By Alan Roden
The Scottish Budget is a peculiar affair.
Sometimes, it produces great drama – such as the moment it
was voted down in 2009, despite ministers passing notes in the Chamber in the
hope of last-minute support.
Sometimes, it is a desperately dull moment – such as when it sailed through last year with the support of the Greens.
Generating public interest can therefore be difficult
(although the devolution of income tax has made a significant difference).
This year, the stage is set for drama.
The Greens are, so far, withholding support from the SNP
minority administration, demanding more money for councils in return for their
Taking a leaf out of Alex Salmond’s book during the SNP’s
first minority term, SNP MSPs are now openly warning of the risk of an
Few expect that to come to pass.
But Finance Secretary Derek Mackay will have to pull a
rabbit out of the hat, and Holyrood observers are keenly speculating on what
that might be.
Mr Mackay has insisted there is ‘no unallocated money’ that
can be found to hand to councils, but there are other options available to him.
The Herald today reports that the Greens are ready to make a
deal if ‘ministers row back on ring-fencing in local government’ – that’s the
money to fund central government policies such as expanding early learning and
There is also the option of introducing a tourist tax, or
Transient Visitor Levy. Or, more specifically, handing councils the power to
introduce a tourist tax – something the Greens (and Labour) have argued for.
Edinburgh City Council – led by a coalition between the SNP
and Labour – has long been agitating for this, and a recent consultation found
85 per cent support. The proposal would raise around £11million-a-year. The
Highlands is also another area where a TVL could be introduced.
There is, however, strong opposition from some business
leaders, who fear it would hurt the accommodation sector.
So it’s a policy that could certainly backfire in economic
terms. But, if that happens, it won’t be Derek Mackay’s fault. He will not
impose a TVL on councils or set the rates – merely give them the option to do
Individual councils will be tasked with making it a success
or dealing with the fall-out if it goes wrong.
For the SNP, it’s a win-win scenario. Announce the plan this
Thursday and it might be enough to secure support from the Greens for the
budget to pass, without needing to find any extra cash from government coffers