Nicola Sturgeon has faced claims that Scottish businesses are being “run into bankruptcy through no fault of their own” by the SNP’s tax regime, during an address to industry leaders.
The First Minister was addressing business chiefs in Aberdeen as voters prepare to go to the polls in the Scottish Parliament elections tomorrow.
Ms Sturgeon remains on course for a sweeping victory and another Holyrood majority, with Labour and the Tories locked in a battle for second place, according to the latest polling. The concerns directed at Ms Sturgeon yesterday focussed on business rates for empty premises.
The SNP has announced a review of rates in December, and Ms Sturgeon confirmed that will seek to strike a balance between supporting struggling businesses and encouraging them to bring empty properties into use.
Ms Sturgeon said the downturn in the North Sea has presented an opportunity for start-ups to help big firms cuts costs, but she stressed she was “not trying to put a silver lining on the cloud of what is happening in the North Sea”.
Drue Bremner, operations director at Inverurie-based technology start-up Air Control Energy, warned some businesses cannot afford the tens of thousands of pounds a year they pay in rates on empty premises.
“You’re running people into bankruptcy, through no fault of their own, only because they can’t afford to pay rates on empty premises that are making no money,” he said.
Ms Sturgeon said: “On the one hand we don’t want premises to lie empty, which is why there are provisions in the business rates system to try to incentivise businesses to get premises into use.
“On the other hand, we know that during difficult economic times that can be easier said than done.
“So there is empty property rates relief which, over the longer term, is generally more generous than the equivalent system south of the Border.
“But we recognise that it is a careful balance that has to be struck.”
She added: “We will do a review of the whole business rates system, not just this aspect.”
The SNP leader came under fire earlier this week over a doubling of the large business supplement which came into effect last month and is expected to add an extra £60 million each year to these firms’ rates bills. It will affect one in every eight commercial premises in Scotland, despite Labour leader Kezia Dugdale’s claims it would only be major firms affected.
But the First Minister remains well ahead in the polls. The latest Survation survey yesterday indicated that 49 per cent of Scots will vote SNP in the constituency vote, while 43 per cent will vote for the party in the list, translating to 69 seats – four clear of the total needed for a Holyrood majority.
The Tories have edged ahead of Labour again in the battle for second spot. Ruth Davidson’s party is two points behind Labour’s total of 21 per cent on the constituency vote, but the Tories are on 20 per cent on the regional list, a point ahead of Labour. This would give the Tories 24 seats, one more than Labour and make Ms Davidson the leader of the opposition at Holyrood.
The Tory leader took to the skies for a helicopter tour of northern, eastern western parts of the country to meet former Lib Dem and Labour voters who are now backing her party.
Ms Davidson said: “You don’t have to agree with everything my party says to back me in this campaign. You just have to want the SNP held to account.
“If you use one of your two votes for me, then I’ll do a specific job for you. I’ll hold the SNP to account, say no to a second referendum on independence and make the Scottish Government concentrate on the things that matter to you and your family. On Friday, I’m ready to step up.”
Ms Dugdale will hit the election trail in Edinburgh today for the final full day of campaigning to set out her party’s key message that they will end the austerity cuts in Scotland through their proposals to raise income tax by one pence and a five pence increase in the top rate for high earners on more than £150,000.
“Tomorrow we can vote to stop the cuts,” Ms Dugdale will tell voters.
“In the next five years we can use the new powers of our parliament to transform our economy. We can invest in education to give our young people the skills they need to compete for the jobs of the future.
“The best future for our country is as a high wage, high skill economy. To get there we need to invest in cutting the gap between the richest and the rest in our classrooms, and we need to stop the cuts to public services.”
Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie will use the final day of campaigning to unveil large building blocks spelling out his flagship “penny for education” policy at the party’s headquarters in Edinburgh.
Mr Rennie added: “Everywhere I go, people tell me that they are pleased that we are talking about big issues like education that were neglected while the SNP campaigned for independence. The last thing Scotland needs is another five years of debate on the constitution. ”
Greens co-leader Patrick Harvie will be in Edinburgh this morning, then in Glasgow later in the day.
He said: “This has been the biggest Green campaign to date and our teams of campaigners throughout Scotland are working hard to win every crucial vote. With Labour in decline and the SNP lacking a constructive challenge, it’s never been more important to vote Green.”