The Scottish Conservative leader said his party would be focused on “rebuilding Scotland” after the Covid pandemic, and would introduce 15 major pieces of legislation over the course of the next Scottish Parliament term if elected to government.
He said that he would not look to cut income tax while the country recovered from Covid, but pledged a Communities Bill which would "properly fund local services”.
He said Scotland was the “highest taxed part of the UK” because of the “uncertain fiscal situation” as a result of the Covid pandemic tax cuts “should only be considered when we can afford to do so.”
But he added: “By the end of the Parliament, we would seek to ensure that Scottish taxpayers do not pay higher income tax than those in the rest of the UK, while retaining the starter rate for low earners.”
Mr Ross also said that councils needed a Barnett style formula for council funding, as local authorities had not seen equivalent increases to rises in the Scottish Government’s budget as a result of UK government spending.
He added: “That is why the Scottish Conservatives would bring forward a Communities Bill to introduce fair funding for our councils. This would deliver a new financial framework that ensures councils automatically receive a set percentage of the Scottish Government budget each year, mirroring the relationship the Scottish Government has with the UK government.”
Asked if the move would mean changes to the council tax, Mr Ross ruled it out. "We’ve made a commitment there will be no changes to council tax over the next five years, because what we’ve seen through successive SNP manifestos are pledges to change the system but nothing has happened,” he said.
"We need a period of stability, so we wouldn’t change the council tax system but we would set up a Barnett style formula so as the Scottish budget increases, the councils across Scotland know the proportion of that budget they will receive, so we don't have a situation where the Scottish Government is asking councils to do more with less.
"We would work with Cosla to make sure we have a system that works for the local authorities. What I really want to see is local services protected.”
His manifesto states that as there is no cross -party support on reforming council tax, the Conservatives would “not support any overhaul or revaluation of the council tax system over the next five years.
"It will be for parties to build a consensus in the next Parliament around a reformed system and then put it to the Scottish people in the next election.”
However when pressed if this meant that despite his 10 years as a councillor in Moray and taking soundings from current Tory councillors, he was just kicking the issue into the long grass, he said: “The SNP have pledged to scrap it and reform it, the Greens propose to make hard-working families pay more, there is no consensus, so we need to have a proper discussion going forward.
"Take Moray, if the council raises council tax by three per cent that’s just shy of an extra £1m, so increasing or decreasing it has a very minor impact on the overall council budget and funding of services. The largest amount of funding comes from the government and that’s why I want to focus on ensuring that grows for councils in the same way the Scottish Government’s budget has grown.”
He admitted that when “asked to do more”, councils have been given ring-fenced funding from government but said in many cases this “hasn’t fully covered the costs”. “Cosla, during the budget process this year, was raising concerns and then we get the SNP paying councils to freeze council tax again. So many services have been lost over the last 14 years and it’s time councils were properly funded again.”
Mr Ross also pledged to “ensure proper protections for local decision making” and pointed to the four in ten planning decisions which, on appeal to the Scottish Government, saw the council’s original decision overturned.
"That means hundreds of developments going ahead on the instruction of an SNP Government in Edinburgh against the wishes of communities and local representatives across the country,” he said. “This is a clear SNP
power grab. We would amend planning laws, so that the Scottish Government cannot overturn a local planning decision.
"This would ensure that major developments require engagement with communities and that national infrastructure needs to deliver clear local benefits to those that will be affected by it.”
The Scottish Conservatives are the fourth party to launch an election manifesto for the May 6 election and Mr Ross said his party would seek to use the powers of the Scottish Parliament “to their maximum, rather than complaining that they are never enough.”
He also said his party would reassess how business is taxed, pledging "a wholesale review of the business rates system before the end of the Parliament” and would permanently increase the threshold for paying Land and Building Transaction Tax to £250,000, ensuring more than three quarters of home buyers will pay no tax at all, as well as allowing councils to create their own local LBTT discount schemes.