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Highland Council to raise budget concerns after first minister’s ‘dictatorial’ council tax freeze

The move was announced during a speech at the SNP part conference in Aberdeen.

First Minister Humza Yousaf.
First Minister Humza Yousaf has come under fire for announcing a council tax freeze. Image: Darrell Benns/DC Thomson

Highland councillors have voiced concerns over the first minister’s decision to freeze council tax rates while it faces a budget gap of £60-£70 million.

Humza Yousaf announced the move this month during a speech at the SNP party conference in Aberdeen.

He pledged rates will remain at the current levels when councils set their budgets for 2024-25.

SNP councillor and council leader Raymond Bremner, along with convener Bill Lobban, have writen to the Scottish Government outlining their concerns.

Implications for council budget

It comes as the council discussed a report forecasting a medium case budget gap of £61.7 million for 2024-25.

This is predicted to increase to £108.3 million over three years and £127 million over four years.

Mr Bremner said he is disappointed at the way the announcement was made and the implications for the council in preparing a balanced budget.

Earlier this year the council decided to raise the tax by 4%, much lower than other authorities which increased rates by up to 10%.

This was mindful of increased costs facing residents including electricity and food.

Raymond Bremner will raise concerns with the Scottish Government

Mr Bremner said: “The announcement of  the council tax freeze potentally adds to the very significant challenge we have.

“We support the desire to protect household finances and to provide ways to mitigate the impact of inflation and rising prices for those households.

“(But) it must be for councils to determine what mitigation measures would be most appropriate for our communities and indeed to work with the government to determine what flexibilities would deliver the most benefits to households that are struggling at this time.”

He said talks are needed with COSLA and the Scottish Government to discuss a way forward, as well as the terms of the Verity House Agreement which set out a more collaborative approach between the two bodies.

Mr Bremner said without adequate funding, the council will have to make service reductions or increase income or both.

“Service reductions would also mean job losses and that is something we are doing everything possible to avoid, as this would be disastrous for communities and our economy in the Highlands.”

‘This really must stop’

Opposition leader Alasdair Christie wanted to go further.

He wanted to record the council’s formal disappointment and ask the government to refrain from interfering in the authority’s affairs.

He said: “I don’t know when this government will refrain from interfering in local democracy.

“This dictatorial way we’ve had of ring-fencing money or saying what we must spend money on really must end.

“It’s not healthy for local democracy. It’s not healthy for  localism and it’s certainly not healthy for Highland Council.”

He added: “This must really stop. If it doesn’t, the trend for future years for local councils and local democracy is not healthy, is not good and certainly not sustainable.”

Alasdair Christie says the government is interfering in council business

However his amendment, that also called on the government to look at fairer funding for councils “so we don’t have to scratch around trying to find £108 million worth of cuts over three years which will decimate services we provide to vulnerable people and to remote and rural areas”, was not carried.

‘It’s for the council to balance the budget’

But Councillor Andrew Jarvie agreed with the freeze.

“If we are going out as a council potentially in several months time asking for people in the Highlands to pay more council tax, can we say we did our best to reduce the costs here?

“At the end of the day its for this council to balance the budget not the people of the Highlands.

“Everyone out there is facing pressures and managing their budgets as the council is.”