Budget including 4% council tax rise agreed by Borders councillors

Council leader Shona Haslam at Scottish Borders Council's Newtown headquarters.
Council leader Shona Haslam at Scottish Borders Council's Newtown headquarters.

Scottish Borders Council has voted to increase council tax by an extra 1%, adding to a previous 3% increase agreed in December.

At a meeting of the council on Thursday, February 28, councillors agreed to the rise in a narrow vote between the Tory/Independent-led administration and SNP/Liberal Democrats/Independent opposition councillors.

The administration won the vote 17-16, meaning that Borders residents face a 4% council tax in April.

Speaking in support of the extra council tax rise, council leader Shona Haslam, who represents Tweeddale East, said: “This was not an easy decision, and we had many heated debates about this.

“Since agreeing to raise council tax by 3% in Decembe,r we have received a budget settlement  from the Scottish Government that is far worse than we expected.

“A workplace parking levy and tourist tax are not suitable nor desirable in the Borders. We’ve been left with no choice but to raise council tax by 4%.

“This was difficult for me, a Conservative, to stand up here and ask for us to raise council tax. It does not sit well with me or my Conservative colleagues in the room, but due to constant pressure from the Scottish Government we have to do this.

“The blame for this rests at the door of the SNP’s finance secretary Derek Mackay, nowhere else.”

The extra rise in council tax will raise £600,000 a year for Scottish Borders Council, and that money will be used to leverage a loan of £20m to be used to bring the construction of a new high school in Hawick forward, with the intention that it be opened in Hawick within the next five years.

The council has indicated that it must save £29.5m over the next five years, but despite that, there are numerous areas of additional spending in the 2019-20 budget.

That includes spending £16m over 10 years to gives every P6 to S6 pupil an Apple iPad; funding a second community action team, comprising seven police officers; and forking out an additional £3m on extra care housing in Hawick, Kelso, Eyemouth and Peebles.

Tweeddale East councillor Stuart Bell, leader of the opposition group on the council, spoke out against raising the council tax further, saying: “The administration’s 4% council tax rise in not thought through, it is not justified, it is not necessary and it is not fair.

“Council tax was set at the December meeting, and I told the council then that it was premature because the administration could neither tell the Border public what they’d get for increased taxation, nor had we a definitive financial settlement from the Scottish Government.

“The administration must stop, yet again, trying to blame their woes on the Scottish Government.

“It’s not fair on businesses and families and families who were planning for the 3%, and it’s not fair on those facing economic uncertainty who might lose their income through the Brexit the Tory party is pulling down on this country because council tax is on property and not on income.”

Selkirkshire councillor Gordon Edgar,executive member for roads and infrastructure, told the chamber: “It’s not easy being a councillor. In my opinion, it takes a special kind of person – someone who wants to make a difference, make things better for the community they serve.

“I support this motion because it will make improvements right across the Borders.

“We are not simply proposing to put council tax up by 1%, we are telling the people of the Borders what the direct benefits will be – £2.3m on the roads over the next four years; better roads, pavements and infrastructure; and providing finance for early provision of our much-needed new schools.

“This shows that we do listen to the concerns of the communities. We move forward with this motion because we want to improve the Borders environment and make a difference.

“I support this motion, and honestly I’d be daft not to.”

East Berwickshire councillor Helen Laing said that the increase might seem small to some, but could have a huge impact on disadvantaged people, explaining: “My reaction when I heard that the Tory and independents alliance were raising council tax by 4% was disbelief and incredulity and it left me just a bit shocked.

“A week later and I still find myself bewildered. I always heard that the Tories are the anti-tax party.

“Was 3% not unanimously agreed in December? And didn’t some members of the administration express doubts over that increase?

“We talk frequently in this room about the problems of our low wage economy, of hardship, increased use of foodbanks and people, our people, living on the edge.

“A 3% increase was a tough call, but now we have an increase on the increase. Councillors have spoke of the increase being only 88p per week for a band D property, but that’s 88p for those already struggling, 88p in the face of increasing prices in the supermarket and 88p from our most needy.

“Can I remind members that according to the UN,  14 million UK citizens are living in poverty. That’s one fifth of the population. Four million of those are 50% below the poverty line, 1.5 million are destitute, unable to afford basic essentials.

“I ask members of the administrations to say ‘only 88p’ to those people and see how they react.”

In a  statement released after the meeting, Tweeddale East councillor Robin Tatler, the council’s executive member for finance, said: “The council agreed in December that council tax would increase by 3% in 2019-20, at the time the maximum the Scottish Government would allow.

“We’ve taken the hard decision to increase it by a further one per cent, which is still lower than the maximum increase of 4.79% now allowed, and we have clearly identified what this extra money will be used for.

“It will enable us to provide an extra £2.3m over four years towards our road network and also bring forward the replacement of Hawick High School.

“As the other funding we receive continues to reduce, it is unfortunately inevitable that council tax has to increase to make up some of the shortfall, but it still makes up less than a quarter of all our funding, and therefore we have to make the very best use of it.”