£22m council cuts ‘will devastate communities’

Protests outside City Chambers. Picture: Comp

Protests outside City Chambers. Picture: Comp

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THE Capital’s budget for the next year has been passed – amid protests and warnings that some community groups are set to lose all of their public funding.

Cuts to basic services including public toilets, leisure centres and white-line painting on playing fields will all go ahead as the city bids to save £22 million over the coming financial year and £67m by 2017-18.

There were fraught scenes at the City Chambers yesterday, ahead of a debate and final vote on measures aimed at ensuring the books are balanced in the face of relentless financial pressure.

Campaigners with placards and banners gathered outside council HQ to express anger and fears over spending reductions they said would hit society’s most vulnerable and result in scores of third-sector job losses.

Amid chants and shouts, they warned many voluntary groups across Edinburgh would struggle to continue as councillors prepared to vote through the latest savings package.

And inside the chamber, they used methods ranging from a budget-themed reworking of Bella Ciao – an old Italian anti-fascist song – to giant cardboard Kit-Kat bars to communicate the message that communities were buckling under the strain of successive cuts.

Betty Stevenson, convener of Edinburgh Tenants’ Federation, said there was huge concern as families struggle to get back on their feet after the downturn and amid Westminster’s austerity agenda.

She said: “People are just not coping. Council house rent arrears are the highest they’ve been in seven years – people are struggling.

“People on benefits, people on low wages, they’re having to go to food banks. Their dignity has been taken away from them. It’s shocking.”

Significant concessions have been made following a major public consultation process that was launched after budget proposals were first announced last autumn.

Immediate pressure on the Capital’s army of voluntary workers looks set to be eased, with plans to slash third sector grants by around £1.5m in 2015-16 now reversed.

But there is still the prospect of a £10.8m cut in the voluntary budget as part of an ongoing city council restructure.

Des Loughney, of Edinburgh Trade Union Council, said there were fears that his organisation’s Support At Work group which helps ease vulnerable residents back into regular employment – would lose all of its council funding, resulting in a number of job losses.

“Our understanding is that our funding is to be chopped completely, because of the cuts,” he said. “If these cuts cannot be reversed, we’re going to have to tell people that we cannot provide a service any more. People will lose their jobs.

“What Support At Work does in Edinburgh is unique. It’s a model we would like to see rolled out across Scotland.”

In the face of mounting criticism, city leaders were quick to point out that several planned savings had been reversed.

A £600,000 public toilets cut – which would have resulted in around 20 conveniences shutting – will be reduced by £300,000, while allotment users are celebrating after a proposal to hike rents by as much as 500 per cent was dumped.

Moves to axe the provision of Christmas lights and trees have been chopped, and winter garden waste will continue to be collected.

There was also the clearest sign yet of the council’s determination to oversee a £43m revamp of Meadowbank, with sports leader Richard Lewis stating that there will be investment in the dilapidated ground to ensure it can to nurture the “next generation” of athletics stars.

But proposals to raise parking and home care charges will still go ahead, as will plans to reduce the number of education welfare officers.

A controversial cut in the service payment to Edinburgh Leisure – the body which runs the Capital’s public sports centres – has also been rubber-stamped, although city leaders stressed they had received assurances there would be no centre closures in 2015-16.

Linda Garcia – member of Power to the People and the Women’s International Group at Royston and Wardieburn community centre – said cuts threatened to throttle fragile support networks by redeploying welfare staff away from frontline positions.

She said: “We have concerns about all the cuts but we’re concerned mostly about north Edinburgh and particularly Royston and Wardieburn community centre.

“People in deprived areas are very involved with the workers in a local neighbourhood centre. If a particular worker is not going to be there, it all falls apart. I think the mood is very low at the moment.”

However, council bosses insisted the budget marked the best possible balance between protecting essential frontline services and ensuring the city lives within its means as government grants are squeezed.

There are now growing and insistent calls for power over fiscal levers to be devolved to the council to ensure the Capital benefits fully from its growing economy and status as a tourist magnet.

City leader Andrew Burns said: “I can assure you that I will be making the strongest representations to the Scottish Government on the need to commit to a thorough reform of local government funding.”

Public toilets to close and parking fees to rise

SPENDING cuts approved by the council include:

• Cutting over 1200 council posts – roughly one in 20 of the 19,000-strong workforce, mostly via natural wastage

• Reductions in grants to voluntary organisations

• Parking fees to rise by up to 20 per cent

• Reduction of £500,000 in budget of Edinburgh Leisure for sports and leisure centres

• Review of library opening hours

• Closure of several public toilets

• An end to painting lines on sports pitches

• Reducing “avoidable contact” with the public by encouraging people to go online to report potholes, complain about council tax or book school trips

• Home care charges to rise from £13.50 an hour in 2014-15 to £15.50 an hour in 2015-16

• Charges for council care home places to increase by eight per cent

• Reduced staffing ratios in day services for people with disabilities

• Review of value for money in supported bus services

• Review the way taxi card is funded, with a view to introducing upfront charge of £20 to join the scheme

• Care home placements for older people to reduce by ten a month to shift balance of care from residential to home-based services

• Reduce the number of education welfare officers

• Increase “trigger point” for reimbursing schools’ long-term absence cover from 20 to 30 days

• Green spaces like parks, verges and roundabouts will be allowed to “grow wild” to save £200,000

Tax freeze makes household bills lowest of major cities

EDINBURGH’S council tax rates have been frozen for the eighth year running, leaving the Capital with the lowest bills among Scotland’s four major cities.

Council tax levels for 2015/16 will be:

Band A: £779.33

Band B: £909.22

Band C: £1,039.11

Band D: £1,169.00

Band E: £1,428.78

Band F: £1,688.56

Band G: £1,948.33

Band H: £2,338.00

The income from council tax makes up 25 per cent of the city’s £949 million revenue budget for 2015-16, with the other 75 per cent coming from government grants and business rates.

The council also has a capital budget totalling £245 million.

Proposals for this year’s budget were first published in October and the public was invited to comment.

The council received a total of 3525 responses to the consultation. Some 1719 people used the new “online planner” on the council website, which allowed residents to submit their own spending ideas.

There were also 782 telephone calls, e-mails and letters, 145 leaflets returned with comments and 524 comments through social media.

A budget question-time event was also attended by more than 40 people and viewed by 200 on the live webcast and watched another 862 times using a catch-up service.