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Leisure centres and venues keep rates relief

Shetland Museum and Archives.

ANY RISK of leisure centres, museums and venues run by Shetland’s three big trusts facing a combined £1.4 million bill if they lost relief on business rates has been removed after the SNP Government confirmed all such venues across Scotland would continue to be exempt.

Tuesday’s announcement by Scottish finance secretary Derek Mackay that the Scottish Government was rejecting the Barclay review’s recommendation to end the benefit was welcomed by Shetland MSP Tavish Scott.

Shetland Recreational Trust, Shetland Arts and Shetland Amenity Trust, which between them run a host of leisure centres, venues and museums, had argued all along that as registered charities – rather than council-owned arm’s length external organisations (ALEOs) – they ought to have been exempt anyway.

But Mackay’s announcement, removing any doubt, will nevertheless provide added reassurance.

SRT general manager James Johnston said he was “delighted with the news from the Scottish Government”, as his organisation alone faced a “potential impact” of up to £750,000 a year.

He added that he wanted to thank Shetland Charitable Trust, Shetland Islands Council and sportscotland for their support, as well as Scott for “vigorously opposing the proposals within the Scottish Parliament”.

Mackay said: “We are committed to an active and healthy Scotland with a vibrant cultural life and we will continue to support local authorities in providing affordable ways for their communities to take part in culture and leisure activities.

“In my response to the Barclay review I made clear that this was a recommendation that I wished to engage on before coming to a conclusion.

“In these discussions I have heard a strong and consistent message about the importance of this benefit to sports and leisure facilities and to keeping the costs of these services affordable especially in disadvantaged and vulnerable communities.

“As a result I can confirm that the rates relief will remain in place for qualifying facilities operated by council ALEOs.”

Scott, whose contribution during a recent Holyrood opposition debate on the subject was one of the more constructive and measured, responded: “Rates relief is worth £1.4 million to Shetland’s leisure centres, Mareel and buildings owned by the amenity trust.

“Ending this relief would have been devastating on the services most of us use regularly. So the finance minister is right to drop this proposal and leave the rates relief in place. I am particularly pleased Derek Mackay listened to the arguments Shetland made on this.”

Scottish Conservative shadow finance secretary Murdo Fraser proclaimed Mackay’s announcement was a victory for their “swim tax campaign” and a “U-turn on his tax grab” – though government sources argue they had never said they would accept all of Barclay’s recommendations in the first place.

Halcro-Johnston said it was “good news for Shetland in particular, where four bodies providing arts, amenities and recreation to people across the islands would have paid the price had this additional tax been introduced by the SNP.”

Scottish Parliament election, 6 May 2021