Reluctant support for council tax changes

Written by Jenni Davidson on 4 November 2016

MSPs yesterday voted through the Scottish Government's plans to increase council tax on bands E-H from April 2017 yesterday.

This is estimated to bring a total of £100m more to local government, although discussion about how extra money will be allocated to closing the attainment gap are still ongoing, with an equivalent amount of money likely to be taken out of the Scottish Government's grant to council's to be put directly towards improving educational attainment.

However, it was clearly not without a degree of reluctance that the Greens and Labour supported the changes.

All four opposition parties united to pass an amendment proposed by Green MSP Andy Wightman.

While Wightman's amendment deliberately didn't block the actual legislation, it did force the SNP MSPs to rather humiliatingly vote in favour of a motion that, following the amendment, contained the wording “regrets that the Scottish Government’s proposals for Council Tax reform undermine the principle of local accountability and autonomy and fail to address a number of issues identified by the Commission on Local Tax Reform”.

Labour and the Greens then voted with the SNP to pass the amended motion, while the Conservatives and Lib Dems voted against it. All four opposition parties agree that they don't like the Scottish Government's plans, but they differ in what they propose to do instead, with Labour, the Greens and the Lib Dems looking for more change from the current system and the Tories wanting less.

Speaking before the debate, Wightman said: "Council Tax is discredited and must go and we have been clear that we are willing to work with the Government towards that.

"We have also been clear that their adjustments to Council Tax are better than nothing and our amendment does not block the passing of the SSI [Scottish statutory instrument].

"The ball is firmly in the SNP’s court. It’s up to them whether they back their own policy or not.”

During the debate Labour's Alex Rowley referred to it as "modest improvement", but criticised the Scottish Government for ignoring the findings of the cross-party Commission on Local Tax Reform that council tax had to be replaced altogether and for not having "the guts to be honest with the people of Scotland" by taxing for education directly itself rather than taking it from local government budgets.

He finished: "I say to Derek Mackay that we will support the statutory instrument because we recognise that it is important that the money goes into local government. It is a step in the right direction, but we have to get rid of the SNP council tax and bring in something that will put local government on a fair financial footing."

The decision by Labour and Greens reflects a pragmatic decision that it's better to do something than block it and do nothing. But it was hardly a ringing endorsement either. And although the SNP has ruled out further changes to council tax that were not included in its election manifesto during this parliament, it is unlikely the issue of council tax reform will go away anytime soon.

Jenni Davidson

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