Gavin Yates a Fife Councillor and former Labour Party advisor says that John Swinney’s reaction to local councils considering raising Council Tax will have long term implications for the future of local democracy in Scotland.
When I wrote for Labour Hame back last year about the need to increase council tax I expected some controversy. Despite the terrible deal delivered to local government by John Swinney on December 16 the message of ‘paying more’ was never going to be universally liked.
I was in fact surprised that some many party members and members of the public told me clearly and unambiguously how much they valued council services and as one told me: “Someone has to pay for them, don’t they?”
It wasn’t unanimous by any means and one person asked me if I would pay any increase for him if I liked paying taxes so much. I politely demurred.
The difficulty that local government faces now is even starker than the one I examined back in December. For an authority like mine in Fife, a decision to raise the funding envelope to mitigate vicious cuts meant a possible fine of £4.6m. An increase of 7.5 per cent would raise £11m and even with a SNP fine of £4.6m this still meant there was a good deal of mitigation that could be achieved with the remainder.
John Swinney’s intervention this week changes that paradigm and leaves Councils facing an impossible conundrum. Either accept the biggest cuts local government has ever seen – and proportionately more than any Scottish Government reduction from Westminster – or face penalties into the tens of millions in relation to health and social care funding and teacher recruitment.
The SNP has always maintained that raising Council Tax was a matter for local government and any reduction was based on a ‘share’ of the £70m ‘funding settlement’. This was never adequate to fund the freeze but it was a useful fig-leaf. This new threat can’t even claim that.
It is as if Swinney has taken on the role of the Jack Palance character in the 1950s Western ‘Shane’, who throws the gun to the farmer, intoning for him to ‘Pick up the gun’, and then shoots him dead, claiming: “You all saw it. He had a gun.”
With the damaging cuts lumped on local authorities in December, Mr Swinney threw down a challenge to councils. Moray – with its Independent/Tory administration not known previously for radicalism – took up the gauntlet and said the cuts were that bad that an increase in the funding envelope had to be examined.
Mr Swinney’s response was not to re-examine the lousy hand he had dealt councils, but to raise the stakes and threaten financial crisis to anyone who denied his will. This behaviour is not the way a minister should act. It is simple blackmail and thuggery.
The coming days will be crucial for the future of local government. SNP councillors might be thinking “Keep mouths shut guys and wait ‘til after the election. Nice Mr Swinney will sort it out in due course.”
I would strongly suggest that would be a mistake.
The damage to local services that these cuts will have will also have long-lasting implications for communities that councils of any political persuasion will not be able to turn around easily and some services may be lost forever.
The issue facing us now is not one of Labour vs SNP but the more defining issue of central control vs local accountability. I know which side I am on. I hope all councillors – of all parties and no party – do too.