Councillors have been taken to task over the impact of cuts to services aimed at the most vulnerable in society.
Charity sector leaders hit out at “disproportionate” reductions in funding to services for the elderly, disabled and children with additional needs.
Elected officials faced tough questioning during a debate to discuss the city’s budget proposals held at the City Chambers last night and streamed live on the internet.
Around 250 people took part in the discussion, with most watching online and posting questions via Twitter. Topics ranged from recycling to public toilets, sports facilities to the trams, and whether the city should charge a “tourist tax” or support summer festivals.
And councillors were told their decisions were “going to make people vulnerable”, with charities warning: “This is taking us to the wall.”
Charity bosses pointed out that while councillors defended £4 million annual subsidies for the city’s festivals on the grounds that they bring in tourism revenue, there was no account given to the savings delivered by the work of charities.
EVOC director Ella Simpson said: “The analysis we’re doing of the budget proposals shows that it’s the cumulative impact on vulnerable people that is disproportionate.
“For every pound that the council spends on the third sector, we deliver a minimum of £9 worth of services. The rhetoric around festivals does not seem to translate when we’re talking about vulnerable people in our community. We are a net contributor to the city.”
But the bill for supporting the festivals was defended by culture and sport committee vice-convener, councillor Norma Austin Hart, who said they improve the quality of life of citizens “all year round”.
She said: “The festivals make Edinburgh a global centre of culture envied across the world and much-copied by other cities.
“They give us a profile as a relatively small city, and we punch hugely above our weight. They also add to the quality of life of residents all year round.”
And economic development leader councillor Frank Ross said the powers to levy a “tourist tax” on visitors had to be granted by the Scottish Parliament, and weighed carefully against the impact on one of the city’s major industries.
“Tourists do pay a lot of tax when they come to Edinburgh, in terms of VAT if nothing else,” he said.
Questioning the panel, one charity representative said voluntary groups were increasingly being asked to accept payment on condition of results, which put smaller voluntary organisations at risk.
“Would you take your salary on that basis?” councillors were asked. And that wasn’t the only answer the politicians were reluctant to give.
Asked by one questioner when an apology over the tram fiasco would be offered to residents, councillors ducked the chance to say sorry.
And elected officials claimed that making payments on the city’s £231m tram debt wasn’t a major factor behind the need to make deep cuts to services.
During a lively but polite debate, the panel of six councillors fielded more questions from the public than they answered.
The event came to life when a passionate plea was made for councillors to fight for a better deal for the Capital, rather than just consult residents on which cuts to services they would dislike least.
To loud applause, the man asked: “I’m interested in the idea that you, as our first line of democratic representatives, could actually say the money coming in is not enough.
“I would like to see you actively campaigning at Holyrood for more money. Because you shouldn’t be setting the budget based on cuts, you should be setting it based on needs.”
Cllr Ross responded by saying the council were pursuing a “city deal” that would allow Edinburgh to recoup some of the taxes residents pay to reinvest in improvements, but that the 2015 general election would delay the process.
Kicking off the debate, finance leader Alasdair Rankin said the point of the Edinburgh Budget Challenge and the open debate was to hear people’s views on the difficult decisions that need to be made.
He said: “The challenge is that the amount of money available over the next three years is almost constant, but the demand for services is increasing.”
‘Council is bust’
@ScoWorstDrivers: Why do @Edinburgh_CC make cuts to every service but continue to ring-fence the party planning budget? #edinbudget
@McGowanAlistair: #edinbudget on community recycling sites, more could be done to challenge people bringing in vans and trailers with commercial-sized loads.
@stephen888: Councillors are being naive over tourism spending. City is mobbed with tourists yet council is bust. Seems it’s a one way spend. #edinbudget
@dirk_nols: Unfortunate that a nb of Edinburgh residents seem to see festivals & tourism as a bad thing costing the city money #wrong #edinbudget