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'Draconian' measures may see council drop tax hike

By Hazel Lawson

Council leader Stewart Cree.
Council leader Stewart Cree.

THERE is a "distinct possibility" Moray Council’s administration will not go ahead with an 18 per cent council tax rise.

Stewart Cree, leader of the local authority, said the increase would have to be as high as 36 per cent to meet £5 million in new penalties put forward by Finance Secretary John Swinney this week, for councils who break the Scottish Government’s freeze – the same figure the Independent/Conservative ruling group had expected to make.

The council is looking at cutting around £11.2 million from the budget in the next financial year.

In addition to the £1.1 million from Holyrood for keeping council tax at 2007/08 levels, which would be covered by an 18 per cent rise, the authority would have to surrender just under £500,000 received to maintain teacher pupil ratios as well as a slice of £250 million made available for the integration of health and social care services.

Councillor Cree previously indicated he would step down as leader if the minority administration failed to secure agreement on a budget for 2016/17.

Today (Friday) he is attending a Cosla meeting in Edinburgh to discuss the Government’s settlement for local authorities and its impact on spending.

He called the new measures "draconian" but added yesterday that he was still in "listening mode" ahead of talks with other local authority leaders.

"Nobody in their right mind would introduce a council tax rise if they couldn’t raise money through it," said Cllr Cree.

"If we are unable to increase the council tax, we will have to look at other options but I am vehemently against reducing our services.

"Folk in Moray have already shouldered cuts over the last three or four years – similar cuts that other local authorities are looking at now."

Cllr Cree added that he considered community centres and swimming pools as essential services and would be against any in Moray closing.

When asked if the Independent/Conservative administration would withdraw its 18 per cent council tax increase proposal he said "That is a distinct possibility" adding that the finance Secretary was "dictating" terms to local authorities.

Mr Swinney held talks with council leaders earlier this week and extended the deadline for local authorities to say whether they would accept the settlement or not.

However, Cosla president David O’Neill criticised the move, saying the talks between central and local government had hit a new low, and the new measures proposed were "unacceptable."

He said: "The fact that he has only given us an extra three days to accept the worst financial deal in over a decade simply demonstrates Mr Swinney’s misunderstanding of local councils’ processes."

Mr O’Neill added: "Given Mr Swinney only furnished councils with the final proposals for the settlement today (Wednesday) it is difficult to see how he expects any council to comply with this timescale."

Mr Swinney said he was "absolutely committed" to continuing a positive relationship with local authorities, having engaged in discussions with Cosla on a "challenging but fair" settlement.

He added: "We recognise that there are pressures on budgets being felt across the whole of the public sector, as well as in households throughout Scotland.

"That’s why it is important to maintain the council tax freeze while we consider ways to replace it – as well as reimbursing local authorities to ensure they can continue to provide essential services."

Mr Swinney urged local authorities to take up his offer, claiming recent independent research suggested the Scottish Government has over-funded the council tax freeze, with the 32 local authorities receiving £164.9 million more than they would have by increasing it by the Retail Price Index between the financial years 2008/09 and 2013/14.

Moray Council will meet to discuss the local authority’s budget on Wednesday, February 10.

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