Leaders: Time for honest public debate on taxation

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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Nicola Sturgeon has provided a welcome insight into the direction she sees Scotland’s income tax regime taking under a future SNP government. Tax rises – or cuts – are unlikely in the next few years despite the Scottish Government assuming control over this from April. The lack of flexibility under the forthcoming “Calman” package means any rises – or cuts – would have to be across the board and appears out of step with the “progressive” approach favoured by Ms Sturgeon.

But with the SNP heading for another sweeping majority in next May’s election, Ms Sturgeon will still be First Minister in 2018 when Holyrood is set to take full control over income tax rates and bands. She appears keener to use these powers to look at targeted tax rises, most likely for high earners.

There is a growing onus on the First Minister, and all of Scotland’s political leaders, to be clearer about what they will do with the new powers they will soon be responsible for. Ms Sturgeon has previously backed a 50p income tax rate for the highest earners. If the SNP government is looking to do something similar in future in Scotland, what impact would this have?

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson recently said there were just 14,000 taxpayers who pay the 45p additional rate on their earnings above £150,000 in Scotland. This is just 5 per cent of the UK total – barely half what Scotland should have in line with its population share. How much extra revenue would this really raise? And with a growing number of Willies (Working in London, Living in Edinburgh), could it prove counterproductive if many quit Scotland for a cheaper tax bill south of the Border?

The Nationalists fought the referendum campaign last year on a pledge to turn Scotland into a Scandinavian-style powerhouse where high-quality public services were at the heart of government policy. Tax levels in these countries can also be among the highest in Europe. Is this still the SNP’s approach?

New Labour leader Kezia Dugdale recently called for tax rises and even suggested Ms Sturgeon could use the powers coming in April to do this. So is Labour ready to campaign on a platform of income tax increases?

Ms Davidson herself recently pledged that she would never raise taxes in Scotland above the UK rate and vowed to attract high earners. But such an approach seems oddly wedded to whatever position the UK takes. Surely the Tory leader must set out a more expansive outlook for the new Scotland?

The time is coming when the Scottish Parliament will have the power to decide whether to follow a high tax, premium public service economy or adopt a different model. This new generation of political leaders must surely now start to set out the approach they want the country to take.

Inca terraces a step too far

Edinburgh’s old Royal High School is one of Scotland’s great, landmark buildings. But this iconic status has made it an ongoing headache for city fathers down the decades as they agonise over a suitable use for the neo-classical Greek Doric building on the city’s Calton Hill.

It has been earmarked as the site for the Scottish Assembly in the late 70s before those devolution proposals fell through. It was a contender for the current Scottish Parliament before Holy­rood found favour with then First Minister Donald Dewar. Other plans for a national photography centre and music school have also been touted.

The latest proposals for a hotel with “Inca-style” copper-clad terraces appearing to climb into the side of the hill are nothing if not bold. And the prospect of the exclusive Rosewood hotel and resort chain pitching for a presence in Edinburgh also underlines the Scottish capital’s global renaissance.

But in the week that saw London’s glass “Walkie Talkie” skyscraper awarded the Carbuncle Cup for the scarring impact it has bestowed on the city’s skyline, it is perhaps a timely reminder that the current generation are merely custodians of any great city’s built heritage.

Edinburgh must never shy away from embracing innovation. The Usher Hall glass extension and Holyrood itself show the city is open to a more modern architectural outlook. But the concerns of heritage bodies are prescient on this occasion. The world heritage site occupied by the Royal High School provides that unique “countryside in the heart of the city” feeling and the latest proposal is simply not in keeping with that.