Ross calls for 'fair funding system' for councils

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Media caption,

The Scottish Tory leader says rebuilding communities will be at the heart of his party's agenda

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross has called for a "fair funding system" for councils as he addressed the party's annual conference.

In his speech he called for a new funding formula to make sure councils "get their fair share".

He also denounced Scotland's not proven verdict, saying it had "no place in our justice system".

The conference has been taking place virtually due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Mr Ross was introduced by former Scottish leader Ruth Davidson and outlined a number of manifesto commitments ahead of next year's Holyrood election.

The Moray MP said Scotland can have a "better 2021 and beyond" as he outlined his alternative vision for the country.

Included in his proposals were giving councils the power to set business rates-free zones to rejuvenate high streets, rebuilding local railways and delivering universal full fibre broadband across Scotland by 2027.

On justice he called for an end to the not proven verdict and called for jail time to be doubled for criminals who attack emergency workers.

He issued a commitment to stand up for those communities, villages and towns that he claimed had been "left behind" by the SNP.

Mr Ross - who only became the party's Scottish leader in August - said the Tories would be focused on "rebuilding our communities" in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.

He said his party wanted to recruit 3,000 new teachers to improve education.

Image source, PA Media
Image caption,
Douglas Ross was introduced by Ruth Davidson

He also used his speech to attack the SNP on the issue of Scottish independence and its record in government.

"We are coming up with the ideas that Scotland needs after 13 years of the SNP being in power," Mr Ross said.

"While the nationalist focus is on separation, our focus is on Scotland."

Earlier Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is currently self-isolating in London, had delivered a video message to the conference in which he sought to clarify his reported remarks about devolution being a "disaster" for Scotland.

He said he words had not been reported "entirely accurately" and that his criticism had been of the performance of devolution under the SNP rather than an attack on the general concept, which he supported.

Boris Johnson's only having to clarify his commitment to Scottish devolution because he was quoted telling MPs it was a "disaster" and the biggest mistake of prime minister, Tony Blair.

Those comments infuriated many Scottish Tories who have worked hard to overcome their party's anti-devolution history to become the main opposition party at Holyrood.

The last thing they needed - in the week of their party conference, with Scottish Parliament elections six months away - was Boris Johnson casting doubt on their credentials.

Rather than roll back devolution, the Scottish Tory leader, Douglas Ross, wants it extended beyond Holyrood, with more power and a guaranteed funding share for Scottish councils.

It is ironic that at the conference where Mr Ross set out his proposals for greater devolution within Scotland that his UK leader should have to make clear that he still backs devolution of power to Scotland from Westminster.

After the Scottish Conservatives won a record 31 MSPs in the 2016 Scottish elections, helping deny the SNP a majority at Holyrood, Mr Ross said he wanted to take his party to "new heights in next year's Scottish Parliament election".

He criticised the Scottish government for "constantly" complaining to the UK government about cash and powers at the same time as they had "shamelessly grabbed both from local government for years".

Mr Ross said: "From 2007 to 2019, the SNP government's budget increased by 16% but the grant they gave to councils increased by less than half of this, 7%, over the same period.

"This matters, because it means money taken away from local services like schools, roads and housing."

He said: "Why should the SNP be able to raid our council budgets on a whim?

Image caption,
The conference took place virtually due to the pandemic

"To put an end to this, the Scottish Conservatives will bring forward legislation in the next parliament to enshrine fair funding for councils in law. Ensuring that local government is entitled to a set proportion of the Scottish government budget each year."

He stressed: "Rebuilding our communities must start by ensuring that our councils have the necessary resources to properly deliver local services."

Earlier in the day, Scottish Secretary Alister Jack had praised Boris Johnson as a "wholehearted supporter of devolution".

Mr Jack said the UK government was "putting the Union at the heart of everything we do".

The Scottish Secretary said it was Nicola Sturgeon's SNP which "opposes devolution", as he made clear the UK government expects the party to honour the "promise" made in 2014 that the independence referendum would be a "once-in-a-generation" event.