Falkirk may delay setting council tax bills

A very late Westminster budget could mean Falkirk Council being forced to set its council tax separately from the rest of its budget.

The suggestion was made by the council’s chief finance officer, Bryan Smail, although he stressed it would need to be discussed with others including the Chief Executive.

Boris Johnson’s government is causing a massive headache for councils in Scotland which are required by law to set their budgets and council tax by March 11 – the same day the British government has said it will hold its budget. 

Despite the delay in London, the Scottish Government’s finance secretary Derek Mackay has announced that the draft Scottish Government’s budget will be published on February 6.

He said: “In these exceptional circumstances, created by the UK Government, it is vital we give local authorities and public services clarity on their budgets.”

But Mr McKay will be publishing his budget without knowing full details of UK tax forecasts and the size of the block grant – both of which have a major impact on funding available to him.

And Mr Smail pointed out that the draft SNP budget in Holyrood is not always accepted without changes.

He told Falkirk Council’s executive: “We do know from previous years that’s not the end of the matter – it needs to be navigated through the Scottish parliament, so there is still an element of uncertainty.”

In recent years it has used its influence to improve the minority SNP Government’s offering to councils but Mr Smail said there were signs that might not happen this year.

He told councillors they were currently looking at setting a budget on February 26 – but said there were question marks over whether that was possible. He said that “decoupling” the budget from the council tax might be a possibility but they would need to check the legal position.

Falkirk Council was not alone in having to find a solution, said Mr Smail.He added that the new ‘clarity on dates’ should spur members and officers on to accelerate the work to prepare for the forthcoming budget.

Council leader Cecil Meiklejohn said separating the budget from setting the council tax would be challenging but perhaps necessary to “protect the vulnerable”.