This year’s council budget is without doubt one of the most difficult that Edinburgh council has ever faced.
To help, the council has launched a ‘Take the Budget Challenge’ feature as part of its budget consultation. I’d recommend trying it if you want to get an insight into the difficult and thankless task that councillors face trying to balance the books and improve your services.
The challenge is on the council’s website and it sets out the various service areas such as schools, roads, investing in jobs, festivals, parks and the caring services for some of our most vulnerable people. I warn you it’s difficult, very difficult. By cutting five per cent off a budget you will for example reduce grass cutting in parks, or in the transport budget stop three supported bus services. The challenge also allows you to shave up to 20 per cent off budgets, and doing this reveals that such a cut to schools budgets will result in the council being unable to carry out its legal duties in schools, or in the closure of the Usher Hall and end some of the most successful festivals and events.
These are horror stories, but it is a very revealing insight into the hard choices that councillors have to make. Somehow – and councillors do usually manage it – there needs to be a way found to reduce spending without unduly damaging the services that the city depends upon.
In some areas though, as we have seen this week, extra money does not necessarily mean better services. The leaked report on the council’s roads and pavements budget must have made very grim reading for elected members. I well remember being given the figure we spent on road and pavement maintenance when I became leader of the council in 1999. It was a paltry £350,000. Opposition politicians like Councillor Allan Jackson and this newspaper rightly criticised the state of roads and footways. Over the next few years the budget grew to tens of millions as politicians sought to tackle the problem. The leaked report shows just how badly some of that money was spent. Road repairs were twice as expensive in Edinburgh as in Aberdeen and Dundee and Edinburgh was spending more than other councils on road repairs. Councillor Lesley Hinds is unequivocal in stating that “there has been poor management”, and that the quality of the work was “poor too”. Basically, for every pound spent on a repair in Edinburgh there was only half the repair work that other councils achieved and the chances are that the work wasn’t done properly.
The service has rightly been shaken up and a structure has been put in place that will “deliver what the public want”. Quite right, too. The fact that this is in the public domain will undoubtedly make some officials and politicians uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t. Only by getting the facts can issues like this be fixed.
I saw many leaks during my time in the City Chambers, and I remember officers and even some colleagues saying that, “if only we could stop the leaks, the problem would go away”. Well, no. In politics if you have a real problem, then fix the problem and the leaks will take care of themselves.
I’m not a huge fan of the BBC’s One Show, but we happened to be watching one evening when Julie Bailey was talking about the NHS scandal she exposed in Mid Staffordshire. She described how her complaints had been ignored by officials, how politicians hadn’t been able to get her satisfactory answers about the care of her mum, and even how she’d even been threatened with legal action for raising concerns about what was the greatest scandal in the modern history of the NHS. “Then”, she said, “I wrote a letter to the local paper.”
There’s no doubt that Evening News coverage will have made many politicians and officers uncomfortable, which is perfectly understandable. But the News was right to publish the information and the right response is to get on and fix the problem, which is exactly what Cllr Hinds appears to have done. Now back to that Budget Challenge.
So it’s goodbye Andy as city centre champion bows out
IT was with great disappointment that I learned that chief executive of Essential Edinburgh Andy Neal, pictured, was standing down. Essential Edinburgh is funded by city centre businesses, and has led many of the improvements in the centre of Edinburgh in recent years.
Essential Edinburgh got off to a rocky start in the city, but since Andy began working with his equally able and energetic chairman Denzil Skinner, the city centre has gone from strength to strength. During the festivals, George Street really comes alive and there have been many great improvements to the environment across the city centre as well.
Indeed, Edinburgh’s recent success in the international competition Entente Florale, is a cause for much celebration. Following on from winning Britain in Bloom, to win a gold medal in such a prestigious international competition is a stunning victory. Well done to all of the council staff who worked so hard to raise the standard of the city’s public spaces and parks which are better than ever. And thanks and farewell to Andy Neal whose work contributed hugely to that success. As one leading retailer in the city centre said to me on hearing the news of Andy’s departure – “big shoes to fill”. Big shoes indeed.
Tram information all lined up and ready to go
CONTRARY to popular belief, my understanding is that none of the information relating to the Edinburgh Trams project has gone missing. Since taking on the challenge of fixing the tram project, I understand that chief executive Sue Bruce has worked with councillors to ensure not only were the problems fixed, but that all of the many thousands of relevant records have been identified and been made ready for the inquiry under Lord Andrew Hardie.
One of the remarkable things about the trams is how many myths there have been, like the one about the trams not even going to the airport – they were always going there. More recently there have been suggestions important information has “gone missing”, which is equally untrue. The inquiry is a welcome opportunity to get to the truth and to make sure that such major public procurements don’t hit the same problems again.