SNP council tax freeze: Vital services like education are paying the price of this Tory-style policy – Euan McColm

Underfunded for years, councils are having to make tough spending decisions with Glasgow facing the loss of 450 teaching posts

One of the SNP’s most audacious accomplishments over recent years has been its ability to persuade a large section of the electorate that there really is such a thing as a free lunch. Flagship nationalist policies – from “free” prescriptions to “free” tuition fees – were lapped up by the good people of middle Scotland, who loved that intoxicating cocktail of feeling progressive while saving money.

But, of course, none of these shiny giveaways is actually free. The extension of the provision of free prescriptions to include the wealthiest means a cut to the NHS drugs budget of more than £50 million a year while the abolition of tuition fees for Scottish students means a strict limit on the number of spaces available to them.

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Perhaps the most stark illustration of the devastating cost of a “free” policy has been seen in the impact of years of council tax freezes on local services across the country. The SNP’s first Holyrood election saw the beginning of nine straight years of council tax freezes. Local authorities – bedazzled by the promise that if they backed the government’s policy, the ring-fencing of certain funds would be lifted – rushed to sign up. Then they spent years trying to make the numbers work.

Council-run services like education are being hit by a lack of funds from the Scottish Government (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)Council-run services like education are being hit by a lack of funds from the Scottish Government (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Council-run services like education are being hit by a lack of funds from the Scottish Government (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Cuts to addiction support and social work

On top of the council tax freeze, each year saw real-term cuts which, inevitably, meant reductions in the services local authorities could provide. Inevitably, because the poorest people in society are least likely to vote, the services upon which many of them depend were first to feel the pain. Cue devastating cuts to, among other vital services, addiction support and social work.

When the Scottish Government announced that, from 2017, local authorities would once again be able to raise council tax rates, civic leaders breathed a collective sigh of relief. Here, if not a restoration of heavy cuts already inflicted, was a slowdown in the rate at which services had to be further sliced.

The return of the council tax freeze was a central plank of Finance Secretary Shona Robison’s Budget, debated by MSPs yesterday. Robison has promised councils £147m to cover the cost of the policy. Councils are, not surprisingly, far from enthusiastic.

The decision to bring back the council tax freeze was not, we should remember, something discussed by the Scottish Cabinet. There was no exploration of cost, no consultation with the local councillors who’d have to rethink their budgets.

Surprise announcement

Instead, Humza Yousaf, desperate to make a headline-grabbing announcement in his speech to SNP conference last October took the entirely arbitrary decision to revive the policy. Some of the First Minister’s ministerial colleagues were far from amused by this ambush. He might at least have given them advance warning of his plans.

Local authorities continue to struggle. It’s been reported in recent days, for example, that Glasgow City Council faces having to cut 450 teaching posts over the next three years. Similar painful decisions face councillors across all 32 authorities. Robison and Yousaf’s version of events is that it would be wrong to inflict a council tax rise on hard-working families right now, which sounds like the sort of thing Tories say.

The council tax freeze may mean our monthly bills don’t rise but we shouldn’t be surprised when it also further damages services upon which so many rely.



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