Council budget: Charges to rise as services suffer

Parking charges are set to rise. Picture: Jatne Emsley
Parking charges are set to rise. Picture: Jatne Emsley
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PLANS to ensure the Capital remains a “top destination” in which to live and work will be pursued against the toughest financial backdrop yet, critics have warned.

Efforts are under way to plug a funding gap of £67 million by 2017-18, as city bosses bid to repair crumbling roads, keep streets clean and provide vulnerable residents with decent care and housing.

Increases in parking charges and elderly care fees are among proposed measures aimed at securing crucial savings and unlocking new funds for investment across Edinburgh, with basic facilities such as public toilets also earmarked for closure.

But amid relentlessly rising road use and soaring numbers of residents aged 65 and above, council chiefs have been urged to think outside the box and consider radical “quick-fix” solutions such as hire purchase-style contracts for road and pavement resurfacing.

• Parking fees to rise by up to 20 per cent

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

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

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

• Teams helping vulnerable residents live independently in their own homes to expand by 14 posts

• A number of public toilets outside the city centre to be closed

Campaigners and welfare groups said offering high-quality services would be a greater challenge than ever given there is “little room for manoeuvre” in the battle to balance Edinburgh’s books.

And with few revenue-raising options available, they stressed it would not be enough simply to impose ever-growing fees on individual groups such as motorists.

Among the biggest potential income generators are planned parking fee hikes of up to 20 per cent, which would make the Capital the most expensive place to park in the UK outside London and boost city coffers by around £750,000.

Motorist representatives said the rises would be accepted by drivers – as long as they are reinvested in transport and lead to improved road surfaces.

Last month, we revealed how repairing cracked and potholed roads across the Capital would cost £260m – more than 30 times the current £7m budget for carriageways and ­pavements.

Paul Watters, head of roads policy at the AA, said: “There’s a feeling that authorities are addicted to parking income.

“It means the citizens of Edinburgh are paying not once, not twice, but three times – for motoring tax, council tax and higher parking charges. There should be enough to go round without having to raid or up the price of parking.

“Parking is the best income stream for many local authorities – it’s the only income stream for many of them. But price should be determined by demand.”

Citing a £2 billion roads resurfacing scheme in Sheffield, Mr Watters said there were plenty of examples south of the border where cash-strapped councils have embraced alternative approaches so that desperately needed work can be fast-tracked.

“In Sheffield, they have a long-term arrangement with a major contractor to refurbish all the roads, which they’re doing at break-neck speed, as well as lighting, over a period of 20 years or more, and at a set fee,” he said.

“It can be a very quick fix if you have a big problem but it would need the contract to be screwed down absolutely tight.”

Care for elderly residents is another area set to see significant movement, with charity leaders welcoming moves to expand teams helping old people live independently.

But there have also been warnings that individuals who need assistance in a formal residential setting risk being “penalised” by a scheme which would see council care home charges rise by as much as eight per cent and dedicated placements axed.

Stressing council leaders would increasingly have to find “different ways” of delivering care, Brian Sloan, chief executive of Age Scotland, said: “Ensuring Scotland’s older people can live in a home of their choosing is critical to their health and wellbeing, emotional as well as physical.

“Edinburgh council is right to aspire that the city should be a great place in which to live but this must genuinely reflect the opportunities and choices available for people of all ages.

“Older people increasingly expect to live in their own home. While this not only makes economic sense, we often hear directly from older people that it is a top priority.

“Our ageing population means we need to scale up provision of care at home but the question remains how to fund this future demand.”

Mr Sloan acknowledged there was a difficult balance to strike between the demands of a challenging financial climate and ensuring the elderly and other vulnerable groups receive genuine support.

“Whatever the setting, it’s crucial that individuals’ needs are met and that they continue to enjoy the highest possible quality of life,” he said.

“With a greater focus on personalised services, Scotland’s older people should be able to tap into support which will make that a reality.

“Nevertheless, the challenging economic climate means difficult decisions are needed to achieve this. Striking that balance won’t be easy and councils should not unintentionally penalise individuals by unfairly charging for services they cannot do without.”

Proposals to shut an 
unspecified number of public toilets outside the city centre – and explore the feasibility of opening conveniences in shops, restaurants and hotels to passers-by – have drawn criticism from business leaders.

Gordon Henderson, senior development manager at the Federation of Small Businesses, said the planned closures smacked of a tendency to focus on Edinburgh’s core districts at the expense of peripheral town centres in places such as Portobello.

“This is another policy that favours the city centre over other areas of the city,” he said.

“Yes, the tourists come to see the Castle, the New Town and Princes Street but I would quite like to see some marketing of other parts of the city.”

Opposition leaders said many of the latest budget proposals made sense given existing financial pressures.

But they urged council bosses not to lose sight of wider strategic goals which would make the Capital more sustainable and efficient in the long term.

Green councillor Nigel Bagshaw said proposed parking charge increases mirrored his party’s policies over the last two years.

“That is as much about seeking to change the balance of demand as it is about raising revenue,” he said. “However, what it is spent on matters as well.

“The state of roads and footways is a barrier to walking and cycling so I want to see investment in the priority locations where active travel needs encouraged more, rather than simply getting more traffic moving more quickly.

“On care for older people, I support what the council is doing in one sense – increasing the re-ablement service, which is about helping older people live as independently as possible and in so doing reduce the need for residential care. That should be the centrepiece of the budget rather than increasing charges above inflation.”

Councillor Robert Aldridge, the Liberal Democrats’ transport and environment spokesman, said Edinburgh’s current quandary was a sign of missed opportunities for radical reform.

“I think the council made a huge mistake in not outsourcing environmental services when it had the chance in 2012, which would have produced millions of pounds in savings,” he said.

‘Maintaining our envied lifestyle is no mean feat’

By Lesley Hinds

Edinburgh is a beautiful city, arguably one of the most beautiful in all of Europe. Every year, millions of visitors discover its stunning architecture, its fascinating history, its packed festival calendar and its wealth of attractions and places to eat, drink and relax.

They discover firsthand what our residents and those who work here have long known – and what regularly earns the Capital coveted national and international accolades – that Edinburgh offers a fantastic quality of life.

Maintaining this much-envied quality of life is no mean feat, however, especially when budgets are getting ever tighter at the same time as demand for services continues to grow.

It’s everyone’s responsibility to play their part in this, obviously, and we are very grateful to the vast majority of residents and visitors who help us to keep Edinburgh looking her best, such as by disposing of their litter properly or keeping their properties well-maintained.

As a council, however, the onus is on us to look at the whole picture, deciding where to invest our resources and where we might make savings for the public purse.

Keeping the city moving is a major priority and a large chunk of our budget every year goes towards improving roads and pavements. For example, today’s Transport and Environment Committee approved a report outlining where the roads investment will go in 2015/16.

Unfortunately, budget pressures mean we have to make careful choices when prioritising which streets and footways are tackled each year. However, from next year, we’ll be trying out a new, more cost-effective method for treating road surfaces which will enable us to improve and prolong the condition of far more roads before they deteriorate further.

Making sure vehicles are parked properly is another key priority for us as it reduces congestion and helps ensure residents can find somewhere to park near their homes. Every year, income from parking enforcement is channelled directly back into Edinburgh’s transport infrastructure.

In terms of waste management, we’re making good progress in reducing the amount of rubbish that ends up dumped in landfill, thus saving taxpayers’ money in Landfill Tax penalties. We’ve been delighted with how residents have embraced recycling, and the roll-out of our new recycling service will help drive up our recycling rate even further. There’s always more to be done, though, which is why we continue to do whatever we can to promote the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle message.

Street-cleaning is another core service we provide and we use the quarterly independent surveys by Keep Scotland Beautiful to help us evaluate where we are performing well and where our resources are most needed.

I’ve only really scratched the surface here on what the council does to help keep Edinburgh’s quality of life at its award-winning best. Now that we’re embarking on a new budget process for 2015/16, we want to hear from as many residents as possible on where people want us to invest and where they would recommend savings.

Play your part at www.edinburgh.gov.uk/budget and let us know your views.

Finally, I’ll be answering questions on Twitter from 4pm to 5pm tomorrow. Tweet your transport and environment budget queries to @Edinburgh_CC using the hashtag #edinbudget.

• Lesley Hinds is transport and environment convener at Edinburgh City Council