Time to stop dodging the debate on Council Tax

Yesterday I asked the Scottish Government whether they would meet with other parties to come up with a way forward on local government taxation.

When household bills are spiralling upwards, it’s easy to see why the council tax freeze must seem like good politics for the Scottish Government. The truth is it’s letting us dodge the need to replace this deeply unfair tax.

John Swinney confirmed last month that rates will be frozen for the eighth year in a row, meaning that poor and rich households alike will pay at the same rate they did back in 2007.

In theory councils can still put up their rates if they want to, but Mr Swinney has them in such a financial armlock that this is not a realistic choice for them to make. They certainly can’t make the tax fairer by charging wealthy people more.

The SNP talks a great deal about empowering communities, but they have done the opposite with this tax that pays toward our local services. By freezing the rates they’ve avoided the question of how we find a better solution for local democracy and for funding those services.

There is much talk of Scotland getting new tax powers, which I support, but ironically this is the one well-known tax that has been in our control since the start of devolution in 1999, and it’s gone unreformed in all that time.

Aj at conf 2014 (2)Recently the Scotland Government replaced stamp duty on house sales with a fairer tax, and a much higher rate for those buying homes worth over £1million.

But under the council tax system, which is based on what homes were worth way back in 1991, the poorest in our society are hit much harder than the richest, and this is a substantial bill that most of us pay each and every month.

To be fair, the SNP did recognise this when they first got into Government, and proposed a local version of income tax instead, but they hit technical and political problems with their plan.

With the independence referendum debate behind us, and with cuts being made to local services while wealth inequality grows, it’s clear that the situation can’t go on much longer.

It would have made a real difference if those who could afford it had paid a bit more over the last few years. Instead, councils have been forced to increase fees and charges for things like care homes and leisure services, which is the least fair system of all.

Green councillors tell me of community centres facing closure as staff numbers are slashed and of damaging reductions that threaten nurseries and school maintenance. Homeless hostels face cuts while home care rates increase. Libraries are undermined by shorter opening hours and healthy lives affected by increased rates at sports centres. It’s a desperate situation, which is why we need a new deal to replace or radically change council tax.

One of the best things about the referendum campaign was that masses of people took an interest in discussing political ideas for the first time in ages. I think the time is right for the political parties to offer some fairer and more honest tax policies before the next Holyrood election.

All parties will have their own ideas to contribute, and the Greens certainly have ideas about taxing land rather than house prices, but we might get some of the best ideas from outside of party politics.

And this is just part of a bigger debate about how local democracy could work better in Scotland. It’s easy to feel like you have no power to influence decisions made about your local area.

What the referendum has shown is that if we give people a glimpse of real power, we find a Scotland full of passion and energy for making a better society, and that includes how to pay for that better society.

The council tax question can’t be dodged forever. I urge all parties to enter into an honest debate to find a better way forward for Scotland.