By Lucy Ashton
BBC Scotland is reporting that Council tax rates are to be frozen across Scotland, First Minister Humza Yousaf has announced.
The SNP leader made the announcement during his closing speech at his party’s conference in Aberdeen.
The Scottish government had previously proposed raising council tax rates by as much as 22.5% for homes in higher bands.
But Mr Yousaf has pledged they will remain at the current levels when councils set their budgets for 2024-25.
He described the proposed freeze as evidence of “the SNP delivering for people when they need it most”.
The leaders of Scotland’s other political party were swift to reply.
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said: “This speech to a slimmed-down nationalist faithful confirms that Humza Yousaf’s number one priority will always be independence above all else.
“Other announcements, such as on the NHS backlog and council tax, aimed at attempting to clean up the SNP’s previous mistakes were all sidelined by Humza Yousaf’s nationalist obsession. It is clear that no other issue will get a look in during the SNP’s campaign at the next year’s General Election.
“Humza Yousaf is all too happy to waste more taxpayers’ money on promoting independence despite Scots struggling with a global cost-of-living crisis. It is completely the wrong priority for Scotland at this time.
“Our country cannot afford the nationalists spending five more years talking about their constitutional obsession at every turn, but that is what Humza Yousaf’s speech confirmed they are hellbent on doing.
“In seats from the South of Scotland to the North East, it is only the Scottish Conservatives who can beat the SNP, stop Humza Yousaf obsessing about independence and ensure the focus gets back onto the issues that really matter”
Ian Murray, Douglas Ross, Willie Rennie and Christine Jardine.
Labour’s Shadow Scottish Secretary Ian Murray said: “The SNP’s lack of direction is laid bare in this jumble of screeching u-turns and tired old pitches for independence.
“Fresh out of ideas for 2023, Humza Yousaf seems to have reached for the SNP’s 2007 manifesto for inspiration – but after 16 years of broken promises Scots aren’t buying it anymore.
“Humza Yousaf has told his party to focus on the ‘why’ rather than the ‘how’ of independence, but the truth is he’s not got a real plan for either.
“This chaotic and divided SNP government cannot deliver for Scotland, but change is possible with Labour.
“Labour will deliver a New Deal for Working People, a publicly-owned GB Energy company based here in Scotland, and an end to the division and decline of the SNP and the Tories.”
Responding to Humza Yousaf’s speech to SNP conference, Liberal Democrat Scottish Affairs spokesperson Christine Jardine said: “All conference long the SNP could not make it any clearer. They care more about independence than they do your job, your family’s health or your children’s education.
“Where was the action on the cost-of-living crisis? Where was hope for patients with long Covid? Where was action to tackle thousands of sewage spills in Scottish rivers? This was a missed opportunity to set out an agenda that the whole country could get behind.
“Scottish Liberal Democrats will continue to press for action to tackle the cost-of-living crisis, long NHS waits and the state of our natural environment”
On the plans to freeze council tax, economy spokesperson Willie Rennie added: “People trust Humza Yousaf’s SNP on tax as much as they trust Liz Truss. One day the SNP are the evangelists for tax hikes, the next the stout defenders of a real terms tax cut.
“Just like Liz Truss this is an unfunded tax cut. There is no explanation as to how already broken public services will be funded. The government is split too with the Greens opposing the measures. This government is divided, volatile and incompetent just like Liz Truss’ was.”
Mr Yousaf did not set out how the government would make up the budgetary shortfall for councils who would have raised taxes.
The levy generates about 13% of local government funding, with most of their cash coming from Holyrood funding.
Council tax had either been either frozen or capped at 3% since the SNP came to power in 2007, with the Scottish government providing local authorities with extra funding in return.
But councils have been allowed to use new powers to set their own rates for the past two years, with most areas seeing rises of between 4% and 7% this year.
The SNP had a long-standing commitment to scrap and replace council tax and Mr Yousaf said he remained committed to reforming local taxation.
Cosla, which represents local authorities, said it had not been warned about the council tax freeze in advance. Their spokesperson is an SNP councillor.
“This has longer term implications for all councils right across the country, at a time when we know there are acute financial pressures, and where we are jointly looking at all local revenue raising options,” a spokesperson said.
Mr Yousaf also said his government would spend an additional £300 million on tackling NHS waiting lists in the next three years and raise arts and culture funding by £100 million over the next five years.
The first minister, whose has family members are trapped in Gaza, called on the UK government to create a refugee resettlement scheme for those caught up in the conflict.
He said Scotland would be “willing to be the first country in the UK to offer safety and sanctuary to those caught up in these terrible attacks”.
He condemned the Hamas attack in Israel and the “collective punishment” of people in Gaza and called for the UK government to support medical evacuations of injured civilians from Gaza.
The tearful Mr Yousaf issued an emotional call for unity as he said there was “no room” for hatred of any kind in Scotland.
Following the SNP’s heavy defeat to Labour in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election, the first minister told party members they could “either spend time feeling sorry for ourselves”, or “roll up our sleeves and work harder than ever before for the people of Scotland”.
He urged delegates to unite behind the party’s independence strategy, based on winning a majority of seats at the next general election, to help build a “sustained majority” for Yes.
Mr Yousaf said independence was “neither untested nor unobtainable” as he insisted a united SNP could “make it happen”.
Other key announcements included plans to issue the first ever Scottish government bonds on the international bond market to raise funds for infrastructure projects, and plans to “anchor a new offshore wind supply chain” in Scotland with up to £500 million in funding over five years – with the government aiming to ensure vital parts such as turbines are made at home instead of being imported from abroad.
The SNP leader said issuing the first ever Scottish government investment bonds by 2026 – subject to “due diligence and market testing” – would help enhance Scotland’s global standing.
“This will bring Scotland to the attention of investors across the world,” he said.
“We will also demonstrate the credibility to international markets that we will need when we become an international country.”
The first minister also announced a pilot scheme for £1,000 to be given to domestic abuse survivors fleeing their partners as part of a £500,000 “fund to leave” which will be distributed to Women’s Aid groups for pilot schemes in Glasgow, South Lanarkshire, North Lanarkshire, Edinburgh and Fife.
Mr Yousaf said the government will commit £400,000 to the redevelopment of Union Street in Aberdeen city centre, as well as supporting the Eden Project in Dundee, the Clyde Mission in Glasgow and improvement works in the St James Quarter in Edinburgh.
He pledged ministers will invest an extra £100 million in each of the next three years to cut NHS waiting lists by an estimated 100,000 patients by 2026, when the next Holyrood election is scheduled to take place.
The number of patients on hospital waiting lists in Scotland has increased to 667,746, quarterly figures to June showed. That was up from almost 625,000 in February.
Home Secretary Suella Braverman came in for criticism during the speech as Mr Yousaf criticised the UK government’s immigration policy.
He condemned Ms Braverman for warning of a “hurricane” of migration coming to the UK and said that with independence Scotland could decide its own immigration policy.
Referencing a viral social media post from the Tory conference, he said: “Suella Braverman’s most compassionate moment came when she stood on the tail of a guide dog.”
Taking aim at Labour, the first minister told delegates he had “no idea what Keir Starmer stands for”.
The SNP’s new independence strategy, agreed by delegates on Sunday, has ditched Nicola Sturgeon’s plan for a de facto referendum.
However, arriving at the conference on Monday, she gave her “full unequivocal support” to the new plan.
In his keynote speech Mr Yousaf thanked Ms Sturgeon, who he credited with having “transformed Scotland”.
The top line of the party’s manifesto will be “vote SNP for Scotland to become an independent country”, the conference was told.
“And that’s because independence is about building a better Scotland,” Mr Yousaf said.
“It’s about raising living standards. It’s about protecting our NHS. Above all, it’s about a stronger economy.
“An economy that works for everyone who lives here.”