Scottish Budget: Local authorities call for ‘flexibility’ to hike council tax by up to 5 per cent as Shona Robison urgent meeting demanded
Local authorities in Scotland have asked for the flexibility to hike council tax by up to 5 per cent while still receiving money intended to fund a freeze.
Council leaders have demanded an urgent meeting with Shona Robison, the deputy first minister and finance secretary, amid a growing row over the issue.
First Minister Humza Yousaf announced a council tax freeze at the SNP’s conference in Aberdeen in October last year, but local authorities were not consulted beforehand.
SNP ministers later said they would provide £144 million of additional money to fund this. However, council leaders said this would not fully fund the freeze.
Only councils have the power to freeze the tax, but Ms Robison recently warned those local authorities that refuse to do so will not receive their share of the extra funding.
She has given Scotland’s 32 councils until February 16 to confirm their plans. Many, including SNP-run Glasgow, are expected to implement the freeze.
Following a meeting on Friday, Cosla, the council umbrella body, said the freeze “should be on a voluntary basis”. It also called for the “restoration” of budget cuts.
Katie Hagmann, an SNP councillor and Cosla’s resources spokeswoman, said: “Leaders were clear today that an urgent meeting with the deputy first minister is a priority.
“Leaders expressed anger at the budget-setting timetable, which has left councils unable to set their budgets due to a lack of certainty from the Scottish Government and as a result of having to wait until the UK government’s Spring Statement before knowing what additional funding could be passed on.
“In addition, there was a clear direction from leaders to seek restoration of the £63m cut to the core local government budget on behalf of their communities and the essential services they rely on at the meeting with the deputy first minister.
“Leaders also agreed that the council tax freeze should be on a voluntary basis with agreement that the £147m [a recalculation of the original £144m figure], already earmarked by the Scottish Government for this purpose, is distributed to all councils with flexibility to raise council tax by up to 5 per cent.”
Cllr Hagmann said there should be “no penalty or reduction in funding in line with the principles of the Verity House Agreement”. This was a partnership agreement struck between council leaders and the Scottish Government last year.
Elsewhere, she said council leaders wanted a guarantee that £45m in Barnett consequentials would be passed on following the UK government’s recent announcement of £500m in new funding for English councils.
Council leaders previously warned the Scottish Budget set out by Ms Robison in December would lead to service cuts and job losses. Cosla president Shona Morrison said: “This means potentially losing libraries, leisure centres and all the things that improve our lives.”
Ahead of the Cosla update, Liberal Democrat MSP Willie Rennie had accused the Scottish Government of “bullying” and “stomping all over democratically elected councils”.
He said: "Local people should be free to choose what is right for their area, especially as the SNP Government in Holyrood has failed to grow the economy, has blown the budget on the ferries and is making people wait ages for health care."
The Scottish Greens, who have a power-sharing agreement with the SNP, have also been critical of the freeze. Green MSP Ross Greer told one newspaper: "The Scottish Greens, categorically, will not be supporting future freezes to the council tax.” He said it “shouldn't be for national government to make decisions like this”.
The SNP previously froze council tax for several years after it came to power in 2007. The revival of the policy was seen as an attempt to win support ahead of the next general election.
Addressing the SNP’s conference last year, Mr Yousaf said it was an example of the party “delivering for people when they need it the most”.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Scottish ministers recognise the importance of local authorities in providing vital public services across Scotland, which is why the Scottish Budget for next year makes available record funding for councils of over £14 billion.
“Ministers have been engaging in open and honest dialogue with Cosla and council leaders over the challenging situation in which Budget decisions are being made. This includes the possibility of any Barnett consequentials resulting from the Spring Budget.
“The deputy first minister is happy to continue to meet with Cosla as part of the ongoing Budget process.”
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