David McCann: What 2014 holds for Edinburgh council

Will people grow to love, or even like the trams? Picture: Julie Bull

Will people grow to love, or even like the trams? Picture: Julie Bull

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It’s 2014 – the Chinese Year of the Horse – and the Capital begins a new calendar saddled with old baggage.

There are exciting months ahead: trams will finally hit the streets and the world will watch as Scots decide their constitutional future with Edinburgh – the nation’s political soul – taking centre stage.

It is the Year of Homecoming and, by summer, the world’s sporting elite will have flocked to Scotland to compete in the Ryder Cup and Commonwealth Games.

But against a frenzy of sport and game-changing politics, city fathers will begin wrestling with a £120 million problem that is set to dominate debate for the life-span of this council.

The inevitable hardship, though, is unlikely to begin now. This year will be the calm before the storm. By all accounts, the battle to balance the books will reap its first real casualties in 2015-16. There will be a temptation to trim departments like education and services for children and young people that at £396m per year accounts for around half of all spending.

So the worst will be avoided this year, and the Capital coalition deserves credit for devising a budget blueprint swallowing £36m of “savings” without drastically cutting essential services.

We will not be so fortunate in the years ahead. Sources talk of making “very difficult political decisions” to revive the city’s financial health and a crack team of around eight officials will soon begin exploring all cost-cutting options – and, presumably, money-spinning innovations.

Procurement and prevention are the watchwords. It is hoped revolutionising how the city buys goods and services by combining purchasing power with other local authorities will deliver multi-million pound discounts.

The all-for-one approach to buying is central to this year’s remarkably light-handed budget but even a revamped procurement scheme can’t plug the huge gaps in forthcoming budgets.

Add into the mix a £1.4 billion debt and it’s clear there will be choppy waters ahead for Scotland’s Capital.

Services are costing more and the council’s income isn’t increasing, so a drive a towards boosting the level of at-home care for elderly people is a key cost-saving programme. Investment will be ploughed into beefing up domestic care packages, including £8.7m of Scottish Government Change Fund money to run preventative services for older people and increase the number of people able to live in their own home.

The success of Edinburgh’s tramline could also be critical to the vitality of the city’s bank balance.

Due to take passengers in May, the tramline which sparked such opprobrium during its cursed development could become a huge white elephant to city finances if Edinburgh residents fail to embrace the concept.

Years of controversy over Portobello High School are set to be resolved as a private bill to grant permission for a campus in a public park is likely to be approved by MSPs after it was recommended in principle by a committee at Holyrood.

But with primary school rolls soaring, huge pressure is likely on the current estate especially in south Morningside, Stockbridge and Bruntsfield among others. This is being contained by a busy programme of extensions and new classrooms but serious thought will be given to the creation of a primary school in south Edinburgh.

Detailed investigations to create the first council-funded primary school in four decades are likely to begin this year which should help alleviate some of the strain.

The welfare reform policy, or “bedroom tax”, introduced at Westminster, will continue to play havoc with the city’s housing budget as more tenants plunge into rent arrears. More than 2,500 residents are debt-ridden by the policy – a three-fold increase from before the controversial under-occupancy rules were brought into force. This is only likely to rise.

It is understood the universal credit benefits change – in which all benefits are delivered to the recipient in one monthly payment – will not be rolled out in Edinburgh until 2015.

There are plenty of challenges but plenty of sweat being shed to combat the issues. The Year of the Horse may bring Edinburgh a stay of execution from harsh cuts but it is only a matter of time before the big axe swings.