Council tax freeze doesn’t help those most in need - Ewan Aitken

In my previous life as a parish minister I often heard it said that the really significant theological decisions were made in the finance committee. The same is true of politics. The big decisions are driven as much by financial reality as they are by political philosophy, the recent Scottish Budget being a brutal example.
Ewan Aitken, CEO Cyrenians ScotlandEwan Aitken, CEO Cyrenians Scotland
Ewan Aitken, CEO Cyrenians Scotland

There is no doubt money is tight for a whole number of reasons not all of which are in the control of the Scottish Government or even the Westminster Government. That said, there are still real choices being made by both, within those restrictions. Choices which have an impact.

For example, the difference in Scottish tax banding means the Scottish Government brings in around £1.4 billion more than would be the case had they followed the Westminster tax bands.

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As a higher rate tax payer myself, I think this was the right decision to make. Those who can pay more should pay more. Tax is how we look after each other. However, The council tax freeze is another story. It will not help poorer families because it doesn’t actually put more money in their pockets, nor will it make up for the money cut from social housing funds. What it does do, is undermine local democracy whilst ironically benefiting folk living in bigger houses. It was a decision made in the context of a cost of living crisis but it will not ease the cost of living for those who are struggling the most.

Of course, the council tax freeze was not intended to directly combat the cut in social housing. But as a former council leader, whose job was to set a council tax rate, I know a little of the complicated and conflicting demands involved and, had I been the one deciding, I would have made a different decision.

If the intention was to spend £144 million (the amount being aided to councils to cover the cost of the freeze) to help folk with the cost of living then upping social care workers pay to £13 an hour or increasing the Scottish Child Payment (a very successful previous budget decision) would have been a smarter move in my view. Neither would have helped everyone struggling, but it would have helped many more than the council tax freeze will.

If we want to really save money, building more social housing will reduce the numbers in temporary accommodation and allow folk to get over the trauma of homelessness so they are less likely to need other public sector support. Building more social houses is a longer term solution, so won’t have an immediate impact, but the Government must acknowledge that we are facing a real homelessness crisis. In a crisis, it's vital not to lose sight of the long term and preventative ambitions. They are the only way we will really improve the circumstances in which we find ourselves right now.

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I am sympathetic to the challenge politicians face. Building budgets with money people feel is theirs, where every person, organisation and protest movement they meet has a view on how that money should be spent is a very difficult task. It’s even harder when money is tight. But that is what politicians are tasked to do. They are also tasked to not lose sight of the future, even in a crisis.

Ewan Aitken is CEO of Cyrenians