It’s time to free up local communities to make their own democratic choices
The polarisation of Scotland’s politics is often frustrating. Some people blame the independence movement for that, but I often notice that some of the people who portray the cause of independence as divisive are the same ones who stubbornly refuse to see beyond that dividing line. The recent antics of Labour, Conservatives and the LibDems passing up every chance for proper engagement in the budget process was a case in point.
There’s no doubt that some people are relentlessly hostile about the current SNP Government, and automatically condemn its every action. At the same time there are also some among its support base who react with outrage at the slightest criticism.
That creates a strange situation for us in the Greens, who believe our job as opposition politicians involves both working constructively where we can, and challenging the government where we must. One week we receive dogs’ abuse online for working against a government policy we’ve opposed for years, and the next week we have praise heaped upon us for striking a deal, making some progress, and achieving change through negotiation.
Over the next few weeks I expect to earn both kinds of reaction in equal measure.
Following our successful budget negotiation, which improved public sector pay, cancelled a tax cut for high earners, moved low-carbon investment up the agenda and wiped out local council cuts, there are a few more steps to put the result into practice.
First there will be a new local government finance order, then a vote on income tax policy, then the final stage of the Budget Bill itself, and finally another local government order. As each of these stages moves through Parliament the Finance Minister Derek Mackay knows that if he sticks to the terms of our agreement (and I have no reason to doubt that he will) we’ll back the Government in the votes and ensure that the whole budget package is passed. But he also knows that throughout this process and beyond we will be challenging him to ensure that this is the last time the Scottish Budget ends up as a rear-guard action against local council cuts.
The background here should be news to nobody. We’ve got absurdly centralised government in Scotland, with big regional bodies instead of power being genuinely in the hands of communities. Even these big councils have very little financial clout – they rely overwhelmingly on grants from the Scottish Government. If they dare to raise the only local tax they control by more than 3%, they incur financial punishment from the Scottish Government. It might well be good to limit Council Tax rises, but the place to make that decision should be at the local level, not St Andrew’s House in Edinburgh. In many countries, central government simply doesn’t have the legal power to do this – local government is truly local and can truly govern, and is accountable to voters in the local community through the ballot box.
Of course the expectation was built up for years that the Council Tax, the “hated, unfair Council Tax”, would be replaced with a more modern and fair tax. This was one of the key policies that saw the SNP rise to power more than a decade ago.
The failure to reform local tax doesn’t lie only at the door of one party. Nor is it a result of a lack of ideas. We’ve had endless reviews, commissions, inquiries and proposals. But the responsibility to act now falls to all parties, and I believe it’s long overdue that we took action.
The full replacement of Council Tax can’t be done overnight. New legislation will take time to draft, to scrutinise and to implement. But progress must be started now, or it will just keep dragging on. Council Tax valuations will be thirty years out of date by the end of this Parliament; are we going to wait yet another decade?
There are also shorter term steps we can take now, like a levy on vacant and derelict land, giving councils some control over non-domestic rates, or letting them develop new ideas like a visitor levy as works well in many other tourist destinations.
This is an agenda which must see progress this year, in order to leave local services less dependent on centralised power in Edinburgh. I once made the case to Derek Mackay, in the run-up to the Indyref, that if we gained the new powers of independence the Scottish Government should stop micromanaging our councils and give them the powers they need. Well we’re not yet independent, but huge new national tax powers have been won for Scotland, so the same opportunity presents itself.
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.
This article first appeared in The National.