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I was the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland until my retirement in September 2018. I now work on several policy development projects, so all views are very definitely my own. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Council Tax freeze leads to higher charges

UNISON Scotland has published a summary of some interesting new research on the Council Tax today.
We asked all Scottish councils, using a Freedom of Information request, how their charges have changed since the Council Tax was ‘frozen’ in 2007. The responses reveal that people on modest incomes are having to pay far more for costs like their rent, school meals for their kids, and charges for care in day centres for their vulnerable relatives – and still services are being cut back.
Some examples include:
  • Rent: In Edinburgh, a three bedroom council home has gone up from £61.57 per week to £85.55 - which adds up to £1237 a year extra. That’s more than the average council tax bill in Edinburgh which is £1098; and even more than the normally-quoted band D charge of £1169.
  • School meals: The charge for school meals in Argyll and Bute has gone up from £1.60 to £2.10 since the Council Tax was ‘frozen’ in 2007. That’s £5 extra a week for a family with two children – or a rise of £200 a year.
  • Day centres: Councils are introducing charges for attendance at day centres for elderly and disabled residents: East Dunbartonshire is now charging £10 a week for attendance at day centres for elderly and disabled residents. That is £500 a year. Meanwhile, Falkirk has introduced a charge of £23.50 per visit for people with learning difficulties.
Meanwhile those in the leafier suburbs benefit most from the unfair Council Tax freeze. While charges are being increased and services cut - Band H households are “saving” on average £441 per year while those in the cheapest homes (Band A) “save” £147 a year. The freeze disproportionally benefits the wealthy.
While doing this research we also came across another interesting fact. Discussions around the Council Tax usually use the Band D charge for comparison, but the average bill rate gives a better idea of what people are actually paying. The average council tax bill in Scotland is £985 while the average band D charge is £1149. I suspect this may have had some impact on the Scottish Government's decision to drop the Local Income Tax. If the actual average is some £250 lower than the usual quoted average, then far more people in average houses would lose out.
There is also an issue around how councils manage social risk when making service cuts to balance their budgets. This was highlighted in a recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation report, 'Managing the social risks of public spending cuts in Scotland'. Even when Equality Impact Assessments are done properly, and that is fairly rare, they may not be measuring or assessing the real risks. The report recommends that councils need to develop more innovative priority-setting processes, frameworks and criteria to help their decision-making protect disadvantaged and vulnerable groups. Incorporating these processes in a locally tailored tool for risk mitigation – a Social Risk Impact Assessment (SRIA) – would move from a 'service-based' to a 'needs-based' approach.
However, the key message from this research is that increased charging far outweighs the claimed savings. It’s much fairer for everyone to pay a small amount extra in tax than have big increases in charges that bear no relation to ability to pay for services. For a government that claims to champion universal services, a big hike in charges is simply not a consistent policy approach.
The Council Tax freeze was introduced in very different financial circumstances from those that apply today. It's long overdue a review when the consequences are cuts in services and charges for those least able to afford it.


  1. Interesting report, but it implies that increases in council house rents are directly related to Council Tax freezes. In fact the Housing Revenue Account is ring-fenced and should not be affected by freezes in revenue to the general fund (i.e. Council Tax). The Scottish Government website gives some informative data on council rents here ... http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Topics/Statistics/Browse/Housing-Regeneration/HSfS/HRA2008-09

  2. We felt we couldn't omit this data as it has such a big impact on disposable income. We should also remember that the HRA ring fence is only one way. There is no prohibition on councils moving surplus cash from higher rents into the general services account.