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Two-year council tax freeze pledge by Nats

A full-scale political row broke out last night after First Minister Alex Salmond pledged to extend the council tax freeze for another two years if the SNP wins next year’s Holyrood elections.

Mr Salmond’s decision to continue the flagship policy in the face of huge cuts to local government services provoked criticism from Glasgow City Council, local government leaders and political opponents.

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Mr Salmond and his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, used the first day of the party’s conference in Perth to lay down a marker they believe will put Labour on the back foot in months to come.

In a message played to delegates as he attended the Commonwealth Games in Delhi for the Glasgow 2014 handover ceremony yesterday, the SNP leader said: “Our Labour and Liberal opponents will want to hike the council tax despite the pressure on family budgets, the rise in Westminster taxes and despite pay restraints. We say protect family incomes.”

Ms Sturgeon, who opened the conference, added: “The last few years have been tough and the next few will be tougher still. Our action to freeze council tax for the past three years has given real help to families, the low-paid and pensioners at a time when family budgets have been hit.

“The budget we will present to parliament in the next few weeks will make available the money to freeze the council tax next year, but we will go further. Our manifesto for the election next year will also include the commitment to put the resources in place to freeze the council tax for the year after that as well.”

Councillor Gordon Matheson, leader of Glasgow City Council, who was also in Delhi, said last night: “No-one wants to put up tax, but the Scottish Government is slashing our budget and, frankly, difficult decisions need to be made. Raising tax would be a difficult decision but the effects on vital services like schools, roads and social work of not raising tax would be much worse.”

Mr Matheson wrote to Finance Secretary John Swinney in August, claiming the policy was no longer sustainable because of the huge cuts to services. In his letter, he described the policy as “a gun held to the head of local government”.

Council tax was frozen by the authority in 2007, two years before the SNP Government adopted it nationally as part of the concordat with local government.

Pat Watters, president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla), said: “The Government can say what they like about any decision to freeze council tax but it’s not down to them. As we said three years ago, when the council tax freeze was first floated, it is not Government or any individual that can freeze council tax.”

Mr Watters said he had no doubt the planned freeze would be a major part of discussions with Government in the coming weeks.

He added that the Government had held out incentives for the freeze, which would be costly if withdrawn.

A senior local authority source told The Herald that local government would be “absolutely raging” with Mr Salmond’s announcement. “Through Cosla we are in discussions with Government [over the council tax freeze],” said the source. “We respect the confidentiality of these discussions and talks, which is obviously not reciprocated by Mr Salmond.

“It’s just as well he is making the announcement from Delhi. He would face a lot of questions about it if he had done it in Scotland.”

Michael McMahon, Labour’s local government spokesman, said Mr Salmond and his party needed to explain how many teaching posts would be affected by the proposed freeze.

He added: “How many old people are going to see their home helps or care visits cut? Already 3000 teachers have lost their jobs, along with 1000 classroom assistants, under the SNP.”

But Derek Brownlee, for the Scottish Conservatives, said: “The SNP were preparing the ground to abandon the council tax freeze until we announced our intention to extend it for at least another year.

“The Scottish Government now has to call the bluff of Labour and the LibDems who are lining up to hike council tax for ordinary families.”

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