A chance to make local taxes fairer

Council Tax may not be a just system of local taxation but the Scottish Government consultation gives us an opportunity to make it fairer and increase money for public services, argues Green Cllr Alys Mumford

One of the biggest challenges facing local councils is the ability (or not) to raise enough money to cover all of the services needed by people across the area. In Edinburgh – as elsewhere – this includes things like health and social care, schools, libraries and community centres, keeping our green space healthy and safe, fixing pavements and improving cycle lanes, supporting community groups and charities with grants, making sure waste and recycling are collected, and dozens of other operations to keep things running as smoothly as they can.

These things all cost money of course and – after over a decade of austerity from the UK Government, and an ongoing cost-of-living crisis – this is easier said than done. One of the key issues facing councillors when we set our budgets is around the thorny issue of Council Tax. This is (currently) one of the few ways that councils can raise money themselves outside of things like library and parking fines, to supplement the budget allocated by national council. But local councils don’t have much say over what council tax looks like and can only increase or decrease it overall, rather than changing the amounts that different people pay.

Council Tax is a regressive tax – meaning that those in the lower council tax bands pay a higher proportion of the value of their property than those in the higher bands. This is clearly unfair. As well as letting wealthier people get away with paying less than their fair share, it exacerbates poverty and makes poor people – a group overwhelmingly made up of women, people of colour, disabled people, and unpaid carers – poorer. So when councillors discuss the budget, we are faced with the choice of proposing increasing Council Tax – knowing that it will hit poorer people harder – or keeping it at the same level but knowing that we might have to reduce public services (which are also relied on most by poorer people). It can feel like an impossible situation.

The Scottish Greens believe that council tax should be scrapped altogether. We want to see it replaced with a progressive alternative, like a land value tax or a residential property tax that is related to actual value. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t fight to improve the current situation as well, and that’s just what Greens in the Scottish Government have been doing. As well as working to speed up the introduction of a ‘tourist tax’ (which Edinburgh Green councillors first proposed over ten years ago!) and devolving other powers to local authorities to help councils raise more money directly, Green MSP Patrick Harvie co-chairs the Joint Working Group on Sources of Local Government Funding and Council Tax Reform.

This working group have, along with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (CoSLA) launched a consultation about making changes to council tax to try and make it fairer. These changes will see increases in the amounts paid by bands E, F, G and H, but no changes for the lower bands. It doesn’t deal with all of the issues, and doesn’t mean that council tax shouldn’t still be scrapped and replaced with a different system. But it does mean that wealthier property owners will pay more to the well-being of the city – in Edinburgh this will mean an additional 14 million pounds, without taking money from those who can’t afford it.

And, while the Conservatives, Labour and others who oppose Council Tax reform like to wring their hands about people who happen to live in a very valuable property but aren’t actually wealthy themselves, these people are few and far between and Councils offer support and mitigations for anyone who is struggling to pay their Council Tax bill. It’s been incredibly frustrating to see other parties in Edinburgh oppose these changes to score cheap political points, and simply throw their hands in the air and say nothing can be done while ignoring the opportunity this consultation offers us.

These proposed changes will bring about much needed reforms to the Council Tax system in Scotland – making it less likely to punish poorer people, while giving local authorities access to much-needed funding to keep places functioning and safe (oh, and tackle climate change…). I’d like to urge everyone to fill out the consultation by September 20th and help show support for these changes.

You can fill out the consultation here:
Consultation on a fairer Council Tax

Some guidance is here:
Consultation on a fairer Council Tax template response (PDF)

And CoSLA have a useful fact sheet here:
COSLA Council Tax counsultation briefing for elected members (PDF)