Humza Yousaf says he wants 'a new deal' with local government if he is Scotland's next First Minister
Humza Yousaf says if he becomes First Minister he wants a “new deal” with local authorities. Councils, including Edinburgh, have been forced to make big cuts because of a squeeze on funding from the Scottish Government and Mr Yousaf is not promising more money, but he suggests there could be more flexibility on offer.
"I'm very keen, quite soon, if I am First Minister of Scotland, to get a new deal with local government under way. What that new deal will look like is exploring how we can provide more funding flexibility to our local authorities. Of course they’ll ask us to look at the funding too – I wouldn't expect them to do anything else – and we will keep that regularly under review, as per the budget process. But I think it's worth looking at loosening ring fencing – not removing it altogether – and devolving further potential powers and funding flexibilities to our local authorities. I’m quite keen to get round the table very quickly to see if we can have a new deal for local government.”
He backs the tourist tax, which Edinburgh campaigned to be allowed to introduce, and would not try to restrict how councils can spend the revenue. “I'm a supporter of the tourism levy,” he said. “ I think it can help many parts of Scotland, but particularly you can see the advantages for Edinburgh. I’ve been to many European cities where you pay a few extra euros and its not a disincentive to going to those places, so I don’t accept that argument people use against it. I think it would be wise to allow local authorities as much flexibility in relation to that spend. I'm in favour of allowing local authorities to decide how that money should be spent.”
NHS Lothian is Scotland’s lowest-funded health board and Mr Yousaf said as Health Secretary he is regularly reminded of that. He pointed out the Scottish Government was putting an extra £1 billion into health next year. But he conceded: “There’s a strong argument for looking at the NRAC formula that's used to determine the funding across health boards. I don’t think it’s an immediate priority, given all the other challenges the NHS is currently facing. One of the biggest challenges the NHS is facing – and in NHS Lothian it’s particularly acute – is the level of delayed discharge and dealing with social care. Edinburgh has a significant challenge because of its over reliance on the private sector.”
He believes the new National Care Service could help there. The private sector would still have a part to play under the NCS, he said. But ethical commissioning – where contractors have to meet strict standards of transparency and quality – could make a difference. “And one of biggest initiatives we can bring forward is to continue to increase the wages of care workers – that is particularly an issue in Edinburgh, given the other sectors that may pay better, like hospitality and retail and so on. We have already given a commitment to an increase from April 1. If I am First Minister I will have to see what more can be done, given how acute that challenge is.”
All three candidates in the SNP leadership contest have said they would look again at aspects of the National Care Service, including Mr Yousaf. One of the main criticism is that it represents a massive centralisation of control, with up to 75,000 staff potentially being transferred from working for the council to working for a government body.
Mr Yousaf said: “The key concern from trade unions and local government is staff employment and the disruption that might cause. I think there is a compromise in looking at having a national framework which sets the terms, pay, conditions but still allows local government to employ the staff. My proposal would be to pause the NCS timetable to the other side of the summer recess and then engage quite intensively with local government, trade unions and those with lived experience to see if we can find a compromise.”
When the SNP first came to power in 2007 it tried to pull the plug on Edinburgh’s tram project, but now the city council is hoping for Scottish Government funding to expand the existing network. Mr Yousaf, a former transport minister, said: “I'm a great supporter of what's been done with the tram network and I also really applaud Edinburgh city council under successive administrations for the active travel initiatives brought forward. They lead many other local authorities when it comes to the active travel footprint they are creating. I would look to see what more we could do to support Edinburgh in relation to access to public transport. It's not just the trams – I think they have been a great success – but I’m really impressed by Lothian Buses and the bus network too.” On the possibility of a congestion charge for the Capital, he said matters like that, and a workplace parking levy, were best decided locally. "These are decisions which, if I’m First Minister, I will leave in the hands of the local administration to decide what’s best in their city.”
Mr Yousaf said he sympathised with calls from Edinburgh’s business community for business rates reform, but he warned it was a major task and would take time. He said: “A number of small businesses I’ve spoken to during this campaign have raised the issue of business rates. They think the way rates are set, the criteria, should be reviewed. I’m not completely averse to that but I do think, given it’s such a big piece of work, there are other things we should look to do with small business in the more immediate term. I would look at the regulations affecting small businesses in particular to see if we could ease some of that regulatory burden.” He pointed out he had already called for small businesses to be given a one-year grace period for the controversial Deposit Return Scheme, if not be made exempt entirely. “I would also like to appoint a minister for small businesses, given they are so key to our economy.”
And he said he would welcome an early meeting with Edinburgh’s council leaders over the city’s festivals and culture. "It’s so important to the lifeblood of the city and it has not come without its challenges in relation to the festivals. I’m pleased we've provided additional funding for the KIng’s, but there are a number of cultural institutions which are facing some level of threat and I would be keen to work with local government in the city to support culture and the arts in Edinburgh because it's so important for the economy of Edinburgh and the country, but also in its own right. We've got to make sure Edinburgh continues to be the festival capital of the world. He would not guarantee financial support to revive the Filmhouse. But he said: “I would be really keen to work with the city council and others to see if we can support the Filmhouse – it's an incredible institution.”
The result of SNP leadership contest will be announced on Monday. Kate Forbes told the Evening News on Thursday what her policies would mean for Edinburgh. And Ash Regan will talk about her plans in Saturday’s paper.