Nicola Sturgeon looks back on a year as Scotland’s First Minister

WITH a smile she admits there are days which leave her “totally knackered” but the thrill of being First Minister is evident.

Nicola Sturgeon is reflecting on an “exhilarating and privileged” 12 months as the first woman to lead Scotland.

In a wide-ranging interview, with The Sunday Post, given before Friday night’s tragic events in Paris, marking her first anniversary in the top job, Miss Sturgeon revealed:A council tax shake-up could see the bands redrawn to make the levy more “progressive”. The M9 crash which claimed two lives was one of the most difficult periods of her premiership. She plans to contact Gordon Strachan to see what help the Scottish Government can give him in his plans to rescue Scottish football. Work on saving Scotland’s steel industry is at “a sensitive stage” but pledged nothing was off the table in terms of state aid for the two closure-threatened plants. She plans to unveil “deliverable” plans to mitigate any tax credits cuts in next month’s Scottish budget. The SNP has still to decide if its flagship council tax freeze policy will remain for the party’s Holyrood 2016 manifesto.Speaking in her Holyrood office under a bright painting by Scots artist Ann Vastano, its title Storms Made Us Stronger is perhaps fitting when she reflects on the SNP’s journey from perennial outsiders to bagging 56 of the 59 Scottish seats in the General Election.

It was the greatest political achievement of her first year as Nationalist leader, said Miss Sturgeon who has defined next year’s Holyrood election as the “biggest campaign of her life” seeking her own personal mandate to lead the country.

But it is storms closer to home which had the biggest impact on her as she recalled the deaths of a young couple who lay undiscovered in their crashed car off the M9 for three days.

Speaking about last week’s damning watchdog report on police call centre failings, Miss Sturgeon said it had been a “very difficult period” for her as First Minister.

She explained: “Being First Minister every single day you face different challenges.

“And there have been some incidents which I deeply regret happening, the M9 situation being one of those, obviously an incident that had such a devastating effect on two families.

“That was a horrendous incident, tragic but also horrendous, it is still under investigation so I am constrained in what I can say.

“But there’s not a day goes by that my heart doesn’t go out to those families.”

Police officers search the scene after car was discovered off the M9 (PA Images)

A cross-party review of the council tax was meant to report back last month but is now not expected before the end of the year with all sides struggling to agree on a conclusion.

The council tax bands have now not been altered since 1991 and are now significantly out of kilter with modern house prices.

However, a revaluation would be highly controversial and electorally unpopular as a similar exercise in Wales put about a third of homes in a higher band.

Much more palatable in an election year would be to shake-up the bands without a revaluation, with the possibility of also introducing new bands at the top end of the market.

This would allow the SNP to follow the approach it took with stamp duty, maintaining the freeze or cutting bills for the lower council tax bands, which affect the majority of Scots and squeezing more money out of those in the higher bands who own more expensive homes.

Grilled about this scenario, Miss Sturgeon said her party had not taken a decision yet over whether the council tax freeze will appear in its 2016 manifesto.

Taking her time to formulate her sentence, she continued: “We will see what the cross-party commission says.

“I am not saying this is going to be our policy, but you could change the bands for council tax without doing a revaluation.

“You could change the proportions between the bands that doesn’t depend on a revaluation.”

(Phil Wilkinson)

Asked if her party’s approach to revamping the council tax will match that taken on the stamp duty changes introduced earlier this year, she said: “The progressive principle will run through all of the decisions we take on tax.

“That is true of stamp duty, it will be true or of council tax or any future proposal on local government finance and it will be true of any decisions we take on income tax.”

Miss Sturgeon refused to reveal if she’d held personal talks with former Rangers owner Sir David Murray over the future of the closure-threatened steel plants in Motherwell and Cambuslang.

However, when pressed the SNP leader underlined her commitment to finding a way to prevent the end of the iconic industry in Scotland.

She explained: “My preference is for a commercial buyer, we are looking at all options.

“I am not making false promises, there’s significant challenges for the industry.

“A lot of this is at a sensitive stage and I would not be doing the steel workers any favours if I was to go into too much detail.”

Miss Sturgeon’s office is noticeable for its lack of “star dust” in that, despite her brushes with the great and good, most of the photographs are of her with ordinary Scots.

The SNP leader cited meeting 18-year-old Calvin Nilsen from Ayrshire, who made her a picture book from his last year at a school for pupils with additional support needs, as the most inspirational person she met in the last year.

Taking the book down from the shelf opposite her desk she said: “He had just left school and was doing voluntary work, and what he had achieved to overcome the odds was inspirational.”

Last week Scotland boss Gordon Strachan said he wanted to make the revitalisation of Scottish football his personal obsession.

The Scotland manager is to spearhead a new blueprint to rescue the national game following a period of drastic decline at club and international level.

Miss Sturgeon backed the move and promised her support.

She said: “I would be happy to have a chat with Gordon about how we do that.”

Later this month the Chancellor is expected to unveil sweeping cuts to tax credit payments which will costs thousands of families an average of £1,300.

Scottish Labour has pledged to make up the shortfall using the new welfare powers coming to Holyrood but Miss Sturgeon said she would wait until after the Chancellor’s spending review before unveiling her plans.

She explained: “We don’t yet know what it is we are looking to mitigate.

“We spend £100 million a year mitigating Tory welfare cuts, we need to look at what George Osborne proposes and we will come forward with a scheme that is all about protecting people’s incomes.

“It is the right and responsible thing to do, the difference between me and Kezia Dugdale is I am the one who has to come up with the detail of something that is deliverable because people have the right to expect that.

“Hot air and plans that have been drawn up on the back of a fag packet don’t help anyone in that real-life situation.”