The Scottish Liberal Democrats have taken aim at the Scottish Government’s “grip” on local authorities as they called for councils to be given the ability to cut business rates.
Party leader Alex Cole-Hamilton highlighted the plight of small businesses by calling on local authorities to have more control over business and economic development in their areas.
He used a visit to Sprinkles Ice Cream in Edinburgh on Friday to set out plans to support the restoration of local control over council tax and business rates as part of a comprehensive plan to increase the proportion of funding determined and distributed locally.
Putting business rates into the hands of local authorities would boost local firms, the Edinburgh Western MSP said on the campaign trail ahead of the May 5 council elections.
He also emphasised the need to grant councils full power of competence by encouraging innovation and easing the grip of Scottish ministers.
Mr Cole-Hamilton said it was “absolutely bonkers” that a Scottish Government minister can have control over business issues with local communities.
He said: “Local businesses have taken a battering during the pandemic. They need help to get back on their feet and compete with online retailers.
“That’s why we should be giving the councils flexibility to decide what is right for them.
“It is absolutely bonkers to assume that the person best-placed to make decisions on everything from enterprise policy to business rates in Gretna, Greenock or Golspie is an SNP minister in Edinburgh.
“Cutting bills for small businesses on the high streets of our towns and villages can help to revitalise areas and sectors which have fallen behind.”
The Scottish Liberal Democrats, he said, would also work through the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) to develop a new vision for councils with a suite of new powers which can be used to make a “real difference” to people’s lives – particularly in economic strategy, transport, town planning and funding for affordable housing.
Elected Liberal Democrats candidates, he added, will offer “new hope” for local business while putting “local people back in charge”.
A Scottish Government spokesman said the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 gave authorities powers to create rates relief to reflect local needs and that the Government was “committed to helping business recovery and has provided more than £4.7 billion in support since the beginning of the pandemic”.
“We are also delivering the lowest non-domestic property rates in the UK for the fourth year in a row, ensuring more than 95% of non-domestic properties are liable for a lower tax rate than the rest of the UK, and saving ratepayers £40 million compared to an inflationary increase,” the spokesman said.
“However, the biggest threat to retail recovery and consumers having income to spend is the cost-of-living crisis and we will continue to press UK Government to do more to support people and businesses during what are very tough times, exacerbated by the impact of Brexit and the pandemic.
“As set out in the Programme for Government, we are committed to establishing a working group with representation from the Scottish Green Party, and engaging with Cosla, to oversee the development of effective deliberative engagement on sources of local government funding, including council tax.”