SNP conference: Council tax will be frozen in Scotland next year, says Humza Yousaf
Council tax will be frozen in Scotland next year to help people cope with the cost-of-living crisis, Humza Yousaf has announced, in a U-turn that has sparked concerns about the financial impact on frontline services.
In his first big SNP conference speech as leader, the First Minister scrapped proposals to hike council tax by as much as 22.5 per cent for homes in higher bands, which could have raised an additional £176 million for local authorities.
Council leaders said they were not made aware of the decision in advance and warned it could have “longer-term implications” at a time of acute financial pressure. The Scottish Greens, who are in government with the SNP, were only told of the planned freeze on Tuesday morning, just hours before it was announced.
“We are concerned about the effect this freeze could have on already-strained frontline public services if it is not properly funded,” said Ross Greer, the party’s finance spokesman. "Our local councils and people who rely on services like social care, schools and early years centres must not lose out as a result of this announcement.”
The SNP previously froze council tax for several years after it came to power in 2007. The revival of the policy will be seen as an attempt to win support ahead of an expected general election next year.
Addressing party members at the P&J Live Arena in Aberdeen on Tuesday, Mr Yousaf confirmed an extra £300m over three years to help cut NHS waiting lists, and announced that investment in Scotland’s arts and culture sector will be more than doubled over the next five years. The Scottish Government had come under fire in recent weeks after a £6.6m budget cut was re-imposed on Creative Scotland.
Elsewhere, Mr Yousaf said the Government would take steps to issue its first ever bond to finance key infrastructure in Scotland, while a new £500,000 fund will also be piloted to support women leaving abusive relationships.
He pledged £500m of Government money would be invested over the next five years to help develop a supply chain in Scotland that can support offshore, renewable energy projects.
On council tax, he told the conference: "We know that people are filled with dread when the bills are going up and up. We can’t stop all the bills rising – but where we can act, we should.
"I’ve considered carefully what steps we can take to help. Council tax bills in Scotland are already hundreds of pounds a year lower than they are in England. We’re committed to fundamentally reforming local taxation and we will re-energise our work to do that.
"We have consulted on what level the council tax should be next year. And conference, we have reached our decision. I can announce to the people of Scotland that, next year, your council tax will be frozen. That’s the SNP delivering for people when they need it the most.”
Mr Yousaf later confirmed the freeze would be fully funded to ensure councils “can continue providing the services on which we all rely”. Asked how much this would cost, a spokesman for the First Minister told journalists: “That’s a matter for negotiation between us and local authorities. A 3 per cent increase in council tax is between £90m and £100m.”
Mr Yousaf’s conference speech comes at a difficult time for the SNP, which recently lost the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election amid a 20.4 per cent swing to Labour.
“We can either spend time feeling sorry for ourselves, or we can take another course of action,” Mr Yousaf told delegates. “Let me tell you what that is – we roll up our sleeves and we work harder than ever before for the people of Scotland.”
The First Minister called on the international community to create a refugee programme for those fleeing the hostilities in the Middle East. His parents-in-law have been trapped in Gaza since the Hamas attacks on Israel.
He also paid tribute to his predecessor Nicola Sturgeon.
"She reformed Scotland’s public services,” he said. “She improved the life chances of thousands of Scotland’s young people. And we will never forget that in the toughest of times our country faced, Nicola was the calmest of voices and the coolest of heads. So for all of this and more, we say thank you Nicola.”
Ms Sturgeon was not in the conference hall for her successor’s speech. Her appearance at the event on Monday had dominated media coverage, leading to claims she was overshadowing Mr Yousaf.
On independence, the First Minister urged his party to move away from debates about process and focus “on the why”.
A spokesman for Cosla, the council umbrella body, said: “We have just heard the announcement made at the SNP conference in relation to freezing council tax. We were unaware of it in advance. This has longer-term implications for all councils right across the country, at a time when we know there are acute financial pressures, and where we are jointly looking at all local revenue raising options.
“We will need to consider the implications for Cosla and local government with our members when we get more of the detail. This will also need to be examined against the principles of the recently signed Verity House Agreement.”
Mr Greer said: “The First Minister is right to want to support those who are struggling the most through the cost-of-living crisis, but the way to do that is to completely replace the deeply unfair council tax with a more progressive system.
“As we have repeatedly highlighted, council tax is a ludicrously broken system. It hasn’t been accurate since before I was born, with most people now paying the wrong rate as a result of those 1991 valuations.”
Labour’s shadow Scottish secretary Ian Murray said: “Fresh out of ideas for 2023, Humza Yousaf seems to have reached for the SNP’s 2007 manifesto for inspiration – but after 16 years of broken promises Scots aren’t buying it anymore.
“Humza Yousaf has told his party to focus on the ‘why’ rather than the ‘how’ of independence, but the truth is he’s not got a real plan for either."
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said Mr Yousaf’s “number one priority will always be independence above all else”.
He said: “Other announcements, such as on the NHS backlog and council tax, aimed at attempting to clean up the SNP’s previous mistakes were all sidelined by Humza Yousaf’s nationalist obsession. It is clear that no other issue will get a look in during the SNP’s campaign at the next year’s general election.
“Humza Yousaf is all too happy to waste more taxpayers’ money on promoting independence despite Scots struggling with a global cost-of-living crisis. It is completely the wrong priority for Scotland at this time.”
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