Council Tax Freeze Threatens the Foundations of the Verity House Agreement

Council Tax rates are to be frozen, the Scottish Government has announced. First Minister of Scotland, Humza Yousaf said that the freeze ” will bring much needed financial relief to those households who are struggling in the face of rising prices. ” And added:

Head and shoulders shot of Humza Yousaf

The announcement was made at the SNP Conference held last weekend.

Whilst many householders will be pleased, Local Authorities are not. The organisation which represents Scotland’s Local Authorities COSLA said that they were unaware that Council Tax rates would be frozen.

 COSLA Spokesperson said :

“ This has longer term implications for all councils right across the country, at a time when we know there are acute financial pressures, and where we are jointly looking at all local revenue raising options.

“We will need to consider the implications for COSLA and Local Government with our members when we get more of the detail.  This will also need to be examined against the principles of the recently signed Verity House Agreement.”

The Verity House Agreement was signed in Edinburgh by the First Minister, the COSLA President and Vice President, the Deputy First Minister, the Local Government Empowerment Minister and the COSLA Political Group Leaders. It sets out the way the Scottish Government and COSLA will work together, how they will approach shared priorities, and how they will engage with each other. Ring fencing of funding was to be removed aiming to give Local Authorities more flexibility over their budgets.

COSLA’s Presidential Team said that there was absolutely no agreement to freeze Council Tax next year.

“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.”

COSLA convened an emergency meeting of Cross-Party Group Leaders where there was “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 for 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 (Wednesday) – but we are clear that local taxation and particularly Council Tax should be left for democratically elected councils to determine.”

Humza Yousaf said:

“Of course, the public sector across the UK is facing budget pressures as a result of UK Government austerity, and we know councils are facing financial challenges themselves.

“That’s why the Scottish Government will be fully funding this freeze to ensure they can continue providing the services on which we all rely. This is on top of the real-terms increase to local government revenue funding this financial year.

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

“We are also working on longer term reforms to the council tax system, which are being considered by the working group on local government funding that we are chairing jointly with COSLA.”

The principles of the much heralded Verity House Agreement were compromised before the ink was dry when OIC Leader James Stockan, after signing the agreement, announced that he would be pushing Orkney to investigate breaking away from both Scotland and the UK.

Is the Agreement now in tatters when political leaders from both sides seek headline grabbing news instead of engaging in the spirit of collaboration?

Fiona Grahame

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