Kate Forbes talks about SNP and how her policies would affect Edinburgh if she becomes First Minister

SNP leadership candidate on how she would make a difference for Edinburgh

If Kate Forbes becomes First Minister she wants to decentralise more power to local level, reform business rates and see fewer local planning decisions overruled by government.

Speaking to the Evening News about what difference she would make for Edinburgh, the Finance Secretary, who is bidding to take over from Nicola Sturgeon, said she could not create more pots of money for cash-strapped councils, but she would want a dramatic reduction in ring-fencing – where central government lays down how funding must be used – so allowing councils more flexibility on spending.

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She said: "It's something I feel really strongly about. To my mind, decentralisation has to happen.” She said she wanted to work with individual local authorities and umbrella organisation Cosla to look at what decisions were better made at council level. “For example, when it comes to infrastructure decisions, housing decisions and the local economy, I think too often local government think they are just treated as the delivery arm of Scottish Government policy, but actually when it comes to those policy areas they should be informing it.

SNP leadership candidate Kate Forbes says decentralisation 'has to happen'.SNP leadership candidate Kate Forbes says decentralisation 'has to happen'.
SNP leadership candidate Kate Forbes says decentralisation 'has to happen'.

"And I think we need to take a more relaxed approach to variations in policy across the country because, bluntly, the need for housing in the Isle of Skye is going to look very different from the need for housing in the centre of Edinburgh. I think decisions should be taken by those who are most affected, so when it comes to Edinburgh we should be working together with the local authority to ensure that housing policy, transport policy, questions about the local economy should be taken by those who are affected here in Edinburgh.

"And on funding, I would support as much of a reduction in ring fencing as is possible to deliver because it does stymie [councils’] ability to make local decisions.” Ms Forbes acknowledged the difficult financial position local authorities have faced in recent years. “Funding settlements have been extraordinarily tight,” she said. “And I'm certainly not sitting here saying I can create more pots of money overnight.” But she argued a reduction in ring-fencing would give councils more freedom and flexibility on how to use their funding.

And she said: "The only way to fundamentally expand the pot is to expand the tax base, so that's why I’ve put growing the economy front and centre of my campaign – because with more taxpayers you do increase the revenue and therefore you can reinvest more money. Some people have been dismissing that as a ridiculous lurch to the right. Absolutely not. To redistribute wealth you've got to create wealth in the first place. It's hardly right wing to talk about creating wealth in order to redistribute it.”

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Edinburgh is the council with the lowest per capita funding in Scotland, but Ms Forbes did not offer much hope of any dramatic change. She said: “Every council in Scotland could tell me about why they're uniquely worst-off and I believe that comes down to methodology. If there's an appetite across local authorities to look again at the funding methodology then I would absolutely work with them to consider again the methodology.”

Kate Forbes argues decisions should be made by the people who are most affected by them.Kate Forbes argues decisions should be made by the people who are most affected by them.
Kate Forbes argues decisions should be made by the people who are most affected by them.

Edinburgh’s business community has long campaigned for a reform of business rates and Ms Forbes seems sympathetic. “Right now, you can have a highly successful business that operates from a cupboard paying next to no business rates, and a business that's struggling operating from a large premises that's paying incredibly high levels of business rates. The economy has changed, particularly with technology – your success is not linked to your square footage. So I think there is a need to look at how business rates reflect how the economy actually operates.”

Ms Forbes returned to her decentralisation theme when she was asked about the controversial planned National Care Service (NCS) which could see large areas of council responsibility transferred to government oversight. “I think the NCS has to have the confidence of trade unions, local authorities and parliamentary committees and it currently doesn't.” She said the problems identified by the review which prompted the proposals for the NCS were that there wasn’t a universal level of care, that there was huge pressure on staffing and that it could be a “political lottery.

“I think you can solve those problems in way that doesn’t create a new, overly bureaucratic system that just replaces one thing with another. .I would like to see staffing at the heart of it – that means looking at terms and conditions and pay and how to make it an attractive place to work; and it has be a completely decentralised model of local teams being able to provide care in a local way that meets local needs.”

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Planning is often a controversial topic, not least when the council refuses permission for a development, only for the government to give the go-ahead when the developers appeal. Ms Forbes said she wanted a wider review of planning. “When it comes to economic development and ‘place-making’ in terms of making Edinburgh a place where people want to live and work, planning can often make the difference. Planning should viewed as how we enable development and creating communities rather than just being seen as an obstacle.” But she added: “I absolutely get the frustration when it’s the Scottish Government reporter overriding local decisions and I think that should be done a lot more sparingly than it is currently being done."

On transport, she promised she would “carefully consider” government support for the expansion of the tram network and said congestion charging had a place. “But you have to ensure there are alternative sources of transport for commuters and for those trying to get around Edinburgh; and you also have to provide support for those who are going to be hit hardest, for example taxi drivers. to enable them to transition.”

Legislation is still awaited from Holyrood to allow councils to introduce a tourist tax. Ms Forbes said she supported the option being available and it would be up to councils to decide to introduce one. And when it comes to spending the money she believes there should be an obvious, direct link to tourism. “But there's a difference between spending it on advertising to attract more tourists and filling the potholes which have been created by higher levels of traffic. I think it would need to be demonstrated that the spend on infrastructure is linked to tourism.”

The tourist tax is one example of a local tax councils could set and operate themselves; the workplace parking levy is another. Would Ms Forbes be happy to see other new council-controlled taxes? “I'm generally more in favour of reforming the taxes we have than creating a more complicated tax system,” she said.

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The result of the contest to become the next SNP leader and First Minister will be announced on Monday. The other candidates, Humza Yousaf and Ash Regan are speaking to the Evening News over the next two days.