Yesterday, Scottish Borders Council passed the administration’s budget for 2018/19 and I was happy to vote in favour. Of course, the ideal would have been lower council tax and even better targeted spending, but given the circumstances it was a good start by the new administration in very difficult circumstances.
The Council has been subjected to years of cuts by the SNP run Scottish Government. At the same time we are having to cope with the ongoing erosion of public services: an education system that is in decline relative both to other comparable OECD countries and the rest of the UK; health outcomes that are persistently below other parts of the UK and most of Europe. A police service that has been centralized and politicized. All of this despite the fact that the Scottish Government is one of the most generously funded tiers of government in Europe (thanks to the broad shoulders of the UK taxpayer).
Meanwhile the economy in Scotland teeters on the brink of recession, performing worse again than the rest of the UK and other comparable countries, with businesses reluctant to invest under the shadow of continuing threats of a second independence referendum.
It’s fair to say that the nationalist government must be the most inept administration that Scotland has experienced since the 1970’s.
So our budget endeavoured to plug the gap left by the nationalists by prioritising roads, education, policing and care for the most vulnerable.
Unfortunately the administration felt it necessary to raise council tax by 3% to try to repair the damage done to council services in previous years. In other words the failures of the nationalist administration are having to be paid for by Borders council tax payers.
With the economy so fragile, to take £1.6 million out of the productive sector of the economy at this stage is highly risky, so this is not ideal from my point of view.
More tangibly, households in the Borders already have the lowest average incomes in Scotland. So we are asking hard-working people across our region – who often are scraping by and struggle to afford the essentials, let along the pleasures of life – to pay for this failure.
I’ve heard it said that the amounts taken in council tax are trivial. This point of view is utterly complacent because council tax is taken at the margins of people’s budgets. It may be a small proportion of total income, but it’s a big slice of whatever is left after the absolute essentials. It could be the Christmas budget for some, the heating or phone bills for others, the marginal difference between debt and modest savings for still more.
Also, as people have less to spend, this is money that will in turn be taken away from small businesses across the Borders – the lifeblood of our communities. And while the council strives to help the most needy, often the best way to do that is to let people keep more of their own money and decide for themselves how to spend it. We should not raise taxes on Borders people lightly.
So over the next four years we are going to have to think radically about how to deliver the same quality of local services at better value for money for the citizens paying for them.
The good news is that the budget promises much more modest increases in council tax that could, with luck, stay in line with household incomes. The administration has committed itself to a ceiling of 1.5% council tax increase until the next election, so long as nationalists cuts do not exceed 2%. That’s something that is worthy of support.