Doubts raised over Scottish council tax pledge

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The Scottish government's pledge to householders that their council tax bills would be frozen for a further year was under threat just hours after it was made today, as councils said that a substantial amount of extra money would be needed to fund the measure.

In his address to delegates at the SNP's annual conference in Perth, the Finance Secretary John Swinney was unequivocal in his promise to keep the cap on council tax.

"When other bills are rising, the people of Scotland can rely on the Scottish Government to freeze their council tax," he told delegates. He added that the Scottish Government would be "making funds available" for the move.

But councils will only be given £70m to fund the freeze – the same figure as last year – despite having to face a doubling of inflation and rising fuel bills since then.

One of Scotland's most senior councillors said that local authorities would struggle to balance the books if the freeze is enforced. Steven Purcell, head of Glasgow City Council, said another freeze would be "nigh on impossible without extra money".

"Only councils can freeze council tax," he said, adding that holding council tax at its current level in Scotland would be very difficult "with last year's settlement because of the new financial circumstances we live in".

Scottish councils have been engaged in desperate attempts to renegotiate the funding package for the freeze since last week. They are understood to want at least double the £70m that has been offered to them.

Mr Swinney made it clear today that he will knock back any attempts to up the funding package to the £140m that councils claim they will need, adding that the pot of £70m had more than covered the costs of the scheme last year.

In his speech on the second day of the conference, Mr Swinney also promised relief for small businesses in a bid to keep the Scottish economy on track amid rising unemployment.

"From April next year, small businesses will get a further boost, with 100 per cent rates relief available to tens of thousands of our smallest businesses," he said.

He announced that the Scottish Government will go further than Westminster in implementing tough greenhouse gas emissions targets to battle climate change.

The Independent has learnt that he is planning to include annual targets for cutting emissions in the Scottish Government's climate change bill, due to be published later this year. He told delegates that the aviation and shipping industries will be included in any targets.

A pledge to introduce annual carbon reduction targets of three per cent appeared in the party's last general election manifesto, but campaigners have since been concerned that the SNP's support for the targets had evaporated.

"When we set out our climate change bill later this year we will demonstrate that we have listened to the mood of our country," he said.

"We will demonstrate on the vital issues of emission reduction targets, on the inclusion of international air travel and shipping and on the inclusion of all six greenhouse gases that Scotland will have a Climate Change Bill able to lead international action."

Friends of the Earth Scotland said that the introduction of annual targets was a vital breakthrough in the battle against climate change, but that new laws must ensure that the targets are enforceable.

Duncan McLaren, chief executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland, said: "We've long campaigned for annual targets to ensure that ministers can be held properly accountable, and that rapid and continuous cuts in emissions are made. We understand that the Scottish Climate Bill is likely to include some form of annual targets and we hope that these are strong enough to achieve this.

He added: "In particularly ministers need to remember that cuts in emissions need to be deep and rapid to ensure that global emissions peak and then decline within the next few years. Annual targets that start low and rise gradually may not be adequate."

Mr Swinney's announcement came just a day after Ed Miliband, the newly installed the energy and climate change secretary, pledged to cut the UK's greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. He said the previous 60 per cent target had been shown to be insufficient by the latest scientific analysis.

But he said that aviation and shipping would not be included in the bill to update the target, raising fears that two of the fastest growing areas of emissions would continue to grow unchecked.

Mr Swinney also attempted to retaliate against accusations that an independent Scotland would have been incapable of dealing with the current financial crisis by calling for Scotland to have greater control over its finances.

"We must have financial powers that give the same responsibilities and opportunities to Scotland as other small independent countries have at their disposal," he said.

"It is even more important for our nation, for our families and for our future that we move to the same independence that is at the root of all nations' resilience and success."