John McLellan: Tourist tax plan faces a mountain to climb

The tourist tax - or Transient Visitor Levy - was not mentioned in the Scottish Government's legislative programme. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
The tourist tax - or Transient Visitor Levy - was not mentioned in the Scottish Government's legislative programme. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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The Grand Old Duke of York is a useful chap: first he gets compared to the First Minister marching her troops to the top of the Second Independence Referendum hill only to march them back down again and now joining her on the return journey is council leader Adam McVey and his bid to bounce the SNP government into supporting his tourist tax plan.

While conceding with considerable understatement that “it may take longer to deliver the powers to start collecting”, in July Councillor McVey tweeted the tourism tax plan would be ready to go within a year. Culture and Tourism Secretary Fiona Hyslop’s response was famously instant and terse: “So let’s be clear – you have no shared plans, no tourist business consultation and no agreement with the Scottish Government.”

READ MORE: Tourist tax could raise £2.5m during Edinburgh Festivals, say Labour

Undeterred, the concept is the leading item in an extensive blog from Cllr McVey and his Labour deputy Cammy Day outlining their priorities for the next six months. “We fully expect the work we are doing to make a compelling case for the Scottish Government and our Parliament to consider,” he wrote.

Last weekend it was reported that the Scottish Government had backed off the idea and the so-called Transient Visitor Levy would not feature in its Programme for Government and sure enough it was not amongst the 12 bills unveiled by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on Tuesday. More telling was that in a speech which focused as much on Government activity as specific legislation, TVL didn’t get a mention.

But even had the Scottish Government been willing, the details of the proposed Edinburgh scheme are so scant that the chances of any kind of statute making it into this programme were zero. Or indeed the next one.

We don’t yet know for sure if the tourist tax will affect all hotels and guest houses, whether it’s by the room or bed, or even if it will extend to restaurant and bar bills. The expectation is such a tax will be levied per guest in a hotel or short-stay let, but we can’t be certain. And without the Scottish Government even dipping its toe in the water, we don’t know whether any scheme would be centrally imposed or devolved to councils. Crucially, we don’t know if the cash raised will not be clawed back by a cut in the Scottish Government’s block grant, as are business rates.

READ MORE: Airbnb and new Virgin Hotel back Edinburgh tourist tax

Cllr McVey points to a public consultation exercise this autumn and further research by Marketing Edinburgh and Edinburgh University economists, but even if Ms Hyslop is eventually persuaded, the TVL is years away from making it into law.

We know this because an oven-ready piece of proposed legislation, the Defamation and Malicious Publications Bill, did not make the Government programme. Personally piloted by the Scottish Law Commission chairman and senior judge Lord Pentland, it was over two years in the making, has undergone full public consultation in both preparation and revision, is backed by freedom of speech campaigners and publishing industries, and has been drafted in minute detail.

So a relatively simple piece of legislation with few political downsides has been sitting on a ministerial desk since Christmas, is ready to go now, not in 12 months, yet it’s now going out for further consultation with only a vague promise to bring forward legislation before the next election.

Despite the rhetoric, the TVL is starting from scratch in legislative terms, with the necessary consultation not even started locally, never mind the national research required for a new law, plus the fact the industry most affected remains bitterly opposed.

With a head of steam, TVL might become law in three years’ time, but the Scottish Government is reluctant to even light the fire.

And when he was up he was up, and when he was down he was down ... but as far as his own government is concerned, Cllr McVey’s TVL isn’t even half-way up.