Paul Edie: It’s time for Swinney to thaw council tax freeze

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WHEN I last wrote in December I raised the issues of the anticipated budget settlement and the stark responsibilities councillors were facing.

When I was first elected in the early 1990s the then hard right-wing Tory Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth enacted the most brutal cutbacks many could remember. Those are nothing compared to those being imposed by John Swinney on local government this year.

The local government cuts announced last month were far worse than anything we had anticipated. Edinburgh council needs to find an additional £16.5 million in cuts over and above what was touted before. That takes the amount the council needs to cut to £85m this year.

Hardly a week goes by without deputations suggesting ways to offset the cutbacks. Bright ideas have varied from sharing services more to introducing a tourist tax. Now the prospect of tinkering about with the upper council tax bands is being touted by of all people the leader of Edinburgh’s SNP group.

All laudable but all have one of two major flaws. Either they would need primary legislation and that would take a year and/or they would only make marginal contributions to bridging the gap. None sort the immediate problem of how to balance the books this year.

With 60 per cent of the council’s budget made up of staffing costs and estimates of 2000 staff being surplus to requirements, many question the wisdom of the council’s no redundancies policy especially in a city with jobseeker levels at around one per cent. Personally I cannot see the council meeting those levels of job losses without this policy being junked. Bit by bit the council’s room for manoeuvre is limited, partly by our own policies and partly by government.

Which brings me to the one thing we can do this year – if the government were simply to let us. We could raise substantial amounts of cash to offset a significant proportion of these cutbacks were we to raise the council tax.

I am not advocating the UDI that Moray Council has done, I am 
suggesting that the Scottish Government relaxes the nationwide freeze and gives councils the opportunity to raise some additional income.

We have had a council tax freeze for nine years. I get that this is an election year (they all seem to be at the moment) but the last poll rating I saw had the SNP sitting on 58 per cent of the vote. Surely they can relax the council tax freeze without losing their grip on power.

Removal of the freeze doesn’t require lengthy legislation; it can be done in the new financial year and it would net substantial sums for the public purse. After all, the alternative is swingeing cuts to vital services the like of which we have never seen before and those won’t be popular in an election year.

• Paul Edie is Liberal Democrat group leader on Edinburgh City Council and councillor for Corstorphine and Murrayfield