Highland councillors have moved a step closer to hiking council tax in the north – and want the public’s views on whether to proceed.
The region may now go it alone and risk a near certain financial penalty from the Scottish Government if it breaks the eight-year-old accord by which all 32 Scottish local authorities have abided by a tax freeze.
Local authority leaders had previously suggested a breakaway was unlikely in an election year without the support of several major councils
But Highland councillors yesterday (THURS) agreed unanimously to put the issue to an established “citizens’ panel” which already influences decision making.
The body, which represents 2,300 Highlanders, will be consulted in the coming weeks on the question of a potential 5% increase to help the authority balance its books. It would equate to just under £5 per month for a Band D property.
A growing number of councillors have reported in recent months that constituents have urged them to increase the charge to safeguard services, education in particular.
The minority Independent administration that assumed power in May after the collapse of the SNP, Liberal Democrat and Labour coalition, learned just days later that £46.3million of savings needed to me made over three years – and time is running out to secure the first year’s reductions.
The Lib Dem proposal to consult over the tax level for 2016-17 received unanimous support at yesterday’s full council meeting in Inverness.
The public’s verdict will be fed back to a budget meeting in January.
Lib Dem group leader David Alston acknowledged that it would be “challenging” to carry out such an exercise in such a short timeframe.
But he added: “It should be done to give us the information that we need about what the Highland population think and our best way of judging that is through our citizens’ panel.
“The debate about whether we should or should not raise the council tax is for later.”
Council leader Margaret Davidson agreed that the panel was a valuable way of measuring public opinion.
SNP group deputy leader Richard Laird made it clear he had no intention of voting for a tax rise because it would be in breach of an election pledge.
Non-aligned Sutherland councillor Linda Munro was the latest to relay the message she had heard loud and clear from constituents that they want council tax increased to protect services.
Inverness SNP councillor Allan Duffy, however, said the vast majority of his constituents disagreed.
“These are deprived areas, dependent on saving the smallest amount of money,” he said.
An estimated 300 people viewed a social media linkup on the theme of council tax earlier this week involving senior councillors and finance director Derek Yule.
People were asked “would you be willing to pay a bit more council tax to protect some services against cuts?”
Just under half of the 128 who had responded as of last (THURS) night, said they would be willing to pay more.
The budget will be debated in February, two months later than usual due to a delay in the UK Government’s announcement of the grant settlement.