Welcome to the Public Works blog.

Public Works is UNISON Scotland's campaign for jobs, services, fair taxation and the Living Wage. This blog will provide news and analysis on the delivery of public services in Scotland. We welcome comments and if you would like to contribute to this blog, please contact Dave Watson d.watson@unison.co.uk. For other information on what's happening in UNISON Scotland please visit our website.

Friday, 22 January 2016

The Council Tax freeze debate favours a thaw

The Council Tax freeze has come under a lot of analysis since Moray Council stuck their heads over the parapet. Much of it is supportive of UNISON Scotland’s position as we set out in our latest briefing on the issue.

In the media, the right of centre Scotsman editorial said: “It is unsustainable, with budget shortfalls merely getting bigger as the effects of the recession continue to bite.”

The First Minister’s poverty advisor Naomi Eisenstadt also came out against the freeze in her report this week, helpfully highlighting the importance of public services in tackling poverty.  She said the Scottish Government had been "signalling changes to the council tax since its first term in office”. They should "consider ending the council tax freeze from 2017/18 onwards", saying this would "make a contribution to protecting public services that are particularly supportive of families in poverty".

Former Scottish Government policy advisor Alex Bell linked the Council Tax freeze with an unwillingness to address pay inequality, he said; “There could be a fascinating political debate over council tax, and perhaps other taxes, in order to raise the pay of nurses, social workers and other public servants.”

A report from the equality organisation ‘Close the Gap’ also makes the link with pay and inequality. Their document says: “The Scottish Government’s continuation of the council tax freeze will impact on women disproportionately, both as employees, and as service users. The public sector has traditionally offered more favourable terms and conditions for women, and has been more likely to have employment practices in place which support their equal labour market participation. This is being eroded however with the impact of spending cuts, and the council tax freeze will only serve to exacerbate existing labour market inequalities”

The Scottish Property Tax Reform Group points out that the cost of the freeze could make a big impact on the housing crisis: “Just one quarter of the £560 million that it costs to pay for the Council Tax freeze this year could help to increase the output of new social rented homes by more than 3,000 units a year.”

The broader impact on services, including health, and how we view council services is something we pick up on in another UNISON briefing and in an article in today's Scotsman.  

The Scottish Government’s main defence is the claim that the freeze is fully funded quoting a SPICE report. The accuracy of that claim depends on the assumptions you make on the rate of increase councils would have decided on. However, it simply misses the point. Any increase councils democratically decided on in the past 8 years would have increased local budgets over and above the money allocated for the freeze. In addition, saying you have funded one small part of the local government budget allocation when you are cutting £500m from the total, really isn’t very convincing.

There are also some very good local contributions to the debate. Here is one from the North Edinburgh News, which makes the point that; “Even at this late stage, the Scottish Government, AT NO COST TO THEM WHATSOEVER (their emphasis), could choose to end this unfair freeze. And they could, and should, allow councils to raise their tax with no penalty clawback.”

In many ways that is the key point. Tory austerity is indeed the underlying cause of budget cuts, although the Scottish Government has chosen to shunt the brunt of those cuts onto local services. One way of mitigating the cuts is to grow the budgetary envelope. The Scottish Government could do that using its devolved taxation powers and that includes the Council Tax. 

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