Yesterday we saw the biggest budget concession in Holyrood's history, a deal for councils that would not have been possible without the hard work of the Green MSPs. It shows that it's possible for parties to stay true to their aims while finding common ground in the interests of the public.
The result is that Green MSPs have achieved more in a single budget than the Labour Party has in a decade of opposition.
In contrast, other parties have effectively ruled themselves out of constructive dialogue, leaving it to the Greens to push Ministers beyond their comfort zone. From the beginning of this budget process it was clear that the decision to cut Local Authority budgets would be an extremely damaging outcome of the government’s finance decisions.
Councils deliver services that matter to people every day and are vital to tackling poverty and reducing inequality. They run our primary and secondary schools, provide social care and home care to thousands and deliver essential services like transport, libraries, social work, additional support for learning teachers, rape crisis centres, funerals and cremations, healthy food in schools, adult education, swimming pools, sports facilities. This list goes on.
In the weeks since the Scottish Government’s draft budget was published, councils around the country have been forced to prepare plans for cuts to these services, and hikes to fees and charges which will hit low income households hardest.
We believe cuts to these local services are unnecessary and unacceptable because the Scottish Parliament now has the power to set its own income tax rates and bands.
One of our central objectives in these budget negotiations was to ensure that public services are protected, and it’s clear that the concession of an extra £160m will allow Local Authorities to safeguard very significant services. But a second objective was to set Scotland on a course of progressive tax changes that help tackle poverty and inequality in our society.
On this the Greens and the SNP remain a very long way apart.
Our manifesto described our progressive tax proposals to reduce tax on lower earners while raising more from those most able to pay. We didn’t go into negotiations unreasonably demanding that the Scottish Government accepted that whole manifesto, but we did persistently make the case for tax changes in this direction. I still believe they could and should have gone further, and we remain strongly of the view that a more progressive use of taxation is justified and will be necessary.
We profoundly disagreed with the Scottish Government’s proposal for an inflation-based increase to the higher rate threshold, which would have resulted in a small tax cut for high earners. The announcement that in response to our proposals the SNP have abandoned this measure represents the most modest adjustment possible in their tax plans. Maintaining the higher rate threshold at its current level of £43,000 and refusing even to consider a 1p increase to the higher rate itself, does not match our ambitions. Its effect is to maintain the status quo, and we are convinced that this position cannot be sustained throughout the current parliament.
Government ministers have agreed to only this one concession on income tax, and I regret that. People on low incomes should be protected from a tax hike that Labour would have imposed on them, but someone on a high income, like myself and all other MSPs, can certainly afford to pay a bit more.
Given the central importance of protecting local services, on balance the changes the Scottish Government offered are enough to let us support the budget. It’s still a long way from being perfect, but we can be confident that we’ve made a real difference to public services, to people’s jobs in delivering those services and to people’s quality of life.
Greens stand firmly with local communities and public sector workers affected by cuts and closures and yesterday's agreement means we can start to repair the damage done by years of underfunding and lack of local flexibility. But this must be only the start of a journey on restoring financial powers at local level.
Like all those small, independent European countries Scotland likes to compare itself to, we deserve vibrant local democracy where people can invest in priorities they decide in their own communities. Scotland’s a long way from that state of affairs, and this budget must be the start of a new direction.
There’s a lesson to be learned for the other parties who either disengaged from the budget process early on, or failed to explain why their proposals should be based on hiking the tax of people on low and average incomes. Green MSPs were elected to make Holyrood bolder and Scotland fairer and that's exactly what we're doing.
This article first appeared in The National.