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Last Updated: Friday, 6 February, 2004, 13:30 GMT
A taxing issue for politicians
Brian Taylor
By Brian Taylor
BBC Scotland's political editor

Politics is a rather uncertain business, full of vagaries and vacillation.

Indeed, I note with wry amusement that I even managed to insert a qualifying word "rather" into that opening statement.

Council tax form
Council tax bills have risen faster than pensions
Most ministers of my acquaintance spend much of their lives in an honest miasma of doubt about the correct way forward. Have they got it right? Have they got the right information?

But there are one or two near-certainties.

One is that elected politicians will, in the absence of alternative impulses, pursue a course of action which tends towards their re-election.

No bad thing. It puts the voters in power.

Another is that nobody likes paying taxes.

Quite a few honest souls will enjoy the sensation of contributing to the public weal. Many more will claim to enjoy such an experience. Most will accept the necessity, grudgingly.

But nobody likes paying tax. Ergo, all taxation is - by definition - unpopular.

Tough task

Each tax will have an alternative which is, more or less, unpopular. But it is degree which is in question. None is truly popular.

Which is a long way round to saying that MSPs and the Scottish Executive will face an extremely tough task as they begin to consider whether there might be an acceptable alternative to the council tax.

But first, the basics. Almost all of Scotland's 32 local authorities will decide their budgets and council tax levels for the year ahead on 12 February.

Ministers acknowledge privately that there are no perfect solutions.
So what will you pay? Well, the Band D average council tax figure for 2003/04 was 1,009 - an increase of 4% on 2002/03.

Councils have already provided estimates or "indicative" figures for 2004/05, which show an expected average increase of 4.6%.

However, the final figures will not be available until 12 February - and, of course, the increases will vary widely.

Councils get most of their income from central government - either through direct grants or through business rates which are set nationally. They top up that money with council tax.

Government grant funding accounts for 78% and council tax only 22% of local authority revenue. So council tax only provides one fifth of a local authority's revenue.

This causes what is known as "gearing".

It means that, if a council wants to increase its total spending by 2% beyond the level funded centrally, it has to increase the council tax by five times that figure - or 10%. Unless, of course, central government makes up the gap - which it won't.

Funding settlement

It also provokes a democratic debate. In simple terms, who takes the blame when council services fall short of standards - or the council tax goes too high? Do you blame the council which makes the decisions - or central government which provides most of the funding?

Frankly, at present, the voters tend to blame both.

The funding settlement for Scottish local authorities in 2004/05 was announced by Andy Kerr, Minister for Finance and Public Services, in December last year.

Councils will receive government funding totalling 7.667bn in 2004/05, an increase of 5.2% on the previous year.

A - up to 27,000
B - 27,000 to 35,000
C - 35,000 to 45,000
D - 45k,000 to 58,000
E - 58,000 to 80,000
F - 80,000 to 106,000
G - 106,000 to 212,000
H - 212,000 plus
The Scottish Executive says that means the councils have more than sufficient funds to cope with spending plans - without big increases in council tax. Ministers will have a few awkward questions to ask if there are examples of big hikes in tax.

However, councils say most of the increase in central government funding is reserved for new initiatives specified by the executive. In other words, their hands are tied.

Councils warn they will "experience difficulties in maintaining their core services". Translated, that means: stand by for tax increases.

One constant in this debate about council tax in Scotland is the comparison with England. You will hear it said, anecdotally, that council tax is much higher in Scotland. So what are the facts?

In 2003/04, the council tax Band D average for England was 1,102, an increase of 12.9% on the previous year. That compares with the Scottish figure of 1,009, an increase of 4% on 2002/03.

So, on the face of it, people in Scotland pay less than in England. Expect to hear that argument made by Scottish councils.

Banding arrangements

But - and it is a very big but indeed - this is not comparing like with like. In fact, it is arguably misleading.

The banding arrangements north and south of the Border are different. In simple terms, that means that in Scotland you move up the bands more quickly. For example, a house valued at 110,000 in Glasgow would be in Band G. In London, it would only be in Band E.

So, band for band, Scotland may be cheaper than England.

But that is little comfort to the Glasgow residents who find that their tax bill is actually more than their London counterparts - because they are in a higher band than they would be in England.

A - up to 40,000
B - 40,000 to 52,000
C - 52,000 to 68,000
D - 68,000 to 88,000
E - 88,000 to 120,000
F - 120,000 to 160,000
G - 160,000 to 320,000
H - 320,000 plus
All figures are based upon the last valuation of houses, which was conducted in 1991.

A revaluation is therefore overdue - but there is perhaps an understandable reluctance. A previous revaluation of the rates, in the early 1980s, led to an insurrection within the Scottish Tories - and the poll tax.

However, the Scottish Executive has announced plans for a full-scale review of local government finance.

This will be an independent exercise. The individual to head the inquiry will be named shortly. The remit is also close to completion.

For the executive, I sense two private concerns: it does not really want to stir up controversy over an issue which may be insoluble; even more privately, it does not want to agitate local councils further when they are just about to face the complete transformation of their voting system.

The inquiry will look at whether the council tax should be replaced or, if it is retained, whether it requires reform. I would expect the latter requirement to receive much more attention.

There is little appetite in government for a complete overhaul of the local government tax system.

Total spending

The review will also consider the balance in funding between central and local government. Would it be better to let councils raise the cash - and take the heat from the voters?

Or would that lessen the executive's control over total spending in the public sector for which they are, arguably, responsible?

However, ministers do not have to wait for the review to act on certain perceived anomalies. The executive will shortly rule on what they intend to do about the council tax paid by owners of second or holiday homes.

Council tax card and money
Council tax bills will be announced on 12 February
Presently, such owners pay only 50% on their second homes - on the grounds that they pay full council tax elsewhere and only use limited services at their second address, being highly unlikely, for example, to use schools.

The minister has warned that the issue is complex - because councils currently receive compensation from central government for the number of second homes in their area.

If they receive full council tax from owners, then presumably that funding would have to go.

But if not the council tax, then what?

There are upsides and downsides to every option. Advocates, naturally, will stress the upsides. Critics, the reverse.

Remember that people don't like paying tax - and that there are different interest groups who will be harmed by any option. The winners tend to stay quiet.

The main runners and riders are:

  • A local income tax - favoured by the Liberal Democrats and, in the very recent past, by the Scottish National Party. Now favoured by the Local Government Association in England. Upside: it isn't the council tax; it's income-related, arguably therefore matching ability to pay. Downside: it may be more cumbersome to collect; there could be costs for business; the Treasury doesn't like anything that touches income tax

  • A Scottish Service Tax - favoured by the SSP. An income tax but centrally collected and distributed to councils. Upside: see above. Downside: see above, plus critics say it's heavily loaded onto better earners - who would scream or leave; it arguably "nationalises" council tax, removing local discretion.

  • A local Sales Tax. Does what it says on the tin; you'd pay a tax on purchases. This tax is relatively common in America. Upside: relatively easy to collect. Downside: detrimental to business.

  • A local Bed Tax. Collects cash from tourists/business visitors who stay in hotels, etc. Upside: relatively easy to collect; spreads the net to include visitors. Downside: detrimental to tourism, Scotland's biggest industry.

  • Local Business Tax - essentially handing control of business rates back to councils. Upside: more cash for councils; incentive to encourage local buoyancy. Downside: business really, really hates this idea, fearing that councils would simply see them as a money pot; plus it runs counter to executive aims of growing the economy.

  • Land Value Taxation - backed by the Greens. You'd pay an annual charge on the rental value of land alone - excluding buildings etc. No exemptions for land deliberately held idle or under-used.

As noted earlier, I do not detect a great enthusiasm among ministers, especially Labour ministers, for replacing the entire system of local government finance.

For one thing, the executive is about to ask Scottish councils to replace their system of elections. That is enough to be going on with.

For another, ministers acknowledge privately that there are no perfect solutions.

Poll tax lesson

Any complete overhaul would risk giving the impression that local government Nirvana is about to be entered, that all will be for the best in the best of all possible worlds - if only the council tax system can be replaced.

Every politician has burned into their soul the lesson of the poll tax which, arguably, ended up in the downfall of Margaret Thatcher. So they'll look at the council tax but I don't think they'll overhaul it entirely.

However, there could be changes short of replacement.

People do not like paying tax. Any tax
There could be more bands - perhaps one more at the bottom and one more at the top. It is claimed that would help spread the load more fairly - evening out the burden.

At the moment, those in the top band pay roughly three times as much as those in the bottom band. Should that be stretched a little? Should the gap be, say, five times as much?

I would not be at all surprised to see such an outcome emerging once ministers have studied the review.

Also, there could be UK Government efforts to modify the benefits system, to help those who have modest savings.

At present, they are arguably severely hit by council tax payments. The taper which removes benefits could perhaps be made more generous.

All things are possible. But remember - people do not like paying tax. Any tax.

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