SNP asleep at the wheel over rate rises

SNP asleep at the wheel over rate rises

by Murdo Fraser
article from Thursday 23, February, 2017

NO MATTER how much a Government thinks it is in charge, it can easily be blown off track by events. An unforeseen, unpredicted crisis can blow up suddenly, requiring urgent action and response.

A Government that is already toiling, such as Nicola Sturgeon’s failing SNP administration at Holyrood, can have its reputation trashed even further if it appears to have been caught unawares by a developing problem.  And this is exactly what has happened over the past few weeks, with SNP Finance Secretary Derek MacKay struggling to deal with a nation-wide revolt by Scottish businesses facing massive hikes in their non-domestic rates bills following revaluation.

In true Nationalist fashion, as we’ve seen so often in its ten years of government, it fell asleep at the wheel, only waking up when it crashed into a wall.

We have seen both the hospitality industry and renewable energy projects badly hit, and a particular geographic problem in North-East Scotland where the economy is already reeling from the downturn in oil and gas. I am aware of Perthshire hotels facing a near doubling of bills, and hydro schemes with valuation uplifts of 300% and more.

The SNP failed miserably to provide reassurance on this fiasco, and did nothing to shed its reputation as an anti-business government. It ignored the issue for weeks, and the First Minister even told the Scottish Parliament she had “no locus to intervene”.

But as the complaints mounted, with more and more warnings of jobs going and businesses collapsing, the Scottish Government realised it was duty-bound to do something. With even the former First Minister Alex Salmond putting his oar in, they had to find some money to deal with the problem.

One of Derek MacKay’s new-found favourite attacks, on all opposition parties, is that we want to fund our policies from a ‘magic money tree’. However, this attempt at a fiscally competent façade from the Nationalists is fast becoming a joke.

In fact, no-one is more magical when it comes to finding money that didn’t previously exist than finance secretary Derek Mackay. After fearing the worst with his debut budget heading for the scrapheap, he managed to find £185 million to persuade his friends in the Green Party to come on board.

Now that businesses across Scotland are getting on his back over the chaotic revaluation scheme, he seems to have unearthed even more – £44 million more, to be precise. It’s almost like Nicola Sturgeon has turned him upside down, shaken the pockets, and watched as millions more in taxpayers’ cash comes tumbling out.

Mr Mackay truly has his own fund for politically rain days. And for the SNP, with council elections just around the corner, it doesn’t get more rainy than businesses large and small, up and down the country, facing closure on its watch.

But the fact is this action is nothing like enough. Yes, some sectors in certain parts of the country will have their increases capped at 12.5 per cent. But this is of no consolation to the thousands of organisations which are still coping with these extraordinary hikes.

I tried asking Derek Mackay on Tuesday how long this relief would be in place for and, if it were only going to be 12 months, would we not be facing the same issue this time next year. He eventually answered, confirming it would just be one year of support, and that somehow businesses should be grateful for this. And all this on the day he formalised further his government's moves to make Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK.

So while there has been some relief for some firms following this parliamentary statement, which Mr Mackay had to be dragged kicking and screaming to provide, there is still widespread concern.

I asked him specifically if other companies not based in the north east, and outwith the hospitality and renewable energy sectors, could expect some assistance. Surely if they can make their case equally persuasively, they too should deserve help?

But the Finance Secretary didn’t bother answering this, and instead went down his usual route of attacking opposition parties, pointing to going on in other parts of the UK, and continuing the haphazard approach to government that will damage the economy and reduce the tax receipts available to fund public services.

While there will be a qualified welcome for this week’s announcement from businesses that will not suffer the extreme pain they were expecting, too many will still be facing crippling rate rises.  Once again, the anti-business SNP is damaging the Scottish economy.

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