Nigel’s Notes - We shall see about alternatives

As the year draws to a close it seems appropriate to take stock, reflect on recent history and consider the future.

The Scottish Government’s draft budget last week also focuses our attention on what publicly funded activities might look like over the next few years.

Whilst the worst of the financial crisis may be behind us there is little on the economic front for many folk to cheer. The level of personal debt is still uncomfortably high, and I have no doubt the highest interest rates are being paid by the poorest.

Add in the consumerist expectations of Christmas and far too many will be taking on debt they simply cannot afford. It is hardly surprising that dependence on food banks continues to rise. That trend is not going to change.

The Institute for Public Policy Research Scotland has also recently confirmed that the consequence of the UK Government’s budget will be to make the poorest poorer and the richest richer.

Tories may be happy with that; I’m not. Sadly the Scottish Parliament still does not have the power to vary our taxes in a progressive way so that the richer members of our society pay proportionately more. Ouroptions are very limited. What we can do is to concentrate resources on priorities like education and health, with the inevitable consequence that there are spending reductions elsewhere over time. The Scottish Government simply cannot live beyond its means; the borrowing powers are small and will afford little beyond smoothing at the edges. Meanwhile the alternatives to council tax have been explored by the cross party Commission on Local Tax. The one point of agreement was that the present council tax needs to be replaced.

The difficulty remains that there is no perfect solution, and any alternatives based on income, property value or land value come with their own defects. And any alternative requires an accurate database from which to derive the charges to be levied. Whatever solution is eventually agreed on it is not going to happen quickly. So where does this lead us in 2016 and beyond? Firstly we need to recognise that public sector expenditure is falling and will continue to do so. Nobody wants to see services cut, especially the ones they use and rely on, but it is unfortunately inevitable. No politician has yet been given a magic wand – all we can do is present the electorate with choices. And next May we get to make significant choices at the Scottish Parliament election.

The SNP’s position is in many ways defined by the draft budget. The other parties’ positions will similarly be defined by their response to that draft budget. If the discussions at First Minister’s Questions last week are anything to go by then the opposition really do not have serious alternatives. We shall see.