SNP fail to address affordability of council tax freeze

A senior academic has raised questions over the viability of the SNP’s council tax freeze.

How to finance local authorities has long been a contentious issue as Margaret Thatcher found out to her cost in the wake of the despised poll tax.

Across Scotland, the debate is now raging again following an interview given by a senior academic, raising questions over the viability of the SNP’s council tax freeze, a policy mirrored by the Scottish Nationalist’s bed fellows on this one, the Conservatives.

Writing for Scotland on Sunday yesterday, professor Arthur Midwinter, an associate member of the Institute for Public Sector Accounting Research at Edinburgh University, warned that the council tax freeze is having a detrimental impact on efforts to tackle poverty across Scotland.

Arguing that Scotland’s focus on ‘free’ benefits and on a council-tax freeze has led to cuts in efforts designed to help people out of poverty, Midwinter, who was asked by Labour leader Johann Lamont to examine Scottish public spending, wrote:

“Scotland faces the severest cuts in public spending in modern history. Plans are in place to reduce the Scottish block grant by a further £2.2 billion over the next three years.

“All of the savings have to be made on current spending, rather than on capital investment.

“The Scottish government has already delivered £3.6bn of savings through cuts in staff costs (wages, job losses and early retirement packages), in capital spending and cuts to grants in local councils which have borne the brunt of the savings.

“Yet during the past five years, the SNP has increased spending on benefits (free prescriptions, personal nursing care etc) and subsidised the council tax freeze. Spending on these areas has risen from £568m in 2007 to £1,666m in next year’s budget. It is now 6 per cent of the total budget.”

He continued:

“The major gainers from these universal benefits have been the middle and upper income households, as low income households already received financial support for costs like council tax, prescriptions and education prior to these changes.

“The Scottish budget claims that the council tax freeze is progressive yet their officials have produced statistics for the parliament showing the annual saving in Band A is £60, or 0.3 per cent of net household income, compared with £370, or 0.8 per cent, for Band H residents.

“Prioritising these measures has compounded the UK’s austerity agenda.”

Addressing the impact of the Council Tax freeze, Midwinter concludes:

“The result has been 40,000 job loses, cuts in services and increased charges. In addition, the Scottish government transferred a number of high-profile anti-poverty grants into council overall spending – meaning that they can spend it on what they like. These included the Community Regeneration Fund of £113m, the Supporting People Fund of £384m and the Fairer Scotland Fund of £145m.

“There have also been cuts in the housing and regeneration budget of £307m and Education Maintenance Allowance of £15m. The result is that about £1bn of targeted spend on poverty has disappeared. Despite the deputy first minister claiming in 2008 that her government would ‘address the root causes of poverty once and for all’, poverty levels have increased since then.

The warning has led Scottish Labour to call for a cross party discussion about the future funding of local authorities north of the border. Speaking to the BBC’s Sunday Politics Show for Scotland yesterday, the party’s leader Johann Lamont, who last year questioned the viability of some universal benefits, told the programme:

“I want a discussion not where the parties get dividing lines between each other but come together and address the challenge of how do you properly build a confidence in the way you raise taxes locally?”

In response, the SNP typically failed to step up to the plate and have a sensible, adult discussion about the funding of universal benefits, instead reducing the tone of the much needed discussion to a sound bite attack on what it dubs’ Labour’s “cuts commission”.

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32 Responses to “SNP fail to address affordability of council tax freeze”

  1. Jake Church

    Another bash at the SNP from that labour liar Lamont caught out again lying. If you want to feel hardship and the full force of sanctions thumped upon us from the poshboys in London then vote no but i don’t want to hear one moan from any of you no voters!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Ed Jacobs

    See what I mean about constructive engagement on a serious issue. What have a quoted? Johann Lamont says the party’s should come together to establish a consensus on the funding of local authorities. The rest? Well if you read the article you’ll notice that it’s from Professor Midwinter, not Lamont. And what does he say? The Council Tax freeze is having a negative impact just as the Tories in London are pushing council tax freezes. SNP and Tories, same policy. Well I never.

  3. Garve Scott-Lodge

    We’re seeing a proliferation of articles which quote a source described in a non-partisan way, so as to make the quote seem reasonable and considered. “A senior academic” is one of those descriptions, but it doesn’t really make clear the position of Professor Midwinter in the debate.

    He has been an advisor to the Scottish Labour party since at least 2002, and is reported to have been a Labour councillor in the past. He was criticised by the SNP for calling into question the integrity of civil servants who put together Scottish government statistics.

    Reporting his statements as if they were impartial is not really giving the full picture.

    It’s much like articles which have appeared over the last few days quoting an ‘ex senior police officer’s’ views on the security of an independent Scotland without making it very clear that he was a current Labour MSP.

  4. Alec

    I think you need to lay off the caffeine. The shift+1 key can’t take it any more.

    This overwhelming majority in support for the council tax freeze, by SNP figures’ own admission, is coming from a Panelbase poll conducted by the Wings Over Scotland blog… that is, a free-access web-tool by some blog. Or, if you like, a service open to abuse by a plainly partisan blog… the last bit is, of course, their prerogative but youse really ought to have the basic honesty to admit that this is in no way shape or form a rigorous test.

    Here is the first part of the poll in which they admit the results and conclusions are highly tendentious:

    Politicians and newspapers routinely make all sorts of claims about what the public’s attitude to various issues are, but whenever we Google for polling data backing upthose assertions it’s very thin on the ground, especially for Scotland specifically.

    So as usual, we just went ahead and did it ourselves.

    We didn’t go into any detail on anything – we simply wanted a very broad-brush picture of the Scottish electorate’s gut instinct on the hot societal topics of the day, so we just asked people whether they were in favour of, or opposed to, a wide range of propositions.

    Note the 41/39% for/against the EU. Close, eh? Hold a referendum! I doubt it.

    is the bit which includes council tax. Note that we don’t see the actual question… “do you want to pay more tax” is likely to elicit “no” contrasted with “do you believe it’s acceptable to restrict public spending so tax can be low”.

    See also the 45/37% for/against restoration of the death penalty. Build those gallows high, right? No, of course not. Funny that.

    Or 39/34% for/against nuclear plants. These fine and responsible psephologists of WoS ask themselves if they should have asked a plainly loaded question to secure the result they wanted. Like they did with the question on workfare…

    … 56/32% for/against workfare. WoS admits cheerfully to introducing sheer indefensible bias (cf. “forcing unemployed to work”) but still got let down by the lesser intellects of the Scottish public.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that this ‘study’ comes across as utterly worthless, and that any national politicians who makes appeals to it is a risible lightweight.


  5. Alec

    Now that you’ve done all the tu quoque’ing and nudge-nudging, what about the actual substance? And, in the interest of transparency, is there a link to the original study with returned this 82/8% result?

    He was criticised by the SNP for calling into question the integrity of civil servants who put together Scottish government statistics.

    Were his accusations rebutted by a credible investigation?

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