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Viewpoint / Editorial: Time to reform and devolve council tax

IT’S HARD not to have some sympathy with SIC councillors this week. The five per cent hit to its budget imposed by the SNP government, the largest cut proportionally for any Scottish local authority, reinforces the feeling that Shetland is being short-changed.

Given the huge economic revenue our indigenous industries, especially fishing and seafood, provide to the UK exchequer, should we really be heading into next year’s council elections contemplating the prospect of shutting several rural schools in order to balance the books?

It is easy to see how ministers would glance in oil-rich Shetland’s direction and think resources might be better targeted elsewhere.

But that would fail to take account of the fact that providing services to a small, dispersed islands population is stratospherically more expensive than catering for urban dwellers.

Those in the know seem confident that a better deal on ferry funding is imminent following protracted discussions between ZetTrans, Transport Scotland and the SNP.

With the SIC having to shoulder around half the cost of running inter-island ferries, you don’t need to be a card-carrying member of Wir Shetland to recognise that as a long overdue step in the right direction.

But if the SNP remains adamant that it doesn’t want to see rural schools shutting, that should also be recognised in the level of education funding the SIC receives.

It is vital in all of this to remember that the harsh austerity of the past seven years is largely down to the state-shrinking political ideology of an extremely right-wing Conservative government in London.

For a generation or more, the UK will count the cost of David Cameron and George Osborne failing to ensure that their banking friends who caused the financial crash, and the corporate tax avoiders and evaders, are the ones who pay for it.

Those Tory hatchet men have undoubtedly tied the SNP’s hands to a large extent.

But John Swinney’s stance towards local government has been deeply disappointing in recent months.

In particular, it does not seem right that the council tax freeze heads into its ninth year and still there is no replacement on the table for this grossly unfair tax.

Had the SIC chosen to disobey the finance secretary, finance chief Jonathan Belford reckoned it would have faced a penalty of around £1.5 million.

Council tax bands are based on properties valued in 1991, since when people may have observed one or two changes to the UK property market.

SIC leader Gary Robinson pointed out in Lerwick Town Hall on Wednesday that he had seen one Band D property, taxable at £1,050 a year, on the market for £300,000.

The council tax regime was introduced in 1993, but in truth was never a great deal better than the iniquitous poll tax it replaced.

A policy based on up-to-date property valuations, ensuring those living in big houses pay a lot more than those in small ones, would be one way forward.

Alternatively, to allay fears over those who may have inherited large properties without the riches to match, some form of progressive local income tax could be considered.

Either way, the “accept this or else” political ransom of the past seven years simply has to stop.

The SNP has quite rightly advocated for many years that Holyrood should be responsible for raising more of the money it spends. In the same way, local authorities must be given the power to set the rate of council tax or its successor – the first step on the way to proper devolution to Scotland’s regions.

Whatever they may say publicly, governments of all political stripes are notoriously reluctant to relinquish powers. The SNP are far from unique in this; for all its rhetoric against a central state, the Conservatives are not exactly dishing out devolution to English counties.

But while the SNP’s zeal for “centralisation” is often overstated, it is regrettable that it appears set to stick by the disastrous Police Scotland restructuring. The impending loss of control rooms in Inverness and Aberdeen represents another regressive step.

Council tax reform, however, gives the SNP the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that it truly does believe in devolving powers. It must be one of the Nicola Sturgeon’s top priorities after her seemingly inevitable coronation in May’s Holyrood elections.

Such a move might also engender a little more faith among Shetlanders that all those lofty promises of more autonomy given to the Our Islands Our Future campaign during the independence referendum will amount to more than just words.

Shetland News

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