26 February 2009

Council tax frozen for another year

People up and down Scotland will have welcomed the recent news that their Council Tax bills have been frozen for another year. At the time of writing, 31 out of Scotland’s 32 local authorities have set their budgets for the coming year and have pledged to keep Council Tax at current levels.

The SNP Government has now delivered two consecutive years of Council Tax bills remaining at their current levels. This is some contrast from the situation over the decade before the SNP came to power, where bills rose by 93% in Aberdeenshire. With families in the current financial climate struggling to pay the bills, the last thing they would have needed is the increase in Council Tax bills which they would have seen if the previous administration’s constant tax hikes had continued.

By delivering a freeze in Council Tax, the SNP Government is putting real money back into people’s pockets and helping them cope with the current economic situation.

And helping hard working people in Scotland in this way is something we are determined to continue.

Council Tax remains a fundamentally flawed system of local government taxation, punishing as it does those on low incomes. Parliamentary opposition and obstruction from Westminster have meant that we will be unable to abolish the Council Tax during this parliamentary term. However, this set back only makes my colleagues and I more determined to take this issue on to the streets and doorsteps of Scotland and secure an increased number of seats at the next election. In this way we will be able to secure the parliamentary support necessary to replace Council Tax with a fair system of local taxation, based on the ability to pay.

While the fact we have been forced into this delay is enormously disappointing, people in Scotland can at least take some solace from the announcement that Finance Secretary John Swinney will put in place funding to continue the Council Tax freeze for a further two years. This means that after four years of SNP Government, Council Tax will not have increased by a single penny.

The SNP Government is working with our partners in local councils to take real action to help people in Scotland during these current difficulties. The Council Tax freeze is making a significant difference to people’s finances, and the SNP Government will continue to do all that it can to help ordinary people in Scotland.

No show this year

I was saddened to learn that the organisers behind the very successful Banffshire Show have been unable to find enough volunteers to help put on the event this year. The Banffshire Show may still be quite new but it has been highly popular since its inception, drawing in around 1,500 people last year.

While it may have started as a replacement event after the Turriff show was cancelled over a Foot and Mouth scare in 2001, it has quickly become an established part of the rural calendar in Banff & Buchan and its absence this year will be keenly felt.

It would be a terrible shame for the region if the show could not continue in future years, so if you have the time and energy to commit to making sure the Banffshire Show returns in 2010 please get in touch with the organising committee. I am sure they would love to have your help and many people will be dearly hoping the show can stage a successful return.

12 February 2009

What a difference a week makes

The most important topic exercising minds in Holyrood over the last few weeks has without any shadow of doubt been Scotland’s budget for the coming financial year. In the current fiscal climate, the need for accelerated investment to support our economy and protect jobs could scarcely be more critical.

That is why the decision by the Liberal Democrats and Labour to put party point scoring ahead of Scotland’s financial wellbeing and vote against the budget was completely indefensible. Their opposition, along with that of the Greens, led to a tied vote and the budget falling at the first time of asking. The predictable consequence of this was massive uncertainty for local authorities, health boards and every organisation that receives public money to operate. Thousands of jobs and £1.8 billion of increased spending were put at risk at a time when they were needed most.

Yet perhaps even more disturbing was the seeming indifference to the damage being caused by Labour’s leader Iain Gray, who suggested in First Minister’s Questions that continuing without a budget until June would be acceptable. A year ago the opposition looked foolish as they were outmanoeuvred in the budget process. This year they came to look callous and divorced from reality.

Thankfully, the enormous levels of public anger at the opposition’s tactics eventually registered and brought the Lib Dems and Labour back to the negotiating table. There could scarcely be a clearer demonstration that their earlier rejection had been a political calculation rather than any principled opposition to Scotland’s budget.

It may have taken a week longer than anticipated, but we now have in place the budget that Scotland needs to help cope with the current economic situation. A budget that will see £230 million of capital spending brought forward to support 5, 000 jobs across the country; that will see money being put in place to fund another year’s freeze in council tax; and will see an extra £1.8 billion invested in our infrastructure and public services.

This is a budget that will do much to put money back into the pockets of hard working people in Scotland, but will also provide vital assistance to our economy. It will provide further help to our high streets, with 150, 000 small businesses due to see their rates cut or abolished completely. Investment will be put into improving skills in Scotland by creating 18, 500 apprenticeship places this year.

This is a serious budget for serious economic circumstances and I am glad that despite unfortunate delays, we have successfully put it in place to help our country through these difficult times.

A huge loss for Scotland

While there was much joy at passing the second budget of the SNP’s first ever Government, just two days later there was also much sadness in the SNP with the sudden passing of Bashir Ahmad, Scotland’s first Muslim MSP. Bashir was a kind and honourable man who will be sorely missed by all who knew him.

The enormous respect in which he was held was clearly shown when over a thousand people attended his funeral the day after his death. His loss diminishes us all, but he leaves behind a legacy of multiculturalism and tolerance in Scotland that we all have a responsibility to protect and nurture. These are values that should always be at the core of our lives in Scotland.

Stewart Stevenson
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