By TOM MARTIN
SCOTS are facing their first council tax hike for eight years amid a growing rebellion by town hall chiefs against SNP cuts.
Moray Council looks set to become the first local authority to rip up the deal on a freeze with the Scottish Government and is now threatening a possible 18 per cent rise.
Others, including Highland and Fife, are also poised to break the nationwide agreement as they struggle to balance their books.
It follows an extraordinary bust-up with Deputy First Minister and Finance Secretary John Swinney, who hit local government with a 7.2 per cent funding cut.
Scotland’s 32 councils have until now complied with the policy and retained the freeze, which has been one of the SNP’s flagship policies.
The administration group have examined all realistic options very closely but this level of financial reduction has placed an entirely new dimension on our deliberations
Council leader Stewart Cree
Raising the tax could result in a financial penalty being levied by ministers.
Moray yesterday confirmed bills could rise by as much as 18 per cent this year – which would see the bill for a Band D property increase by £204 a year.
It claimed that the loss of £5million in government funding in the latest Budget and a £150,000 penalty for failing to maintain teacher numbers have added to its financial difficulties.
Council leader Stewart Cree said the local authority’s funding allocation announced by Mr Swinney had put services “seriously under threat”.
“The administration group have examined all realistic options very closely but this level of financial reduction has placed an entirely new dimension on our deliberations,” Mr Cree said.
On considering the increase in council tax, he added: “In so doing, we are aware that we will have penalties imposed on us by the Scottish Government and we will forfeit the £1.1million that we are currently allocated to offset the council-tax freeze. However, in light of the scale of the deficit we are facing this £1.1million pales into insignificance when the only alternative would be further cuts to services – or even the loss of some services altogether.”
The proposals will be voted on by councillors next month.
Highland Council’s independent-led administration is also examining whether it should end the long-standing freeze.
The authority’s budget chairman, councillor Bill Fernie, said: “We’re still firming up what we’re going to do and we’ve got to speak to opposition groups as well.
“We would certainly take more confidence if a few more councils around us – for example Moray or Argyll and Bute – were like-minded.”
Fife Council leader David Ross confirmed it too was looking at ending the freeze at a meeting next month.
“It isn’t in tablets of stone, it’s for the basis of consideration over the next few weeks and I hope we can have that debate in a reasonable and responsible manner,” he said.
Mr Swinney cut councils’ budgets by £774million in December, though this shortfall was reduced to £350million with the transfer of cash from the health budget.
A spokesman for the Scottish Government said it had fully funded the council tax freeze.
He added: “Indeed, recent independent research found that, compared to inflation, we have over-funded the council tax freeze by £164.9million since 2008.
“We have included a further £70million in the coming year’s settlement to enable councils to fully meet the costs of a council tax freeze so there is no need for an increase in council tax.”
But councils’ umbrella group Cosla said the package of Budget measures had been “totally unacceptable”. A spokesman added: “We are still in active negotiations with the Scottish Government around the 2016/17 settlement.”