Tax freeze has ‘come at a price’

Local councillor Catriona Bhatia at Old Manor Brig which has been handed over to Wemyss and March Estate.
Local councillor Catriona Bhatia at Old Manor Brig which has been handed over to Wemyss and March Estate.

The eight-year council tax freeze may have saved Band D householders in the Borders £1,151, but it has come at the expense of local democracy.

That is the view of Councillor Catriona Bhatia, the only Borders representative on the independent commission set up by the Scottish Government last year to review alternatives to council tax as a means of funding local government.

The Lib Dem member for Tweeddale East said this week that she was “very concerned” about the impact of the freeze on the property-based tax which funds around 20% of Scottish Borders Council’s revenue spending.

“Firstly, it disproportionately benefits those in higher-banded properties and therefore people who are better off, so the freeze has not been progressive,” said Mrs Bhatia.

“Secondly, and more importantly, the effective setting of council tax by central government takes away the main element of accountability for local elected councillors.”

And in a swipe at the SNP administration at Holyrood, she added: “I find it very difficult to understand why a government, which is so keen to have full fiscal autonomy for Scotland, has effectively removed that democratic link at local government level.”

The £1,151 figure was revealed in a written parliamentary answer by finance minister John Swinney who said the average saving for Band D householders across Scotland’s 32 local authorities since the freeze was introduced was “around £1,200”. He added that the freeze had been “fully funded”, thanks to an additional £70million provided to councils by the Scottish Government.

Mrs Bhatia’s commission is considering a range of options, including the retention of a property-based tax, but with more tax bands and allied to a revaluation of house prices, a PAYE-based local income tax and a land value tax.

“I know none of us really like to pay tax, but it is important our local services such as schools, roads and homecare are properly funded and that the Borders public is able to hold its locally-elected representatives to account for how they raise income and spend it,” said Mrs Bhatia.

“With the Scottish Government elections in May next year, there will undoubtedly be a choice of how the council tax is going to change.”

She revealed that her commission was meeting tomorrow (Friday) when details of a feedback gathering public meeting in the Borders, scheduled for next month, would be finalised.