Moray on the brink of major crisis as Swinney plays hard ball

Crisis talks taking place behind the doors of Moray Council
Crisis talks taking place behind the doors of Moray Council

MORAY COUNCIL LEADERS look set to be forced into submission by the Scottish Government who have elected to play hardball with any local authority defying their will over Council Tax.

It was hoped that talks between COSLA and the Scottish Government would find a way through the crisis sparked by Moray being the first Scottish local authority to break ranks over the ‘voluntary’ Council Tax freeze that has stood for nine years.

Facing a deficit of over £11million, the administration in Moray said they wished to impose an 18% increase in council tax rather than the option of cutting services they say will hit almost every household in the region.

However, in what is being described as a crushing and, in the eyes of many, undemocratic decision, Deputy First Minister and Finance Secretary John Swinney has said that any Council defying the freeze will face crippling sanctions.

These are reported to include defiant councils not only being denied a share of the £70million earmarked as compensation for continuing the freeze, but also a share of £88million earmarked for teacher recruitment and, crucially, £250million funding intended for health and social care.

COSLA President David O’Neill said that left councils with no real choice but to accept the freeze and it meant that any real choice over raising funding through Council Tax was now being denied to any council.

Calling it the “worst financial deal in over a decade”, Mr O’Neill said: “Outrageous as it seems, the effect of this draconian sanction regime is that any choice to put up council tax is now denied to any council.

“The sanction is so punitive that it is difficult to see how any council could run the risk of falling foul of it. For that reason it may well be that no council increases council tax – and make no mistake, this is not a matter of choice for councils.

“It may be perceived as a victory for Mr Swinney but it is certainly not a victory for communities or democracy.”

Editorial Comment: Moray Council ponder

Councils have until Tuesday to accept the situation put before them by Mr Swinney – with the Moray Council leadership now studying the offer in detail.

Council Leader Stewart Cree has previously stated that, if his administration failed to get their 18% council tax increase through, he would step down.

Earlier this week his administration colleague, Councillor John Cowe, outlined through insideMoray the stark choices facing the local authority – now it would appear that Moray, and all Scottish Councils, is facing an impossible situation where widespread cuts in services is the only way forward.

The SNP opposition group have thus far done little more than posture over the increase, using it as a Scottish Election gambit by taking a petition around the doors of Moray and gaining 1100 signatures – one wonders how many might have been gathered from those who agree that preserving services is of greater importance than scoring political points.

Two Labour opposition members meanwhile have remained stony silent, although on the national stage their communities spokesman, Ken Macintosh, hit out at Councils being “treated with disdain” by the SNP Government.

A stark reality facing us all is that it is the people of Moray who will ultimately suffer, no matter who decides what.

It will be interested to see if and how the SNP Opposition step up to the plate should the Council Leader carry out his threat – and be followed by his colleagues, leaving the SNP to form a new administration forced to make difficult decisions for the first time in ten years.