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Moray Council Tax freeze: Return of "regressive", "disaster" policy or "SNP delivering for people"? Local politicians react to First Minister Humza Yousaf's announcement

By Lewis McBlane

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A SURPRISE Council Tax freeze may put jobs "even more under threat", with the "desperate" policy showing "utter contempt" for Scottish councils, who were left in the dark and feel "real anger".

Council leader Councillor Kathleen Robertson criticised Humza Yousaf for the return of the freeze.
Council leader Councillor Kathleen Robertson criticised Humza Yousaf for the return of the freeze.

These were the views of Moray councillors, including the council leader, the SNP group co-leader in her view as president of COSLA and the leader of Moray's Labour group.

However the other SNP group co-leader, and newly-announced general election candidate, welcomed the policy.

Announcing the measure on Tuesday (September 17), First Minister Humza Yousaf described it as "the SNP delivering for people when they need it the most" – but the plan has been criticised in the face of Moray Council's expected £18.2 million shortfall.

Council leader Councillor Kathleen Robertson (Forres, Conservative) said the announcement meant the future of heavily-used local services was "even more under threat".

Though "too early to say" what the impact will be, asked whether she expects the Scottish Government to compensate for Moray's planned Council Tax increase, she said: "I doubt it".

"Our discretionary services such as leisure, libraries, swimming pools and – dare I say it – jobs, are going to be even more under threat," she added.

Scottish Council Tax rates were either frozen or capped at three per cent from when the SNP first came to power in 2007 until 2021.

In 2021 and 2022, councils were allowed to set their own rates and Moray's rate increase by five per cent last year.

SNP group co-leader Councillor Graham Leadbitter (Elgin South, SNP) said the rate freeze would ease the "severe impact" of the "Tory cost of living crisis", which "will be positively welcomed by the public".

However Cllr Leadbitter said, on the Scottish Government's pledge to compensate councils, "the detail of that will be examined carefully".

Moray Labour leader Councillor Sandy Keith (Elgin City South) said was a "desperate act by a Scottish Government that is failing working people".

Previous freezes, Cllr Keith said, were a "disaster for local services" and the latest announcement represented "utter contempt" for the Scottish public.

He also argued that the SNP should follow through on their 2007 pledge to scrap Council Tax and "replace it with something fairer".

Mr Yousaf's pledge was a "very cheap headline", Cllr Robertson said, which will "completely backfire".

Moray Council has already conducted budget questionnaires, according to the council leader, which showed that people accepted that Council Tax needed to be increased to protect services.

"It is a very cheap headline to appease all the householders to get votes for next year's general election," she said.

"Which is going to completely backfire – because we're potentially going to be left with a local authority that can only deliver statutory services.

"And discretionary services will be under even more threat than they were before.

"It's at a time when the general public appreciate that we do have to raise council tax in order to preserve basic front line services.

"Early indications were that the public would be comfortable in paying a little more council tax if it did mean preservation of things like libraries, toilets and leisure facilities."

A New Deal with Local Government, called the Verity House Agreement, was agreed between the Scottish Government and COSLA in June this year.

Cllr Robertson said the First Minister's announcement meant he had: "basically torn it up".

"We're not best pleased," she said.

"What Humza Yousaf has done is drive a coach and horses through the Verity House Agreement.

"The absolute essence of that, was that the Scottish Government were not going to interfere in local government tax or decision making – and they've done exactly that.

"There was absolutely no consultation or discussion or heads up that this was going to be announced.

"The ink isn't even dry and they were lauding it at the COSLA Conference literally a month ago.

"And within a month they've basically torn it up."

A statement signed by Moray Councillor and SNP group co-leader Shona Morrison (Fochabers Lhanbryde) – in her role as COSLA President – indicated a coming political battle over the new policy.

Again criticising the freeze in a BBC Radio Scotland interview, Cllr Morrison said the announcement stood in "absolute contrast" to a recent agreement between the Government and local authorities.

Her statement said that local councils are feeling "real anger" over the announcement and "deplore the way the announcement was made and its substance."

Describing the policy as "regressive", Cllr Morrison and Vice President Councillor Steven Heddle said previous freezes had "no impact for the poorest in society".

"The announcement of a Council Tax freeze as we said yesterday was made completely without reference to Local Government and there is no agreement to freeze Council Tax next year – the decision to freeze Council Tax is one which can only be made by councils," the statement said.

"Our cross-party group leaders held an emergency meeting first thing this morning on the back of the announcement and there is real anger at the way this has been handled and what it puts at risk.

"On the back of this our political group leaders also asked us to seek an urgent meeting with the First Minister.

"We deplore the way the announcement was made and its substance, both of which fly in the face of the Verity House Agreement which we all recently signed.

"It has been shown that previous council tax freezes have been regressive, having no impact for the poorest in society and eroding the council tax base, compounding councils' ongoing underfunding.

"We will explore the implications arising and what the Scottish Government might propose when we meet with the Deputy First Minister later today – but we are clear that local taxation and particularly Council Tax should be left for democratically elected councils to determine."

Cllr Leadbitter said the freeze was part of "the SNP's commitment to supporting hard-pressed families wherever we possibly can".

"The Tory cost of living crisis is having a severe impact upon our communities," he said.

"SNP Councillors, MSPs and MPs across Scotland have worked hard to put in mitigations to the disastrous policies emanating from Westminster.

"With no sign of the UK Government doing anything to help with energy bills, the announcement of a council tax freeze by the SNP is one which, I'm sure, will be positively welcomed by the public who continue to struggle with this Tory cost of living crisis.

“A promise has been made to fund a Council Tax Freeze and the detail of that will be examined carefully, in the meantime the announcement emphasises the SNP’s commitment to supporting hard-pressed families wherever we possibly can.”

Moray Labour leader Councillor Sandy Keith (Elgin North) said: “Today's announcement by the First Minister is a desperate act by a Scottish Government that is failing working people.

“Everyone agrees that the previous council tax freeze was a disaster for local services and did little to help those most in need.

"The fact that the SNP want to repeat a policy failure is astounding but it demonstrates how out of touch they are with the needs of ordinary people.

“Worse still, the First Minister made this announcement without consulting anyone – not COSLA; not local councils – and hasn't announced any money to pay for it.

"This demonstrates the utter contempt that the SNP has for local councils trying to provide valued services to local people.

“I am calling upon every councillor, including SNP councillors, to sign up to a campaign to genuinely reform the way local government is funded in Scotland.

"The SNP vowed to scrap the Council Tax in 2007 and it is now time to replace it with something fairer.”

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