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Concern over lack of consultation on council tax freeze

Publication: Shetland News

Shetland Islands Council leader Emma Macdonald says a pledge by first minister Humza Yousaf to freeze council tax across Scotland “seemed to come from nowhere” - and suggested it appears to go against a recent government agreement with local authorities.

Shetland Island Council leader Emma Macdonald | Photo by Shetland News | Licensed for use on Scottish Beacon | All rights reserved

Yousaf pledged on Tuesday at the SNP’s conference in Aberdeen, saying council tax bills would stay the same in 2024/25.

Local authorities have had the ability to set their own council tax rates, with Shetland choosing to freeze recently before imposing a 4.5 per cent increase in 2023/24.

Yousaf said freezing rates across Scotland would help people with rising bills and claimed it was the SNP “delivering for people when they need it the most”.

Macdonald, however, said the SIC had not been consulted on this pledge.

She also suggested it contradicts the Scottish Government’s Verity House agreement, which was signed earlier this year and aims to support collaboration with councils.

Local authority organisation COSLA also said there is “real anger at the way this has been handled” and said decisions on council tax should be left to councils. Macdonald said:

“Whilst I appreciate the desire for the Scottish Government to want to help people during a cost of living crisis, it appears in my view to go against the newly signed and much welcomed Verity House agreement.

“Local authorities should have been considered in this decision, and whilst I appreciate it will apparently be fully funded by the Scottish Government, we have no information on what this means and if this is truly additional funding.”

She said:

“ It was very disappointing that we are back in a place so soon that has the Scottish Government working in isolation and not being respectful of the local government’s role”.

“I would hope we will discuss this with colleagues across Scotland soon at a COSLA meeting as it simply isn’t acceptable and makes the verity house agreement appear worthless,” Macdonald added.

“I am a strong advocate of working in collaboration and partnership with both governments, but that needs to be demonstrated by all.”

A statement from the COSLA presidential team released on Wednesday did not hold back – saying the organisation “deplored” the way the announcement was made.

The presidential team said:

“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.

“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 on 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.”

Yousaf said, however, that the Scottish Government “remains wholly committed to the Verity House Agreement, and as part of that is continuing work with COSLA on a new fiscal framework for local authorities”.

It comes after a Scottish Government consultation on the council tax system closed last month.

One proposal consulted on was Scotland’s highest value properties being asked to pay more.

When the SIC suggested a 4.5 per cent tax rise this year, some concern was voiced on social media regarding the impact this could have on the community during the cost of living crisis.

However, elected members had already frozen the rate last year, and rising inflation meant the majority of councillors sided with the 4.5 per cent rise.

This increase was among the lowest in Scotland.

It was said that the 4.5 per cent increase would bring an extra £464,000 a year to the council, but the council still faces an overall funding gap of millions.