THE ELECTED member who this week led the charge towards a council tax and housing rent freeze says he is “quite delighted” with how things panned out.
Ian Scott, who represents the Shetland Central ward, said he was pleased the council is “prepared to help our folk – it’s about giving people a wee hand in what is going to be a fairly rough time for a lot of people”.
At a meeting of the full council on Wednesday he proposed freezing both council tax and housing rent – against the recommendation of officers.
His proposal overcame three separate votes – as well as stern warnings over the financial implications on future budgets for day to day services and housing maintenance.
Despite these warnings enough fellow councillors supported his proposal to see it through.
Scott said he has been speaking up for similar issues for “20 or 30 years” and appeared to deny his pursuit of a freeze was anything to do with the upcoming council election in May, in which he is standing.
“I wouldn’t think the leadership is particularly taken by it [the freeze],” he added.
“I knew there would be a few folk who are not happy with the way that the council is getting run financially.
“We’re in a position to have the resources to help our people. That’s what I think. I would hope that the new council, whoever is on it, would revisit the medium term financial plan with a view to rejigging it.”
A council tax rise of three per cent had been recommended by officers, as well as a housing rent increase of 2.5 per cent.
The mini-revolt means a reduced income in 2022/23 for the council’s day to day budget and its housing revenue account of nearly £500,000.
Finance officials have warned that compounded over the next five years the decision could result in more than £3 million in lost income.
Shetland Islands Council convener Malcolm Bell said after the meeting that there will be “consequences” of the decision.
“It’s not as simple as I think some people thought it would be,” he said.
“Because of course when you remove this money from the system over the years it will compound up, and at some point, it will have to be made up.
“I think the other thing we have to be really careful about sending a great big signal to the Scottish Government that Shetland has lots of money – I think there’s a real danger there.”
And there is a warning that the effect of the freeze on rents could be equivalent of not being able to do a third of the kitchen replacements planned for this year.
“That is the effect of the freeze and since housing is a closed account it cannot be made up from the reserves. Good luck to anyone knocking on council house doors,” Shetland News was told.
There was sympathy at all corners of Lerwick Town Hall on Wednesday for the position many people in the community find themselves in as the cost of living continues to rise.
The quandary some found themselves in, however, was the balance between helping those in need now and the financial impact freezes may have on the council’s bank balance over the coming years.
Wednesday’s meeting comes ahead of a local government election in May, and those in favour of raising both or one of the charges warned against legacy they may leave to the next cohort of councillors.
The finance team said there could be a total loss of income of more than £3 million by 2027/28. Freezing rates now mean that in future years increases will result in less income.
Sceptics may claim there may have been some electioneering at play and repeated warnings were made to think carefully about the decision.
But the “unprecedented” situation around cost of living was laid out squarely by one councillor who has heard from some constituents who were struggling to juggle eating and heating as bills rise.
Those on benefits already receive help with council tax and rent but there was concern in the chamber over those who fall just outside of that – and in particular those in working poverty.
By rebelling against officers’ recommendations, freezing the charges – especially council tax, when local authorities now have the ability to do what they want it – sent out a strong signal, particularly to the Scottish Government.
That is a government which has already pledged a £150 relief to people in council tax bands A to D to help with the cost of living – which is plenty more than the increase averted by councillors.
But the government was accused in the chamber of ducking responsibility by passing council tax decisions onto local authorities.
At least for now, yesterday’s decision has provided a welcome boost to those looking after the pounds and pennies.
And it may be seen as something of a victory for outspoken councillor Ian Scott, who for the last five years has shouted from the back benches about loosening the purse strings without much success.
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