Leaders: Council tax freeze no longer fit for purpose

Moray is first to break ranks and raise bills but Scottish Government should face facts and realise that flagship policy is unsustainable

Picture: PA
Picture: PA

It is becoming evident that the current council tax freeze, after nine years, is no longer fit for purpose.

Moray may be the first council to rail against the scheme by announcing an intention to increase bills, but others are expected to follow suit. Although the Scottish Government claims it has covered the cost of the shortfall caused by the freeze, which was imposed in 2007 not long after the SNP came to power, local authorities across the country have been locked into endless rounds of cuts.

Many are struggling to maintain leisure facilities and carry out essential road repairs as a result. And the situation is only getting worse. It is unsustainable, with budget shortfalls merely getting bigger as the effects of the recession continue to bite.

However, it has become apparent that meeting the difference is no longer enough.

Part of the motivation behind the tax freeze was to hold councils accountable for how they spend their revenue, but we are way beyond that stage now – crucial services are being hammered because of austerity measures.

Moray councillors said the authority had been facing a financial shortfall of nearly 
£7 million for the coming year, but that figure rose to almost £12m following the announcement of the council funding deal last month. They warned that services would “continue to deteriorate” if no action was taken, with swimming pools and libraries in the area threatened with closure.

The loss of £5m in government funding in the latest budget and a £150,000 penalty for failing to maintain teacher numbers in the region have compounded financial difficulties for the authority.

But the cash-strapped council has now calculated that it can afford to lose out on the Scottish Government’s £1.1m reward for freezing council tax, because the planned “deal with the public” will bring in nearly five times as much.

Faced with the kind of swingeing cuts that local authorities are having to contemplate, it’s not difficult to understand why the Independent-Conservative administration is looking at this option.

For now, the biggest issue in Moray is likely to be the level of the tax increase – with some householders being asked to stump up an extra 18 per cent, which many may object to. If the proposal is approved by the full council, the electorate will judge its elected members on this rise, but that is as it should be. At present, a national directive decrees that the matter is out of the hands of local authorities. So if people want to contribute more towards maintaining services, they are effectively disenfranchised at local level.

The council tax freeze, which ministers claim is “over-funded”, might have had a longer life if austerity had not endured for so long. But since the light at the end of that particular tunnel seems as distant as ever, it is time to acknowledge that the freeze has had its day. Finance Secretary John Swinney would do well to consider negotiation, to avert a full-scale rebellion against this flagship government policy.

Mundell’s bravery is a dilemma

David Mundell should be congratulated over his decision to come out as gay. It is a courageous move for the Secretary of State for Scotland, who had kept his sexuality a secret for years.

He is brave to make this announcement because choosing to expose your personal life to public scrutiny requires real strength of character. For most people who are not in the public eye, their private life remains just that – private.

Mr Mundell’s “new year, new start” declaration cannot have been easy, as it also touches the lives of family and friends. And Scotland’s sole Conservative MP must also face the sad possibility that his standing amongst some constituents could be affected.

However, despite admiration for Mr Mundell’s guts in making the announcement, which he published on his own website, there is also a sense of disappointment. It speaks volumes that he describes revealing his homosexuality as “harder than standing for election, speaking in the House of Commons or being cross-examined on television”.

Here is a highly educated and successful politician. His private life should be of no consequence. But in these supposedly enlightened times, going public with such details still puts the individual through agony, fearful of the reaction.

Mr Mundell quickly received support for his decision, notably from Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson. Both have shown how gay politicans have made it to the top, and are role models for those in all walks of life who may be struggling to find a way to come out.

But in terms of Mr Mundell’s announcement yesterday, it is time to wish him well and let him move on. We should all do the same.