation in decision-making.

That’s the kind of vibrant and democratic local government that Scotland needs and deserves. Councils have been denied the funds and the powers they need for far too long. This budget is an opportunity to change that, and it’s one we can’t afford to miss.