HELEN MARTIN: Councils must stick to basics in reform plan

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COUNCIL tax reform doesn’t have a great track record. From window tax, rates, to poll tax, to council tax and now a shift to a new progressive system which could turn out to be almost any combination of property, income and land value, each system only lasts for a certain amount of time before it’s seen as unfair and has to be overhauled.

Every system has winners and losers so it’s impossible to find one that will be universally popular.

Re-evaluation is an expensive process in itself but for those living in Edinburgh, values have risen so high since the last reckoning in 1991 that many people could be priced out of their homes. So yes, it has to change.

This is an opportunity to redistribute the cost of local services more fairly. But to say it’s a tricky challenge is like saying Daesh is a bit of a problem.

Basing local tax on personal income when there is no such thing now as job and income security will lead to constant appeals and readjustments. Depending on banding it might even be a disincentive to earn more, not to mention that it amounts to a double tax on earnings.

Land value tax is even more complicated. Wealthy landowners would not be the only ones to take the hit. People in rural areas might have more land but enjoy fewer of the council services and conveniences than urban areas. Bungalows, often favoured by the elderly for obvious reasons, are renowned for the generosity of their gardens.

And the idea of making owners of buy-to-let properties rather than tenants pay the land value tax, seen by the government-backed cross-party commission on reform as “promising”, is a real booby trap.

Most tenants currently pay their own council tax for the services they use. Landlords are not all rich investors with huge rental portfolios. Many are ordinary savers or pensioners owning one flat to provide income or care costs for their old age. The only reason they are in the rental business at all is because the bottom has fallen out of their previous savings plans following the financial collapse and ensuing zero per cent interest rates.

Either rents will soar to cover that cost or the flats will be sold off again, reducing the city’s housing stock for tenants who can’t afford to buy.

At the root of all this lies the pivotal question . . . what is local council tax – whatever it’s called – actually meant to pay for?

If it’s schools, libraries, museums, refuse, policing, street lighting, planning, social work, local authority housing and all the other core services, we all benefit to a greater or lesser degree. And one way or another, we must pay our share – providing councils stick to those essentials.

But if the Scottish Government believes we should all be paying more and wants our vote on the plans at the next Holyrood elections, there is another clause it should consider. And that’s limiting the increased council tax expenditure to those essentials and curbing councils from undertaking grandiose, unnecessary, or lobby group-led schemes and projects – unless they can find private sponsorship to cover the cost.

Focus on real racism issues

THE racism row over Janette Tough, alias Jimmy Krankie, playing a male, Japanese fashion designer in the new Ab Fab movie, on the grounds that the part should have gone to a diminutive Japanese gentleman, is nonsense. Ab Fab is pantomime parody. We might as well ban Christopher Biggins or Allan Stewart from playing dames.

Add to that the Glasgow row over an Asian shopkeeper fast selling out of golliwogs and the Dunfermline court case in which a Muslim key witness has been allowed to cause costly delay by refusing to remove her veil to give evidence, and it shows how much time and effort is taken up by people abusing the racist card with trivia.

There are pressing and horrific racial issues in the world – genocide, harassment, inequality and oppression, and hateful discrimination in the UK including a Syrian doctor struck off by the NHS, rightly, for saying Indian doctors were “dangerous” and fit for cleaning toilets rather than practising medicine.

Will we ever be brave enough to prioritise “real” racism rather than making mountains of molehills, pandering to political correctness and rewriting “Baa Baa Black Sheep”?

‘Extra’ medicine lessons needed

THE free marketing of over-the-counter medicines has been a problem for years. Nurofen has been caught out in Australia for packaging up the same drug to target different ailments. But what we should really be worried about are those bearing the words “plus” or “extra” which are not only more expensive, but dangerous unless we closely read the ingredients to find out what that “extra” is.

There is a real need now for schools to educate children about the function, safe dosage and combination of generic drugs such as paracetamol, ibuprofen, codeine and aspirin, all of which are as effective as branded versions, and cheaper – but none of which are harmless.

The price isn’t right

On a shopping trip my step-granddaughter, 11, was desperate for a pair of heels. “That’s for Mummy to decide,” I told her. Should have added: “Unless your mummy had been Katie Price . . in which case you could probably have had

a basque and suspenders.”