Unlock the shackles to unleash our potential

A visitor levy could raise millions, if only Scottish ministers would grant the city the freedom to implement one, says Alison Johnstone.

Local councils have “spending power”, according to Finance Secretary Derek Mackay, who used this slogan during his budget statement to claim that he is being generous.

The reality is that our councils have their hands tied more than ever, and it’s especially galling for Edinburgh, which at this time of year could be doing so much more with the visitors who flock here for Christmas and Hogmanay festivities.

In many other European cities, it would be normal for the local council to levy the bulk of the taxes that people pay. By contrast, in Edinburgh only 25 per cent of what the city council spends comes from council tax. The rest is from grants from the Scottish Government, and those grants are set to fall. The Finance Secretary points to councils’ ability to raise council tax by up to three per cent but even if they did that would be a drop in the ocean compared to the cuts they’ve had to make.

Edinburgh is heaving just now, as it is during the summer festivals. For those of us who live here all year round, the bustle of the city centre can be viewed as the price we pay for keeping our economy flowing. Yet our local council is unable to make the most of our visitor magnet status. In any other tourist destination, a small levy would be applied so that visitors knew their stay was contributing to the upkeep of the city.

Recently, council leader Andrew Burns renewed a call for a visitor levy, which could bring in well over an extra £10 million a year for the city. He highlighted that the hotel industry has just enjoyed its most successful October ever.

My Green colleagues on the city council have been pushing for a visitor levy for many years. As Councillor Steve Burgess has said, for less than the price of a cup of coffee visitors could help provide world-class cultural attractions and services that benefit residents too.

Sadly, Scottish ministers are resistant to giving councils the power to decide these things. One minute they talk about spending power and “community empowerment”, and the next they’re shutting down democratic options for local authorities.

Businesses who fear a visitor levy should look at the evidence. It works elsewhere. In Rome, for example, the “tassa di soggiorno” is a couple of euros a night and was introduced in 2011 to help pay for repairs and maintenance to the city. Rome is the third most visited city in the EU, after London and Paris, and receives an average of seven-ten million tourists a year.

Replicated across Scotland, a visitor levy could raise around £65m a year for the cultural sector. This could prove vital as we see in Mr Mackay’s draft budget yet further cuts to arts companies.

Tourism and culture are vital to Edinburgh and if the Scottish Government wants to support these sectors in needs to deliver on its “spending power” rhetoric and give councils real financial freedoms.

This blog was first published in the Edinburgh Evening News.