Gavin YatesGavin Yates is a Labour councillor in Fife, a former party advisor, and is NOT standing for Holyrood in 2016. He says Swinney’s cuts are the final straw – we must end the Council Tax freeze.

 

The SNP budget announced on December 16 was even more savage than anyone had expected. I attended a COSLA briefing in November and heard that the expected 0.9 per cent reduction might look more like 1.6 per cent. The reality – as we have seen – is much, much worse.

A colleague of mine – one known for plain speaking – doesn’t like percentages. “What does four per cent mean?” And he is right. The reality of these percentage cuts are the lives of our people, the services they rely on and the livelihoods of thousands of hard working council staff.

Mr Swinney tried almost to ignore local government in his statement to Parliament, perhaps hoping that if he rattled through that section then no-one would notice. Well they did. And when the redundancy notices start to drop in the coming months and years we will know and remember the catalyst.

But the rot started to set much earlier than that. The Swinney budget is merely the culmination of a lengthy attack on local government and the services it provides.

The hollowing-out effect of the Council Tax freeze, unwisely backed by Labour late on in the run up to the 2011 election, has diminished local government to the point where it is emerging as nothing more than a cuts quango for the SNP. A useful idiot, a set of whipping boys and girls for ministers, and firmly on the front line of the blame business.

These most recent cuts, and the lack of ability to mitigate them, should put councils now on a collision course with the Scottish Government. To implement a set of Tory cuts that have been made vastly worse by the decisions of the SNP is neither credible nor morally just. It should not matter what political affiliation a council has – the time for action is now.

The SNP government had the opportunity to mitigate the austerity vision laid out by the Chancellor in his Autumn Statement by raising Scottish Income Tax. It is perverse that after calling for income tax powers for so long, when push comes to shove, ministers decline to use those powers. Any pretence of being ‘anti-austerity’ that Mr Swinney may have had evaporated when he decided not to raise the rate.

So, with the Scottish Government deciding to cross the metaphorical road when the poor and the vulnerable needed their support, it is my strong view that councils in February should set out spending plans that include a Council Tax increase.

It is the moral response to the on-going crisis in our communities and unless the Scottish Government backtrack on these deep cuts it is the only hope for the future of local government.

Any move from the SNP to take money from councils that do not agree to a Council Tax freeze will be an attack on the poorest in our society. Any subsequent cuts resulting from such a removal would rightly be laid at the doors of Scottish Ministers.

I fear that these cuts may be part of an agenda to push for a reduction in the number of councils, driven by “efficiencies”. As we have seen with the creation of Police Scotland, centralisation alone does not mean efficiency – it is often just plain, simple cuts.

From a Labour perspective – and this is LabourHame after all – our current narrative isn’t really working. We are not showing the stark differences between our vision for Scotland and the calculated but ultimately conservative inclinations of the SNP. I want to see our party call for an increase in the Scottish Rate of Income Tax to help the poor and get full support from all levels of the party for increases in Council Tax to protect local communities struggling under the joint assault from Westminster and Holyrood.

We have the ability now to be genuinely anti-austerity. Or we can continue to talk a good game but ultimately not get a fair hearing. We can be bold and honest, or we can tinker around the edges.

I fully support Kezia as Scottish Leader and know she has what it takes to make the tough decisions that are necessary. I also do not doubt that Labour councillors have within them the courage to bite the bullet. It’s time for us to take on the SNP, and then take forward the argument that local services are worth defending. That education, social care, transportation and environmental services are worth those able paying a bit more for, to protect these vital services and the increasingly vulnerable people who rely on them.