Gina Davidson: Swinney could rue this budget

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SO this is Christmas, a time for giving, a time for receiving (a time I’m sure for pardoning my mixed festive lyrics).

But not if you happen to be the Scottish Government and the country’s 32 local authorities.

John Swinney eschewed the role of Santa for that of Scrooge and refused in his budget last week to finally lift the council tax freeze and allow Scotland’s local authorities raise much needed cash for desperately needed services.

Of course, we heard the routine dissembling about cuts from Westminster impacting on what Holyrood can do – let’s not mention the £200 million underspend last year shall we? And then there was the launch of a committee to look into the future of council funding, which is welcome, but in the right here, right now, urgency of local government finance it’s not worth a bean.

The council tax freeze has been a lynchpin of SNP government policy and without a doubt it has proved popular – especially among the

“aspirational” middle classes who have saved the most.

The argument that this policy is in anyway redistributive, or left wing, or fair in any sense, is just farcical.

Let’s look at the numbers for Edinburgh alone. Using figures based on the Consumer Price Index which the council uses to set its budget, cumulatively since the financial year 2008-9 people in the lowest council tax band, Band A have saved £180.96 over seven years – that’s just under £26 a year. Those in the highest band, Band H, have saved £542.90 over the same period – around £77.50 a year. Band D, right in the middle, has seen savings of £271.45 – just shy of £39 a year.

Of course, these figures are

speculative. If the freeze had not been in place the council could have raised the tax by any amount it deemed politically acceptable – but the fact remains that those doing best out of it are the people living in the larger, more expensive houses. Those at the lower end of the scale – and let’s not forget the many who don’t even have to pay council tax because of exemptions – are saving next to nothing yet are likely to be more reliant on the very services which are being cut.

The SNP knows that the council tax freeze needs to thaw. That’s why it’s been forced to step in with £88m ring-fenced to maintain teacher

numbers (not increase which is why many authorities no longer run supply lists, why many classes beyond the earliest years are bursting at the seems with pupil numbers and composite classes are on the rise) and then there was £250m for health and social care, as again council’s are unable to deliver adequate services.

Ever since the freeze was introduced councils have complained that they were not adequately compensated financially for agreeing not to raise council tax. At first it was happily accepted that this was just party politics – here was a feel-good policy and Labour (mostly Labour) councils were just jealous that their own government hadn’t thought of it before. Even the Tories, the party of low and even lower taxation, couldn’t argue against it without accusations of hypocrisy.

Eight years on the precarious finances of our councils are too serious to be used as a political football. Edinburgh is facing a cut of 4.5 per cent – double what is was expecting. It will now have to delay setting its own budget for the next year given this new blow.

But without a doubt thousands of jobs will go and the £126m it thought it had to save over the next four years will now be far higher given that huge number was based on the freeze being lifted.

There are many times when, rightly, our city council is condemned for what it does or doesn’t do. But at the heart of many of the problems is the choking hold of the “concordant” signed with the government not to raise council tax.

South of the Border George Osborne has allowed councils to raise local taxes by two per cent – a rise which could cost Band D payers here around 40p a week. Edinburgh council had planned a three per cent rise if the freeze was lifted. Not much at all to help the services used by our most vulnerable, and indeed those we all use on a daily basis.

The SNP government likes to talk about fairness and equality. It believes that Scotland is a more left-wing country than England. Yet is obviously unprepared to put that to the test.

This is a budget which could come to haunt Mr Swinney. He needs a visit from the spirit of Christmas future.

Calton Hill ban deserves blast at council

CALTON Hill has suddenly been declared dangerous for people to climb to watch the Hogmanay fireworks. How can it be possible that the council, using the event organisers, can suddenly prevent people from walking on public land?

Obviously they have to take safety seriously, but the council cannot be held responsible if someone turns an ankle or worse because the ground is uneven, when that person has chosen to climb a rocky hill in the dark.

Last year we watched the fireworks from Corstorphine Hill. Yes, it was dark, but we took torches. Yes, it was uneven, but we took our time.

The people of Edinburgh should be able to watch the fireworks without being forced into paying for a ticket to do so.

‘Vegas’ hotel is not for Capital

THE row over the plans for the old Royal High school on Calton Hill will rumble on for some time yet, but how heartening to hear that the director of the Edinburgh International Festival, Fergus Linehan, pictured, has given his personal view, that the hotel plans as they stand are too “Las Vegas”.

And we all know the saying – what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. So let’s not import it into Edinburgh.

Season’s greetings

And after all that moaning, may I just wish you all a very merry Christmas!