Alison Johnstone: Change way we fund local services

A final notice council tax bill. Picture Esme Allen
A final notice council tax bill. Picture Esme Allen
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On Friday the Scottish Government announced the membership of a new commission that is going to try and reach agreement on the tricky issue of how best to raise money for local services.

All the political parties except the Conservatives have agreed to take part, reflecting a widespread feeling that the current council tax system is unfair and urgently needs to change.

If this sounds incredibly dull, then think about how much better things could be if agreement could be found. Edinburgh is a city with both extremely wealthy neighbourhoods and areas of severe deprivation, with 30 per cent of all of Scotland’s most valuable houses, and yet the tax someone pays in the top band is the same whether their house is worth £400,000 or £4m.

My party has its own proposal to replace both council tax and business rates with a new system based on land values, which I think would be much fairer and lead to more efficient use of land, but we’ll take part in the new commission with an open mind. Perhaps the best outcome would be for councils to be able to choose between a range of different ways of raising their core funding. The important thing is that we end the stalemate of recent years and find a better way, so good luck to all those taking on this important task.

The debate over council tax is just one part of a bigger debate over how much freedom your local council should have to raise money to fund services. When Edinburgh’s budget was set earlier this month, Green councillors argued that the £22m of cuts to services could have been avoided with some pretty modest ways of raising funds, which in other European cities would be taken for granted.

So, in order to invest in swimming pools or sports centres, in libraries and in school repairs, we proposed measures such as a £1 a night visitor levy and a form of private workplace parking charge that has worked well in England. Both these proposals could raise millions for the city when it really needs it.

The trouble is that both these ideas would need the Scottish Government to give specific powers allowing them first. That’s on top of the council tax freeze. In fact, business rates, council tax and central government funding, the three main ways that our city services are paid for, are all controlled by the Scottish Government rather than locally elected representatives. How is that community empowerment?

Those of us in political parties who believe in society working together to improve lives have a duty to try different ways of raising funds and finding what works best for Edinburgh. We shouldn’t have to wait for permission from high command to chart our own course.

Compared to similar countries, we are long overdue a shake-up of our local democracy, and I hope that by the time we reach the 2016 and 2017 elections there’s an exciting new offer available from all political parties.

• Alison Johnstone is Green MSP for the Lothians