The SNP tax bombshell just around the corner - Alex Cole-Hamilton
But the Lib Dem tradition of colourful photoshoots started long before Willie’s time as leader. Twenty years ago, elections would feature a string of Lib Dem candidates posing with a massive axe and a homemade sign proclaiming “Axe the Tax!” to signal our opposition to the Council Tax.
It was a time of great consensus. Almost everyone across the parliament and council chambers of Scotland agreed that the council tax was unfair. Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax had been defeated but its replacement was in truth little better. Those with vast mansions paid little more than those in tenement flats did. The wrinkles and contradictions have only been amplified as time has passed.
House valuations were last set in 1991 but property prices have not risen uniformly across the country so a flat owner in one part of the country can find themselves paying big bucks in Band E, while a detached property elsewhere skates under the radar in a modest Band C, simply because of how the tax was calculated in the early nineties.
The SNP agreed, and to great fanfare fought and won the 2007 Scottish election on a promise to scrap the unfair Council Tax. Nicola Sturgeon said that she “hated” the tax. Now 16 years on, they’re finally consulting on what to do about that promise, only not in the way you might imagine. Far from abolishing the Council Tax, the SNP and their Green acolytes are actually proposing embedding it even more firmly.
The plans include an eyewatering tax bombshell that would see one in four Scottish homes hit with an additional council tax rise of up to £835 on top of any yearly increase. For people subsisting on a state pension in a house they bought in the sixties that has accrued in value despite their income declining, this will be a hammer blow.
The middle of a cost of living crisis is the worst possible time for these increases. And in a briefing on Monday, the Institute of Fiscal Studies exclaimed that even after the proposed changes, council tax in Scotland would remain “highly regressive”. So, why are they doing this? Well, this is a trap of their own making.
For more than a decade the SNP, in large part enabled by the Green party voting in support of their budgets, has quietly eroded local government finance year-on-year. It has also completely failed to give local authorities the powers they need to get local economies firing on all cylinders. The nationalist failure to grow the economy means less money for overwhelmed public services, but rather than admit they have made a mess, they are picking the pockets of average Scots to plug the gap.
For as long as it continues the council tax will harm vulnerable citizens who just can’t afford that sort of increase. Too many properties are in the wrong bands and there is no guarantee that services will be saved even if bills were to go up because the SNP/Green Government’s systematic underfunding of local government has been so devastating for so long.
This isn’t a done deal and it’s important that the government understand the depth of feeling in the country about this. The consultation closes on September 20 and you can have your say at www.gov.scot/publications/consultation-fairer-council-tax. Meanwhile I’ll be hunting out those old “Axe The Tax” banners once more.
Alex Cole-Hamilton is MSP for Edinburgh Western Constituency and Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats