PROFESSOR ARTHUR MIDWINTER analyses the impact of  the SNP’s council tax freeze, critiquing the centralising effects of its implementation.



The council tax freeze was introduced in 2008 – 9, as part of a new concordat between the Scottish Government and COSLA. The financial mechanism used was ring fencing £70m pa in the Local Government settlement which would only be paid to councils who implemented the freeze.

The Concordat’s rhetoric of partnership and joint accountability falls short in practice. There is a lack of clear lines of financial accountability, and of robust accounting data, which creates ambiguity and confusion over political responsibility for delivery of the policy commitments. 

Moreover, despite expressing concerns over the funding levels and the SNP’s manifesto costing’s COSLA advised councils not to use the settlement to “wrong foot or embarrass ministers” nor blame the Administration for “funding difficulties”.  Problems were to be resolved in private by a joint working group of officials,  hardly the transparency expected from devolution. 

This paper provides a critical assessment of the financial assumptions underpinning the council tax freeze,  and the scope for genuine efficiency savings without damaging frontline services. The funding gap created by the freeze has generated continuing instability in council finances, and an unprecedented squeeze on services.

The Financial Framework

Local authorities set revenue and capital budgets. Revenue covers the daily running costs of services such as salaries, supplies, energy, maintenance and interest payments on borrowing.  For capital expenditure, capital spending creates an asset which provides a flow of benefits to the community over a number of years, such as schools, libraries, roads, and police stations.  In revenue spending, councils cannot budget for a deficit and must set a balanced budget. The Scottish Government supports revenue spending on services with special arrangements for council housing finance. 

The Scottish Parliament inherited a framework in which around 80% of council revenue was funded by central grants.  Today, around 7.5% of such grants are specific. These grants are often described as “ring-fencing”.

Around £2 billion is funded through non-domestic rates – a property tax on businesses and public institutions. It was formerly a local tax, and is now set centrally and collected by councils, paid into a central pool, and redistributed to councils on a population basis. 

The remainder is funded by a Block Grant of around £7.7 billions through a needs-based formula based largely on the client numbers for a service, known as primary indicators. These are often self-evident, and selected by judgement, and include school children, the elderly, or total population, with an assessment for each major service or sub-service.  Secondary indicators are factors seemed to add to the cost of provision, and based on regression analysis against past expenditure, to reflect factors such as poverty and sparsity which are tested annually and reviewed regularly. This formula has been in use since 1980, and is subject to revision, although the current emphasis is on minimising change in the interests of stability.  Most councils have gripes about aspects of the formula which disadvantage them.  Needs assessment is not rocket science. Allocations are adjusted by a stability factor to ensure authorities receive a minimum increase or maximum decrease.

 Developments Since 2007

In 2007, the SNP pledged to freeze council tax then replace it with a nationally set local income tax, dropping their long-standing commitment to local democracy and fiscal autonomy. They also promised major spending increases on education and social work. The funding envelope, even including the theoretical efficiency savings, was insufficient to fund this package. There was a shortfall of £400 million on service spending, and a shortfall of around £800 million on the cost of LIT, which was later abandoned.

After the 2011 election, the SNP has committed to a further five year freeze, with forecasts of cuts in jobs and services in local government in the Scottish media. Efficiency savings of  over £800 million are required under the package.

The Economic Impact

The council tax freeze is regarded as popular in the Scottish media. It is difficult to see how freezing council funding in this way can deliver the “employment opportunities, protection for vulnerable people and reduced levels of poverty” in local communities as claimed in the new Scottish Budget. Further, the freeze promises “protection for hard-pressed households across Scotland, many of whom have been affected by the economic downturn and UK welfare reform”. 

The reality on the ground is different. Council employment has been falling since 2007, and the freeze is regressive, benefiting rich households at the expense of the poor. In practice, the freeze is a real cut in council funding of £280 million off the Scottish Budget so far. If that had been applied to services, and council tax raised in line, then extra council tax benefit would have accrued to claimants. As 20% of Scottish households attract full benefit, council tax freeze is taking resources out of the economy.

The resultant budget cuts adversely affected local government staff more than NHS staff. Over the four years from 2007, spending on health services grew by 2.5% in real terms, whilst spending on local government services fell by 3%, after discounting the freeze funding. (See Table 1, bottom of page).

Yet the SNP has consistently claimed its funding for local services was a good deal. Together, local authorities and health boards employ 93% of public sector staff in the Scottish Budget. The SNP claims to be supporting employment, and defended the priority given to health in its budget on economic grounds, that sustaining public employment aids recovery and health is a major employer.  That argument is even more relevant to local government! 

In four years of SNP government, employment in health grew each year, from 154,200 to 162,600, or growth of 5.4%, whilst local government staffing fell from 318,300 to 301,900, a fall of 5.1%. The Scottish Government employment stats state some of the reduction reflects transfers from Glasgow City Council to an arms-length organisation, CORDIA, which it claims explains the 7,700 staff reduction from 2008 to 2009.  In fact, only 2,342 staff were transferred. Accounting for this number leaves 14,058 posts, or 4.4% lost between 2007 and 2010, with losses in each year (See Table 2). 

As the UK government squeeze bites further during 2011-12, further job losses are being forecast by both the NHS and the councils, yet the SNP is still pretending its council tax freeze is beneficial. 

The SNP also claims it will make Scotland fairer as a strategic objective. Ironically, their main criticism of the council tax is it is unfair and regressive and takes no account of ability to pay.

This ignores the impact of council tax benefit, which is claimed by 25% of Scottish households. As the Burt Report observed, an effective benefit system is a key element in making any property tax progressive. In Scotland, 80% of benefit recipients live in low cost housing. 

The freeze, therefore, provides no relief or support for households on full benefit. By contrast, as Table 3 below clearly shows, the level of savings is greatest in higher cost housing for those households outwith the benefit system (See table 3).

This shows clearly the regressive nature of the tax. Based on data presented in the Burt Report, I would estimate that nearly one million households got no benefit from the council tax freeze, whilst 100,000 households in the most expensive housing saved around £500. This is not creating a fairer Scotland.         

Lessons for Labour

The council tax freeze has had perverse consequences on local services. It has served to reduce employment, not sustain it as Mr Swinney claimed, it has reduced frontline services, not protected them, and it has a regressive impact on women in low-paid council jobs, low income households, and disadvantaged households most dependant on council services.

 Secondly, this trend reflects SNP decisions. It began in 2007, well before cuts in UK grant materialised in 2011. It favoured populist options over sound finance.

Thirdly, these sustained cuts in spending far exceed the 1% pa  delivered by the Thatcher Government in the 1980’s. This trend is not sustainable in the long term. The SNP Government cannot both cut taxes and protect services.

In the 1980’s Labour councils used their tax powers to protect council services and communities from the cuts agenda. They consistently produced evidence of the impact on services of making dodgy financial assumptions in allocating grants.

 The council tax freeze has a number of key lessons for labour. These are:

  1.  It is regressive, as it provides the greatest cash gains to the wealthier households,  and no cash gains to poorest 20% of households on full council tax benefit.
  2. It has no significant economic benefit , indeed some higher income households will either save or spend some of their on exports, taking resources out of the economy.
  3. Combined with the SNPs persistent underfunding of the Concordat, and the reliance on increased “efficiency” savings, it is council jobs and frontline services that will be cut.
  4. It centralises power by removing the fiscal autonomy councils need for effective political choice and accountability, and improves SNP priorities on other parties.

So, what can be done?  Practical alternatives under devolution are few, as the SNP’s mishandling of the local income tax reform showed. In practice, property taxes are the most common form of local taxation in the world, but in the UK we still raise less from it than other countries. There is scope to make it more progressive.

The main public criticisms of council tax in the Burt Review were the level of increases and the unfairness. These perceptions do not square with the evidence but property taxes tend to be unpopular because of their visibility and their inelastic nature (i.e Income Tax revenues can grow automatically through inflation, council tax revenues do not). 

Moreover, Scottish council tax levels / increases are not particularly high. In the first decade of devolved government, whilst block grant grew by 3.8% per annum in real terms, council tax grew by only 1.8% because of sound grant management. As a result, the average Band D tax in Scotland fell below the English level for the first time in 2002 and was £172 less in 2007.

Secondly council tax is more progressive than it’s critics recognise – In part because of Council Tax Benefit. Burt showed that there is a general relationship between income levels and property bands. 72% of households in Band A have low incomes, whilst 81% of households in Band F-H have higher incomes.

Burt showed that the council tax system could be made more progressive by increasing the number of bands and increasing the multiplier – which determines the Council Tax distribution between bands – from 3 – 7. This would be both generally more progressive but would particularly help single adult households, which are more concentrated in the lower bands. (Burt found no case for special treatment for pensioners as a group).

 The council tax has never been as unpopular as the media inferred. The evidence from opinion polls is that it has never exceeded 4% in Mori’s “Scotlands most important problem” poll, compared with 52% from the poll tax.

The real impact of the council tax freeze should be exposed. The SNP has failed to “improve outcomes, reduce poverty, protect vulnerable people, and provide more employment” as claimed in the local government section of the current budget. It is hampering the economic recovery with the council tax freeze, as councils now have to find savings to attract the grant on top of the budget cuts, making savings of over £1 billion required, plus the efficiency saving targets of around £600m – a total of £1.6 billion!

Centralising trends occur during fiscal crises. In the 1980’s, one researcher described central government’s strategy  as “cut someone else’s budget, not your own” and identified local government as “The major target for central government economies” (1). Thirty years on, the SNP is enforcing the same Thatcherite strategy on local government.

Professor Arthur Midwinter is an Associate in the Institute of Public Sector Accounting Research of the University of Edinburgh Business School.


  1. See Howard Glennester (1981) “Social Service Spending In A Hostile Environment”. In C Hood and M Wright (Eds) Big Government in Hard Times (Martin Robertson, Oxford)


Table1: Budgetary Change in Real Terms, 2007-2011







Funding of NHS




Funding of Local Government Services




 Source: Scottish Budget 2011-12, Annex D – Treasury Deflator applied to 2007


Table 2:  Staffing Levels 2007-2010

Local Government














Table 3: Total Savings per Household from Council Freeze, 2007-2011



Per Week


































Related Posts

38 thoughts on “A Critique of the Council Tax Freeze

      1. It’s hardly an ad hominem attack when you use the man’s own words and record against him. Especially, when he is appearing in this forum as an economic expert.
        It’s not as if anyone is stooping so low as to call him a fascist, heh!
        By the way, wasn’t this your policy in May?

        1. I think you’ll find that I have always opposed the Council tax freeze as an inefficient way of helping folk with the rising costs of local services.

          Much better would be more bands (at the top) and using the £70m to target relief to those at the bottom. Instead some of that £70m helps very rich people in large houses.

          Oh, you meant wasnt that Scottish Labour’s policy! Sorry, you must have me confused with Iain Gray.

          1. John,

            I do agree that the freeze is probably not as efficient as it could be. But who in the opposition benches has the polish and acumen to argue the point? and more appropriately, successfully? Just banging on about it in a manner that remindes me of the early communists does no one any favours.

  1. Yes Dubbieside it is he and he was proven correct!

    Why did the SNP ditch their plans for LIT, reduced class sizes, first-time housebuyer grants, student debt write-off, etc. if they had no black hole?

    I’ve got to say I’m slightly concerned by this widespread amnesia that has befallen our SNP MSPs and their online-wing; is there something in the water at the SNP conference?

    The SNP can’t help themselves during elections – they promise the earth and shout down anyone who dares diagree with their numbers and then seem to forget that they had promised all the things they end up ditching!

    Oh wait, I just talked the SNP down therefore, as the SNP = Scotland, I’m talking Scotland down. I really must stop doing that.

    1. Not sure if it’s relevant, just putting it out there, but wasn’t there a massive fuel strike and a blockade at Grangemouth refinery shortly after the SNP came to power as a minority government in 2007, which mucked up their first budget?

      It’d be a good enough excuse for any other party, so I don’t see why it can’t be a good enough excuse for them. But the £2 billion figure is ridiculous anyway. The SNP might have over-promised a bit, every party does, but they actually delivered on most things, against the odds.

      The mere fact that they TRIED was and is refreshing.

      1. That didn’t muck up their budget and it is ridiculous to suggest so.

        FACT – the SNP failed massively to deliver on it’s manifesto. They came nowhere near doing what they said they would and count setting up reviews as major achievements. Unless a review comes up with a proposal that will make a massive difference in our society and is then implemented then it doesn’t, by itself, improve society. Can you tell me any reviews that led to massive changes in government policy which were later implemented and improved Scotland?

        The SNP failed on their major pledges and, sorry to burst your bubble here, they didn’t even try with most of the big promises.

        They didn’t try to bring in new homeowner grants; they didn’t try to bring in LIT, even thought the LDs are in favour of LIT; they didn’t try and bring forward an independence referendum; they didn’t try and bring down class sizes; they didn’t try to cancel student debt – in short they just didn’t try very hard and Labour lost in May because, despite this, we didn’t do enough to convince the electorate that we could do better.

        The media perpetuated the myth that the SNP ‘tried’ and were ‘competent’. This fed into the general feeling of the SNP doing ‘ok’. Why should Scots accept a government that does ‘ok’? Even now the SNP point to employment and unemployment statistics being better than rUK. Who cares? The figures are going in the wrong direction! I want Scotland to be as good as it can be, not best of the rest.

        This site is about trying to find a way for Labour to articulate our beliefs in a way that matches, and indeed surpasses in places, the aspirations of Scots. I suggest the nats on here, who like to tell us what we should do to improve Labour, take those views to their own party leadership and transform their own parties views.

        You may be in power just now but Labour are going to change and the SNP aren’t ready for it. I think you should focus more on yourselves and the problems within your own party.

        1. That would be the manifest pledges that were voted against by the oppose everything Labour party.

          Which SNP councils raised council tax by “greater values” is that percentage increases or NuLabour speak than Glasgow council?

          Parties that do not fulfill their manifesto commitments do not get re-elected, you appear to have forgotten May when one party went to the electorate and said judge us on our past record and vision for the future. How did that go for Labour again?

          Any party that voted against, freezing council tax, cutting prescription charges, student fees, 25000 new apprenticeships and 1000 new police on the streets deserves what they get, and Labour got the message big time in May.

          1. Again with the selective amnesia!

            You appear to be saying the SNP delivered on it’s manifesto from 2007.

            Is that your final answer?

            You appear to be believe that the SNP won the electorate over with their ‘positivity’ – I’m sorry but I don’t believe that is what happened. I think there was a group within the electorate that applies to but the massive swing in the polls I think is more reasonably explained by Labour failing to seal the deal.

            We had people willing to back us and when we started campaigning voters were turned-off by us. We had the election there to win and we messed up during the campaign/our weaknesses as a party were revealed during the campaign.

      2. How could a fuel strike and blockade affect Holyroods budget? It woudl have affected revenue going into the UK treasury, but of course Holyrood gets a fixed amount to spend, regardless of that.

        Of course, if Scotland had been independent, it would have affected the SNP’s budget, but maybe not by much.

  2. The council tax freeze benefits the rich in Scottish society well we knew that from day one but then so did the snp executive and now the snp quite happily cross an ordinary Scottish workers picket line.

    well at least we are seeing where the snps loyalty lie within Scottish society
    and its not with the disadvantaged or the low paid in Scottish society.

    The snp say they stand for ‘ALL’ the peoples of Scotland not on the evidence of their actions they have carried out so far

  3. I think you will find that the SNP balanced their budget every year since 2007. Please provide a link to where the SNP had a £2 billion shortfall, if you can.

    You appear to have forgotten May already. Partys went to the electorate and asked to be judged on both past record and future ambition and aspiration for Scotland. Would you care to remind everyone how that went again.

    Labour was rejected not by the SNP or the so called cybernats, they were soundly rejected where it counts, at the ballot box. All these articles underline that the lessons from May have still not registered, that the voters want positive thinking and ambition, something sadly lacking from Labour.

    Just go and ask voters what they think of the council tax freeze, not “I do not like it as it helps the rich”, what was said time and again on the doorstep was at last someone doing something to keep my council tax down. How much did it increase under eight years of Labour? was it 50% or 60% how did that help families struggling to make ends meet?

    1. Of course they balanced their budgets -it’s the law that they must!

      The plans the SNP had in their manifesto totalled more than 2bn greater than they would have available to spend and, as Prof Midwinter said, they would have to drop some of these commitments. He said this before they were elected in 2007 and was proven correct. In order to balance the budget Swinney had to drop some major pledges that got them elected. He offered more than he could afford and then had to backtrack – just as Prof Midwinter and Labour had said.

      Also the local authorities that increased the council tax by the greatest values were SNP run councils. The problem here with the CT is that the SNP put it forward as a policy that helps people out during harsh times – the problems with this are detailled above. It benefits the richest most and the balance between what is saves those further down the last and the impact on services is way off.

      Labour’s problem in May (well one of them) is that we didn’t manage to convince voters that the CT freeze is wrong and why would anyone believe us when we switched to advocate a 2 year freeze? We were wrong to stand on that policy and we should have stuck to what we believe in. That’s the real reason we lost in May – people thought we were just trying to get into power for the sake of being in power, and that we would advocate anything that would achieve that aim. We needed to put forward a vision with policies that were tied into that vision.

      1. I always laugh when we are told that John Swinney is so wonderful because he managed to balance his budgets.

        He has no choice but to do so. If he presents a budget which doesnt balance, the civil servants jump in and do a budget for him.

  4. It is all Greek economics to me!

    PS I do remember that the good Prof once said, “Tories are the only party with realistic cash plans”

  5. If Labour had gained power last May they would have frozen Council Tax payments for a further two years.

    So a Council Tax freeze is good when it’s done by Labour but bad when it’s done by the SNP.

  6. “I would estimate that one million households get no benefit ,while 100,000 save about £500”,so correct me if I’m working this out wrong but does that not leave about 4-5 million in the middle who do benefit from the council tax freeze?

    1. Yes, you are getting it wrong. You are ignoring the difference between households and individuals.

  7. Sorry you are right,so the remaining households in the middle then,the majority of folk ?Or is it ‘we all have to walk a mile in your shoes ‘kind of thing -really ?

  8. Yep,theres a whole heap of economic stuff in this offering.I must confess,I’m not that enthusiastic about trying to make sense of it all.I guess most folk are like that.
    What I do know,and it doesnt require a degree in economics,is that the Scots are a capable people and live in a land blessed with an abundance of resources.Why should we allow London to squander our wealth and talent? No other country does.Scots folk trust the Scottish Government,and generally think of Westminster as a cesspool of corruption.Which makes it all the harder to convince people that there is any “union dividend”

    1. Kev, they should reproduce your pos verbatim in the SNP manifesto;

      “…theres a whole heap of economic stuff in this offering.I must confess,I’m not that enthusiastic about trying to make sense of it all….”

      i.e. we don’t understand the ecnomics and we’re nat that interested in finding out because it might upset our prejudices…

      “I guess most folk are like that.”

      I hope not: understanding the issues is a necessary prerequisite to making the right decisions…important in a democracy, dontyouthink?

      “What I do know,and it doesnt require a degree in economics,is that the Scots are a capable people and live in a land blessed with an abundance of resources”

      Asolutely true, so what’s the point of “independence”, especially as you don’t understand, and don’t want to understand, the economic arguments?

      “Why should we allow London to squander our wealth and talent?”

      Kev, if you don’t understand and don’t want to understand the economic arguments, how do you know that London does anything with our wealth?

      You make an argument from ignorance and a virtue of ignorance. Not a very good foundation for a new nation, is it?

      1. Your negativity didn’t work in May and highly likely to fail in the foreseeable future, nit or should that be nat picking.

    2. Kev

      A very sensible post. While Labour waste hours arguing if a policy is progressive or regressive real people, you know the ones who vote, are just happy that someone is trying to cut some of their ever increasing bills.

      If the council tax freeze is regressive then by the same token so is the scrapping of the prescription charge, or tax on the sick, as it should be called. We never hear experts challenge the prescription charge freeze on here. Could it be that they are embarrassed that a supposedly socialist government raise the immoral tax on the sick (Gordon Browns words not mine) every year from 1997 to 2010?

      Taxing the sick is one reason I could never vote for either London torys or London Labour tory light variety.

      1. That is precisely the problem with the SNP. They believe that they can gain/keep power just by ‘trying’ to do something. The recent OBaFaTC (Sco) Bill is a case in point. They keep saying that something has to be done, and at least they are trying to tackle the problems. I’m sorry but this doesn’t wash with me – you shouldn’t be looking to do something you should put forward policies that ACTUALLY do something to tackle the problems we face.

        The Minimum Unit Pricing is another one. The SNP are determined to ‘look’ to be doing something in tackling the drinking culture in Scotland. They are so hell-bent on this that they have written a Bill that is so narrow in scope that it won’t deliver what it could. They should widen the Bill to allow the other parties to bring forward amendments that will fill the gaps and make it a more cohesive policy that will gain greater positive results. Labour want to improve the Bill, why won’t the SNP open the Bill up a little to make improvements?

        Simple, they want it to appear that Labour are opposing for oppositions sake. They want it to be a case of ‘if you don’t agree with this Bill (any Bill you can think of) then you are against progress and you’re against tackling X (sectarianism/alcohol abuse etc).

        The SNP want to create divisions so they can’t paint Labour as an oppositionalist party. Another case of this is the recent vote on cancelling Parliamentary business on 30th Novemeber.

  9. ‘The council tax freeze is regressive.’

    The converse of that statement is that the council tax is progressive. Try telling that to the hundreds of thousands of pensioners on a fixed income who were trying to keep up with the 60% increases imposed by Labour.

    Does this man expect to be taken seriously making statements like that? Betrays the weakness of his other arguements that he feels the need to embellish them with that nonsense.

    1. Can you point me in the direction of some evidence that Labour “imposed” a 60% increase? I thought the level of council tax was decided upon by locally elected councillors, many of who are not Labour.

      I also seem to recall reading in this article that the Council tax in Scotland went up a lot less than it did in England, so a link to a story by the Daily Mail wont work.

      1. How many none Labour councillors voted for the council tax increases that were passed by Labour councillors in Glasgow council?

        That argument is so weak it needs life support.

        1. Good to see that you dont think local taxes should be determined locally elected representatives.

          Its also good to see that there is no evidence for a “60% increase IMPOSED by Labour”.

          1. That argument is even weaker than your first, its now needing the last rites.

            Where did I say I did not support local councillors making local decisions?

            If as has been accepted that Council tax increased by between 48.5% and 60% during the period 1999 to 2007 when Labour were the dominant force at Holyrood and the majority if not nearly all the councils pre 2007 were Labour controlled it was the Labour party that increased the council tax. That is fact not fiction.

            How many councils were controlled by Labour pre 2007? How many were controlled by anyone else?

            Trying to re write history does not work, voters remember Scotland pre 2007 which is why we will not return there.

          2. The Labour councillors had the perfect right to vote for any increase in Council Tax. You objected to them doing so, therefore you object to local councillors making a local decision. I presume you didnt mind when they were voted out (maybe partly on that basis)? Thats democracy.

            Whats not democracy is dictating the level of council tax in Holyrood – which is actually what the council tax freeze amounts to.

            And by the way, after allowing for inflation, council tax in Scotland rose by 23.5% from 1997 to 2007. But there was much variation within that, with some councils rising by less, and others by more. This rise was also much less than that in England. I wont bother waiting for your praise for Laboru councillors in doing that.

  10. Alex Gallagher,
    I was only putting forward my opinion.You obviously think my ignorance of the detail of economics makes my opinion an irrelevance.Perhaps people like me,ignorant of economics,should hold our tongues and leave the debate to our betters.

    1. @ Kev, “I was only putting forward my opinion…Perhaps people like me,ignorant of economics,should hold our tongues ”

      If you want “independence” it helps your case if you can understand the economic arguments for and against… And if you did understand the economics, your “opinion” would carry a lot more weight.

      …e.g. I believe, based on the evidence, that we would be worse off, and certainly no better off, if we broke up the UK. I might be right or I might be wrong, but at least I can argue a case on that if you want.

      If you are, as you say, ignorant of the economics, you cannot argue an economic case for “independence”. And if you cannot argue the case because of igbnorance, how can you believe that we would be better off if we broke up the UK?

      In fact, if you don’t know the economic arguments in the matter, why do you believe in “independence” at all?

  11. Kev.I ‘got’ what you were saying,in fact perhaps we all should be asking the question did ‘our betters’ fully understand the economics or should they have been asking questions?
    Of course,you don’t need to be an economist to know where the Treasury is based and you certainly don’t need to be an economist to know you pay tax.
    Its a funny old thing this democracy malarky, you can vote for whoever you like (unless you live in Greece/Italy this month ),because your view and your vote is as valid as the next persons.

Comments are closed.