Exclusive:Police Scotland: Fears for rural policing over 'disgraceful' housing levies

Concerns over exodus of police officers from fragile communities in Scotland

Some of Scotland’s most fragile rural communities risk losing their ties with local police as a result of “disgraceful” new accommodation charges and taxes on rank-and-file officers, a former justice secretary has warned.

Kenny MacAskill has condemned plans by Police Scotland to introduce a new occupancy charge for officers living in police housing in remote mainland and island communities just months after they became liable for paying additional taxes under contentious “benefit-in-kind” rules.

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The force has conceded those officers who benefited from free accommodation in areas where housing availability and costs can be at a premium may be “financially worse off” as a result of the taxes, but stressed the occupancy charges will be “very competitive”.

Even so, new internal processes have been set up to support the transfers of those officers who would rather leave, and divisional commanders have been tasked with monitoring recruitment and retention issues brought about by the new levy.

While the force has said that in the “vast majority” of cases where officers are paying an occupancy change, they will not have to pay the benefit-in-kind tax, a small number of officers could be liable for both, raising fears they will no longer be able to continue living in the communities they serve.

Scotland’s national force is the only police service in the UK that retains any significant volume of police housing, with around 100 properties, the majority of which are located in the Highlands and Islands and Argyll and Bute. While a refurbishment programme is underway to improve existing police housing stock, around 60 per cent of the portfolio does not meet environmental or local authority standards.

The new occupancy charge is viewed as one way of financing those improvements, but it is also driven by a historic £3 million tax bill associated with the provision of police housing. While Police Scotland paid that tax liability up to the start of this financial year, it has since become the responsibility of officers. Mr MacAskill has called on Chancellor Jeremy Hunt to grant an exemption for police officers with regard to the benefit-in-kind tax, but the UK government has said it has no plans to make changes to the tax rules or guidance.

There are concerns that the tax and occupancy charge will lead to officers leaving postings in rural communities. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PAThere are concerns that the tax and occupancy charge will lead to officers leaving postings in rural communities. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA
There are concerns that the tax and occupancy charge will lead to officers leaving postings in rural communities. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA

With the new occupancy charge also looming, Mr MacAskill, the Alba MP for East Lothian, has warned the knock-on effect could be severely damaging. “I view this as disgraceful,” he said. “The initial fault rests with the Treasury and HMRC. Officers on island and remote postings clearly meet the criteria for not facing tax for benefit-in-kind. That position is obtuse and harming officers and communities.

“But it is not helped by Police Scotland failing to stand up for those who work for them and the communities that they serve. Officers often in quite poor housing and in communities with already expensive places to live now face rental charges. Alternative accommodation to buy or rent isn't an option and many have left the property market and will face challenges when they retire or are posted to the mainland.”

Mr MacAskill said while the issue did not impact on “thousands of officers”, the fact that even a minority were affected ought to spur change. “The work they do is essential, and providing free or cheap accommodation is the least that should be done,” he said. “The danger now is that officers will leave or not wish to serve already fragile communities. The Treasury is showing an ignorance of the situation, but Police Scotland are undermining their own officers and work.”

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While occupancy charge levels have yet to be confirmed, it is expected they will fall in line with social housing levels. Officers will be given an estimated cost, based on social housing rents, and three months’ notice before the charge is implemented.

The Scottish Police Federation has previously carried out a survey of officers who live in police housing, which found more than one in three (38 per cent) said they would look to transfer as a result of the occupancy charge, with a further 50 per cent saying they would at least consider such a move.

In a letter to Mr MacAskill, Police Scotland’s Assistant Chief Constable Emma Bond explained those officers posted on secondments of up to two years will remain “tax and occupancy charge free”. Such secondments, her letter went on, represent “an excellent tactic for bringing new and experienced officers alike in to remote and rural communities where our experience shows they often remain after secondments expire”.

But one officer, who did not wish to be named, said if Police Scotland attempted to get around the problems by seconding officers to rural postings, it would be communities and, ultimately, the force that loses out. “We build up relationships with people, we become part of the community and gain trust and friendship amongst the local population,” he explained. “This simply won’t happen if the locals see officers change every six to 24 months.”

A spokeswoman for Police Scotland said: “Police Scotland maintains a large volume of police housing and it is vital that the provision of this accommodation is sustainable and makes the best use of resources. We are committed to supporting our people to do their job in remote, rural and island communities and the occupancy charges being proposed are far cheaper compared to the private rental or mortgage market.

“The significant majority of police officers within Police Scotland pay a mortgage or rental on the property they live in and payment of benefit-in-kind tax or occupancy charge means police accommodation remains an attractive option to most officers.”

The spokeswoman added: “A significant refurbishment programme is underway to improve existing housing stock and ensure it is sustainable. Officers living in accommodation that is not of standard will not be paying an occupancy charge until the property has been upgraded.”