WHY does the Scottish Government refuse to respect the democratic mandate of local councils?

The stushie over the council tax freeze is a perfect illustration of the dysfunctional and discourteous relationship between Holyrood and local town halls.

Scotland’s 32 councils were offered £144 million in return for a council tax freeze in 2024/25, which equated to a five per cent council tax increase.

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Local government funding shrunk by 20% over 2013/14 to 2021/22, which is why councils argue they still need a council tax rise to protect local services.

Along comes finance minister, Shona Robinson MSP, last week with an offer of an extra £67.2m – equating to another 2.3 per cent council tax increase – but only if local government agrees to the freeze.

That means set your rates and you’ll face financial sanctions. It’s the politics of the Godfather; I’m going to make you an offer you can’t refuse.

Let’s remember how we got into this sorry mess. Last June, the First Minister (FM) signed the Verity House Agreement with COSLA’s President - the body that represents Scotland’s councils.

The agreement was to provide local government with greater control over their budgets with “mutual trust and respect” between local and national government.

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To paraphrase Robert Burns’ Letter to a Critic in 1791, the

Verity House Agreement is

now like a pickle-herring in the puppet-show of nonsense.

It’s meaningless twaddle if councils can’t set their own rates without being financially bullied.

The council tax freeze as a policy appeared out of the blue and without consultation during the FM’s party conference speech last October.

Despite the finance minister’s threat of sanctions, Argyll and Bute Council announced last week it would raise its council tax by 10% to meet a £40m deficit in its budget.

Other councils may follow because the equivalent of a 7% rise from Scottish Government funding isn’t enough.

Why should local communities be told they’ll be losing their local library, swimming pool, public golf course, adult care centre or community centre?

Why is Glasgow having to look at cutting 172 teaching posts to balance its budget?

The irony of Shona Robinson’s extra £67.2m is that this is mostly a Barnett consequential from the UK Government’s decision to provide £600m top-up funding to English councils.

Imagine the outrage if the UK Government offered its funding with the kind of strings and sanctions attached that Shona Robinson seeks to impose on Scottish councils?

We wouldn’t be in this ridiculous position if the European Charter of Local Self-Government (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill had been enacted in 2021.

Unfortunate drafting of the Bill meant it was found by the UK Supreme Court to be outwith the competence of the Scottish Parliament, however, it would be relatively easy to amend sections 4(1A) and 5(1) of the Bill to cure that problem. The Bill is to be reintroduced by Mark Ruskell MSP.

If the Bill was in force, the Scottish Government would have to respect the democratic mandate of local councils and their right to determine rates of local tax in order to carry out their statutory tasks.

If the Scottish Government failed to do that, legal remedies could be sought by councils before the Court of Session.

Let’s hope an amended European Charter Bill is passed so we can cure our democratic deficit when it comes to local government in Scotland.