£2.5 billion council tax freeze

- Credit: PA

As councils across Scotland prepare to set their budgets for next year there is one certainty: the council tax will not rise.

Since the financial year 2008-09, the SNP government at Holyrood has made sure that one tax at least has not gone up.

Their opponents have branded the move populist but there can be little doubt it is popular.

I found that out when I canvassed opinion on the streets of Dumfries this week.

A few people said the council tax should rise again. Most were content with it as it is.

There are, though, two key questions as the policy enters its eight year - the next financial year of 2015-16.

How much has the freeze cost and who has benefited the most?

To the first question the answer is a very large number. The total cost of the council tax freeze to Holyrood between 2008-09 and 2015-16 will be £2.52 billion. Yes, you read that correctly: £2.52 billion.

Why? Because, as the table shows, it initially cost the Scottish £70 million, but then it had to add on another £70 million every year.

For 2015-16 year alone the Scottish Parliament's researchers say the cost will be £560 million.

That's a lot of money at a time when the SNP complain that their budget has been cut significantly by Westminster.

As to who benefits the most, one of Scotland's best respected economists says it is the better off.

Prof David Bell of Stirling University has told me those in larger properties have done the best of of it - they would have paid more had council tax risen.

At the lower when those poorer people who are exempt from council tax payments anyway have not seen any gain, according to Prof Bell.

- Credit: PA

Today I asked the political parties, council leaders, and the Scottish government about the policy.

I asked three questions.

First, whether the policy justifies the £2.5bn sum which has been spent on the freeze?

Second, what their response was to Prof Bell's statements that the freeze benefits those who are better off.

Third, where they stood on an alternative to the council tax - the Scottish government is setting up a commission to look at the options.

These are the replies I received. You can judge for yourself if they have answered the questions.

“The council tax freeze has provided much needed financial relief to all of Scotland’s council tax payers and has benefited some of the most vulnerable people in our society. “By next year, the council tax freeze will have delivered savings of £1,200 to average households. The lowest earning households will save 1.1 per cent of their net income this year, while the top ten per cent of earners will save 0.5 per cent of their income. The total cost of freezing the council tax between 2008 and 2016 is around one per cent of the total Scottish Budget. > “In contrast, the UK Government’s fiscal policies since June 2010 will leave the poorest 20 per cent of households worse off by the equivalent of £441 per year. > “We are committed to consulting with others to develop options for a fairer and more progressive local tax based on the ability to pay. That is why, together with COSLA, we will invite our local government partners to work with us to establish an independent commission to examine fairer alternatives to Council Tax.” >

SNP Deputy First Minister John Swinney

“All the evidence about the cost of this underfunded freeze shows that people on low and modest incomes have been hit the hardest through job losses, cutbacks in services and higher charges for services. “Local government funding is broken. For some time, we have been campaigning hard for the Scottish Government to put in place fairer funding for local government. “The announcement by Nicola Sturgeon of a cross party working group was welcomed as better late than never. We need an honest discussion as the SNP have been in denial about the impact of their underfunding on local government and the vital services they provide – from our schools to personal care and keeping our streets clean. Their unpopular local income tax proposals would need to be at 5.4p not the 3p they claim; we wait to see whether the commitment to a cross-party Commission means they are prepared to drop this ill-thought out proposal.”

Sarah Boyack MSP, Scottish Labour’s Shadow spokesperson for Local Government

“By controlling the purse strings the centralising SNP government has fundamentally undermined local democracy.“It is unacceptable that people like Fred Goodwin are served better by the council tax than those from Scotland’s poorest areas."Scottish Liberal Democrats believe in the fairer principle that local democracy is always the best guarantor of local interests.“We support moves towards a truly local, fairer income tax. We will wait and see if the SNP can finally shed their tendency to centralise.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie

"The council tax freeze is something we have continuously supported."We generally believe in tax cuts, and under the previous administration there were massive council tax increases."The freeze has benefited all council taxpayers no matter what band they are in."We will outline our plans on the taxation for local government in our manifesto."

Scottish Conservative finance spokesman Gavin Brown

A spokesman for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla), the local government umbrella group said:

"The Council Tax Freeze does not meet the principles of our fiscal empowerment agenda. That is why we welcome the announcement on the Government’s Commission. We see this as an opportunity to push forward local governments agenda.

The COSLA position is clear on this:

· Council tax should be kept but reformed –with the additions of bands at top and bottom

· We need to re-band by adding at both the top and the bottom and there should be regular revaluations.

We will engage in discussions on alternatives and endeavour to put across our fundamental principles."