Leader comment: Forced council tax rise subverts local democracy

The Scottish government is forcing councils to increase the council tax on high-banded properties. Picture:  Neil Hanna
The Scottish government is forcing councils to increase the council tax on high-banded properties. Picture: Neil Hanna
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The council tax freeze had its time, and that time has gone, this newspaper has argued previously. The freeze had left some local authorities with no option but to cut much-needed front line services, and while the Scottish Government argued within reason that the limits imposed encouraged fiscal prudence, the nine-year freeze had stretched the effectiveness of this intention to the limit.

The latest proposal from the Scottish Government is to impose a hike on council tax for those living in band E to H properties, with the proceeds being used to fund the cost of closing the attainment gap in education.

Local authorities have objected, some on the basis that they wished to retain the freeze and would not be able to do this because of the Scottish Government intervention. It has to be said, that we have not heard much of this particular argument previously during the extended debate over the freeze.

Councils are on firmer ground when employing the argument that an enforced hike undermines local democracy. Over the past nine years, the Scottish Government has certainly depowered local authorities by denying them the ability to vary council tax, which is ironic given that the same government has sought new powers from Westminster – the much quoted “levers” – to vary taxation.

The sense of central control would become even more pronounced with the imposition of rises. When interfered with to this extent, the tax no longer remains a local affair. Instead, it becomes a national tax, with no mechanism available to councils to remedy local challenges.

Raising the tax without the involvement of local authorities also plays to the Scottish Government’s agenda of asking the better-off to fund central government initiatives. There is an argument that those who are most likely to have benefited from a good education should help to improve the prospects of the next generation, but this political position is only achieved by riding roughshod over local democracy. The council tax was not set up to be a tool of central government, and it should not be hijacked in this way.

In addition, it should also be noted that the failure to close the attainment gap has happened on the SNP’s watch. If that gap is a political priority, as the First Minister has said it is, then the Scottish Government should be finding a way to fund a solution which does not involve taking more from the public.

Council heads also want tax bills to be accompanied by a letter to those in bands E to H which makes it clear that the rise has been imposed by the Scottish Government. There should be no reason for this fact not to be spelled out, and any attempt to block such a move would be ill-judged. If ministers consider a rise to be legitimate, then with the responsibility of power comes transparency.

The council tax is by no means perfect, but we should at the very least ensure it remains true to the reason for its existence – a tax, to be raised by a council. Any other arrangement simply subverts democracy.