We Must Make The Most of Tax Powers

It was with mixed emotions that I spoke up at the final Stirling Council meeting last week. I’m standing down as Councillor for Dunblane & Bridge of Allan in May to focus on my role as your regional Green MSP. But part of me will always feel rooted in the communities I’ve served as a councillor and the need to champion the local services that support us all.

That need to protect frontline council services was top priority for Green MSPs as we approached the recent budget negotiations at Holyrood.

For years local services have faced huge pressures as Westminster cuts to Scottish Government budgets have been handed down to councils. The Council Tax Freeze has then made it impossible for them to raise the income needed to protect frontline services from cuts and Stirling has been no exception.

Savings of course are always possible and some councils acted early to save millions. For example, I successfully pushed the case at Stirling Council back in 2012 for a switch to low energy street lighting which has now saved hundreds of thousands of pounds.

As sensible efficiency savings and controversial cuts have kicked in, the financial bottom line of councils has improved, but many are still faced with difficult choices to make about frontline services, especially under the biggest budget headings of education and social care.

After long negotiations with the Scottish Government, we finally agreed to an extra £160m for local government. Independent analysis has confirmed that this budget concession, alongside Council Tax changes means councils will have more spending power for next year. Labour, Tory and Lib Dem MSPs didn’t engage in constructive negotiations with the SNP, the result was that they delivered not a single penny to protect Stirling’s local services from the big cuts that were planned.

For Stirling, the Green deal meant £2.8m extra funding, which resulted in the council reversing proposed cuts to schools and public transport, increasing money for services to support the most vulnerable, investing in new apprenticeships, roads, footpaths and a range of other priorities.

That’s good news, but going forward we need proper reform to the way local government is fairly funded including scrapping the Council Tax. Decision making on council income needs to be more localised not centralised and we need an end to the national ring fencing of certain budgets which just puts pressure on everything else which isn’t.

This has been a particular problem in education where support for children with Additional Support Needs (ASN) has been left outside of ring fenced teaching staff budgets. One in seven ASN teachers has now gone since 2010, as well as one in ten ASN support staff. It’s a shocking state of affairs at a time when Scottish education is being rightly put under the microscope.

We also need more creative use of the Parliament’s powers on income tax. It was disappointing that Green proposals to lower tax on those earning less than the average wage, while raising tax marginally for those earning at higher levels was rejected by the SNP. We will need bolder measures going forward to stop the erosion of frontline public services and the loss of the dedicated staff who deliver them.

In the weeks to come I’m looking forward to opening up my new office in Stirling which will be available for constituents to come and meet with me and my staff. It’s going to be right in the heart of town at 67a King Street and I’m looking forward to continuing the work serving Stirling at Holyrood in the years to come.

This column originally appeared in the Stirling Observer, published Wednesday 8th March