Michael Gove has offered to meet directly with Scottish councillors after leaders from two cash-strapped local authorities urged him to bypass SNP ministers in Edinburgh and hand Barnett Consequentials straight to Scotland’s town halls.

The Secretary of State for Levelling Up told the Herald on Sunday that he respected the devolution settlement, but that he disagreed with the conditions being attached to the funding by the Scottish Government.

He said councils had been “denigrated and defunded” by Humza Yousaf and Shona Robison.

“What I do want to do is to talk to all the councils in Scotland through Cosla in order to see what more we can do to help,” he added.

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The row stems from the First Minister’s surprise promise to freeze council tax during his speech at last year's SNP conference.

Ms Robison initially promised £147m to fund the freeze, the equivalent of a 5% hike across the board.

However, councils said this would leave them short-changed, especially when other money from the government has been ring-fenced.

Last month, Ms Robison promised to hand over an extra £62.7m, with £45m coming from Barnett Consequentials due to extra spending for councils in England announced by Mr Gove.

However, the money will only go to authorities who agree to freeze council tax.

The Herald:

Stephen McCabe, the leader of Labour-run Inverclyde council, and Martin Rooney, who leads Labour-run West Dunbartonshire have both written to Mr Gove calling on him to intervene.

Asked if he would, Mr Gove said: “I know local government in Scotland is having a tough time. And the SNP council tax freeze policy has meant that the money that we handed to the Scottish Government quite rightly for them to pass on to local government, they're holding back in certain circumstances.

“I don't think that's the right approach by the Scottish Government. But I respect the devolution settlement, so that's a matter for them.

“What I do want to do is to talk to all the councils in Scotland through Cosla in order to see what more we can do to help.”

The minister said the UK Government had a “good relationship with local authorities across Scotland.”

“It's clear that there are funding pressures. It's significant that the two council leaders who've asked for support are Labour council leaders and that Labour politicians want the Conservative government to help them, so we'll see what we can do in our conversations. As I say, I don't want to upset the devolution settlement.”

“My view is people pay the taxes for two governments, they want to see two governments working together, and we want a stronger relationship with local government," he added.

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The minister claimed council leaders had told him that “working with the UK Government is easier than working with the Scottish Government.”

Mr Gove said he had a “fine” relationship with the Scottish Government and that his dealings with the First Minister and Ms Robison were “pragmatic.”

“We'll go into the general election arguing very different positions, but I think it's important that people know that the UK Government is there to take a constructive approach.

“We're not wreckers, we're builders. And we want to make sure that when it comes to, for example, delivering freeports that we can make sure that we we work together.

“And of course, you know, politics is about principles, but it's also about personalities.

“There were some personalities with whom it's been easier to deal with than others, but you could probably infer from what some SNP politicians say in public and in private who of them find it easier to deal pragmatically with the UK Government.”

He added: “The two people who were always easiest to deal with, the two people who were always I think the best ministers in the Scottish Government were Kate Forbes and Fergus Ewing but neither of them are there now. The guys who are there now we get on with.”

On the looming general election, Mr Gove said he believed the party would hold on to the seats won in 2019 and be “very strong contenders in a number of other seats.”

“I've been involved in lots of election campaigns, and things can change. And I believe that we're in an increasingly competitive position south of the border, but there is a different dynamic in Scotland.

“I think in particular, in lots of little contests where the choice will be between the SNP and the strongest challenger to the SNP.

Later, in a speech to delegates, he said tens of thousands of Scots would switch from the SNP to the Tories.

He praised MP Lisa Cameron – who defected from the SNP and joined the Tory - and said she had “shown the way that I know tens of thousands of other Scots will be following at this forthcoming general election”.

An SNP Spokesperson said: "This attempted Labour/Tory alliance is like a sick joke at the expense of Scottish local government, given the extent to which Michael Gove and his government at Westminster has presided over cut after cut to local authorities in England, many of which are now on the brink of financial crisis, with half facing bankruptcy in the next five years.

“Birmingham City Council declared itself bankrupt, with hundreds of thousands of jobs and vital services now at risk thanks to a decade and a half of cuts from the UK Tory government.

“Labour council leaders like Inverclyde’s Stephen McCabe and West Dunbartonshire’s Martin Rooney are putting local councils in Scotland at risk of being in the same disastrous financial position as councils south of the border.”