John Swinney told council leaders yesterday that he wanted a swifter pace to the reform of public services, but pledged not to tear up their boundaries over the next four years.

The SNP Cabinet Secretary responsible for local government opened talks with eight representative local authority chiefs, most of whom have formed coalitions since the May 3 council elections and with many Scottish Nationalist councillors in power for the first time.

Mr Swinney said the meeting in Stirling was the first in a dialogue which he wanted to lead to a freeze in council tax from next spring until it can be replaced by local income tax.

Even without being assured that local income tax has the necessary support at Holyrood, he said he still wanted the freeze to go ahead, and that it would not need legislation. He argued the rise in bills by as much as 70% over the past 10 years had been "a punishing level of increase, so we've got to do something about providing some respite to council taxpayers".

That will mean councils denied even inflation increases, unless the executive makes up the shortfall. But the minister warned that part of the financial picture would be much tighter spending limits from next spring onwards, when a Treasury spending review takes effect.

Mr Swinney said the plan for a freeze "is part of the discussion we've got to have. We have to look at all these issues in the context of the decisions we have about the powers and responsibilities of local authorities, the resources available as a consequence of the Comprehensive Spending Review, while the government wants a freeze in council tax.".

Mr Swinney told The Herald the prospect of reform and of freezing the fifth of income that comes from council tax revenue had to be allied to a new, more co-operative relationship between local and central government.

"We've got to see this as a package in the round. There's a lot of issues where the government is going to want to give local authorities greater control, greater discretion. We want to set the strategic direction for Scotland, including a council tax freeze, but we want to free local authorities from many of the constraints they operate within, to operate with more discretion, developing policy at a local level. Often, they have felt local government delivers central government's will. That's not the approach we'll be taking."

A spokesman for the Cosla said the meeting had been "very positive".

Mr Swinney also visited Stirling Castle to learn about Historic Scotland and its contribution to tourism.

Michael Russell, the Environment Minister did not travel far for his first official visit, near his home in Glendaruel, Argyll. His outing was to champion developments that bring tourists to rural areas, such as the Forestry Commission's £1.65m Argyll Forest Park project.

Meanwhile, the executive was urged to scrap high ferry fares to the islands. If it could abolish Tay and Forth bridges tolls, it could do it for the Western Isles, councillors said.

Donald John MacSween, vice-chairman of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar's transportation committee, said: "Ferry fares penalise those who live in island communities. No more talking - scrap the taxes that are ferry fares. They are the biggest toll of all."