SNP ministers warned they cannot duck local tax debate

The Herald, Staff Reporter

THE SNP Government can no longer duck a debate about overhauling local taxation, Scotland’s most senior councillor has warned ministers.

Alison Evison, president of the local authority umbrella group Cosla, said it was time for enhanced powers and “getting the old, powerful local government back”.

She said there had to be “a more sophisticated debate about sustainable funding for local government”, with councils “having the right financial levers”.

Opening the Cosla conference in St Andrews before a speech from Derek Mackay, she said her demand was akin to the finance Secretary asking the Treasury for more power.

Councils are “a vital, equal component part in the democratic decision-making process”.

“Local government is a legitimate sphere of government in Scotland, not a sub-committee,” she told him. “Issues of taxation have to be looked at, not avoided.”

Her call comes as several councils, including Edinburgh and Glasgow, push the Government for the power to levy a tourist tax on overnight guests to raise cash for services.

The government is not currently in favour, but has started a consultation on a so-called ‘transient visitor levy’.

The Scottish Greens have also made more tax powers for councils a precondition for their party entering talks on the 2019-20 budget with the SNP minority at Holyrood.

Scotland’s 32 councils employ more than 240,000 people – around 10 per cent of the Scottish workforce – and spend almost £19bn a year on providing local services.

Ms Evison, a Labour councillor in Aberdeenshire, said local authorities needed “appropriate core funding for essential services”, including enough cash to pay staff a “fair wage”.

Councils also need their funding put on a longer-term basis, she said, going on to call for “real flexibility around local taxation and taxation options”.

Ms Evison said: “We need a more sophisticated debate about sustainable funding for local government and that must include local government having the right financial levers to respond to communities. Scottish Government cannot get upset or annoyed when we look at raising more of our own finance through things like discretionary local taxation and particularly the transient visitor tax.”

She went on: “The world is changing and I think we need our agenda to be more about getting the old, powerful local government back. A strong powerful local government with a strong agenda could lead to real change for the better right across Scotland.”

Cosla was not just a lobbying group, but “a legitimate sphere of government in Scotland”.

And while she stressed councils would work in partnership with ministers at Holyrood, she insisted the relationship must be one of equals, with a the re-establishment of regular meeting between Cosla and the Scottish Cabinet.

She said: “I am not prepared to put other organisations or sectors before local government. Alongside us as partners, yes. As our superiors, no.

“We are elected representatives in the governance of the country. You will hear me say this time and time again. This is simply to emphasise how important this is.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We want to devolve more power to give communities a greater say about their public services.

“That is why we have launched a review, jointly with Cosla, to find ways to transform local democracy in Scotland.

“While we have no plans to introduce new local tax powers, we are open to further dialogue on options for local tax reform.”