Local authorities cannot afford to fix potholes and a myriad of local problems, but replacing the council tax with a land-value tax could make a real difference, writes Christine Jardine.
Sometimes politicians can be guilty of only thinking about the big picture, blue sky thinking, always looking up.
Well in Edinburgh, at the moment, that can be dangerous. Simply because you are likely to trip.
Our pavements are awful, in some places dangerous. The potholes we all complain about are not confined to the roads, which, incidentally, can also affect pedestrians and cyclists.
And with winter approaching, it’s probably going to get worse.
I’m sure you are probably wondering what has provoked this mini-rant? Unless, of course, you live in Edinburgh, in which case you will already know.
In fact, if you live anywhere in Scotland you can probably appreciate exactly what I’m talking about.
The problem was epitomised for me a couple of weeks ago when I was invited to a meeting of tenants in sheltered housing in Corstorphine.
On my way there, I had to pick my way carefully around a large pothole in the road and over an uneven – and, for the elderly, treacherous – pavement.
At the meeting itself, the problems the state of the pavements was causing for residents was the main topic of discussion.
And the residents, housing association and the local councillor were in complete agreement: it needs fixed.
But here’s the problem. None of the people in the room, myself included, actually control the issue which is the root of the problem.
It’s the council tax and, in Edinburgh, the garden tax and the fact that it doesn’t seem to matter how much more we pay it doesn’t seem to be enough to fix the problems.
To be clear though, I don’t just blame our council for that.
Oh, the garden tax with its extra charge for taking away garden refuse is entirely down to the SNP/Labour Edinburgh City Council. But the fact that our council tax no longer stretches to fixing the roads, the pavements, providing full grit bins, in some places not even empty grit bins, keeping public toilets open or simply providing the level of council services that the public deserves – that’s a buck which stops on a completely different desk.
For more than a decade, the SNP Government has failed to tackle the issue of properly funding our local authorities.
For most of the SNP’s time in office, they have frozen the council tax. For nine years, in fact, as costs to councils increased and what we paid didn’t.
So even though the council tax might be increased now, the block grant from Holyrood gets reduced undermining any impact it might have.
And you and I are paying the price. Literally.
This is not the first time, or even close to it, that I’ve written to call for something to be done about the funding of councils and services.
But, as this year’s budget negotiations approach, I still nurture a faint hope that the SNP will listen to those encouraging a less centralised and damaging approach to local authority funding.
It’s a policy which makes it appear that they simply do not trust the local authorities to spend money, even those where, as in Edinburgh, they are in the administration.
And it’s a financial power-grabbing approach which increasingly extends to adding strings to any area or form of funding – teacher numbers, for example.
But it’s still the council tax that the majority of us have the most direct experience of, and whose impact we feel most closely.
At first, most of us backed the idea of a temporary council tax freeze.
That was partly because we were all trying to cope with the personal impacts of the financial crash, and this felt like a short-term measure to help us all.
Then, of course, there was the fact that the SNP had been elected in 2007 on a platform of changing the system, introducing a local income tax.
The then First Minister Alex Salmond had even calledthe council “unfair”, so we expected that they would be good as their word and reform it. Well, not so much it seems.
Here we are ten years later with a system that isn’t fit for purpose, councils without the resources they need and a government without the political will to fix it.
Is it that they somehow don’t have constituents whose cars have been damaged by potholes? Are there no elderly residents in their areas who have suffered broken bones falling on cracked or damaged pavements? Or is it that they just are not listening? If they do pay attention they will find that the paying public want something different.
A couple of years ago, I thought that might actually happen. There was a cross-party commission which looked at local tax reform. But Nicola Sturgeon, who had been scathing of the existing system, ignored its recommendations and instead did some tinkering around the edges.
Changing Bands E to H is not reform, it’s simply more of the same. It’s time we had proper root-and-branch reform of a system which is no longer fit for purpose. Be bold. Scrap it.
Most of all, let go of the strings. Let the councils respond the way they know best – because they do know best – to local problems. There is already another radical, progressive, suggestion on the table: a land-value tax.
Liberal Democrats believe there are a number of economic and social benefits that could be achieved and we should be investigating it. We already know that it works well in other countries.
It encourages derelict land in urban areas to be brought back into use. And if you decide to improve or extend your property you are not penalised because the tax remains based on the value of the land it is on. What do we have to lose?
Next time you are frustrated by the state of the pavements, lack of services or the way you are seeing the council hamstrung at every turn by the current system of funding, take a minute and think: maybe we should do it differently?