Gina Davidson: Figures just do not hold water

The water feature in Hunter Square provoked controversy. Picture: Toby Williams

The water feature in Hunter Square provoked controversy. Picture: Toby Williams

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LET me take you back. All the way back to the heady days of 1996 when the Major government was on its last legs and the idea of a worldwide recession was as unthinkable as an SNP government running Scotland with a female First Minister.

Indeed so heady were those days that Edinburgh City Council – still shiny in its newness after local government reorganisation – splashed out £4.3million to redevelop the Royal Mile, heart of the city’s tourist business, including Hunter Square.

And what better way to spend £70,000 of that budget than to 
commission and install a water 
feature outside the Tron kirk.

A sculpture which looks, from some angles, like something left floating in the loo, though I’m sure Peter Randall-Page, its creator, feels very differently.

This though is where the council came unstuck. This small sculpture, which was supposed to be full of gently, burbling water, an oasis of watery calm amid the hustle and bustle of the High Street, became instead a 
rubbish receptacle full of stagnant water and empty crisp packets and fag butts. Furthermore it became a 
complete drain on council resources.

Around £2000 was spent cleaning it in its first two years, £500 was spent fixing the pump and filter, and then there was the £8000 annual maintenance costs predicted in the year 1998. Most of the time, the thing just never worked and it’s recently been suggested getting it going again will cost £11,000 per year.

In fact, our council seems to have a real problem in keeping our fountains spraying or our water features flowing. The fountain in Festival Square is being switched off for three years and of course the Ross Fountain is, despite a £40,000 repair job just a few years ago, now in need of a further £1.5m to get it working again.

Unsurprisingly given this is 2014 and not 1996, the idea of having or spending any money on keeping the water flowing while other vital services are being slashed, is unpalatable for most people. Yet the conservationists of the town disagree and question how it is the council can spend millions on supporting festivals and tourism and not factor in the upkeep of the city’s water features.

They have a point. If these features are part and package of a vibrant city, which is attractive to tourists – and the Ross Fountain is certainly that – then more care needs to be given to such crowd-pleasers.

In this paper yesterday, the former leader of the council, Donald Anderson, was glorying in the boost that tourism gives to Edinburgh – 30,000 jobs, most of them in hotels, pubs and restaurants, visitor spending being £1bn every year, and how dependent many of our cultural hubs are on tourists too.

Right, there is the argument to allow our local authority to establish a “tourist tax” – that extra £1 on a hotel room or a B&B every night. A tax which can be paid to the council for supporting all those events and attractions which the tourists and citizens delight in.

I’ve said before that other places – Rome, Venice, Vancouver, the Maldives – already levy a visitor tax and it doesn’t seem to have put a dent in their tourism numbers.

The only hurdle is the Scottish 
Government, but the Smith Commission looking at new powers might well suggest, as Scottish Labour said in its devolution commission report, that local authorities should be given permission to raise revenue in new ways.

Here’s hoping such a policy is adopted, and no longer will we have to have debates about whether the city’s fountains and water sculptures are worth funding.

Austin may well be motoring . .

I CAN’T make up my mind whether the Labour Party in Edinburgh has a distinct lack of political talent willing to stand for Westminster, or it’s that all the young, thrusting types have their eyes on a Holyrood seat instead these days.

Whichever it is, the number of potential candidates for Alistair Darling’s former constituency seat at next year’s General Election seem rather thin on the ground.

Now I don’t know Norma Austin Hart, a city councillor said to be in the running. She may be pleasant, intelligent and a good local representative. She may even be an effective vice-convener of culture.

But whenever I hear her name I’m always reminded of the confusion around the “Austin” part – she was alleged to have added it in so she’d sit top of the list of names on the ballot at the last council elections, in an attempt accrue more votes.

And yet… maybe such canniness makes her perfect for Westminster.

Next stop farce for Lothian Buses

ARE there parallels to be drawn between Lothian Buses and Fifa?

Two investigations, two reports, two authors who resign not long after their reports are used to present a clean bill of health for the organisation involved.

Fifa’s alleged corruption is not what ails Lothian Buses, but something down Annandale Road smells worse than the diesel fumes which once belched from the city’s public transport.

Staff there certainly seem to think so too, calling an unofficial walk-out in support of the board’s chair, Ann Faulds, pictured, who has quit after five years.

She investigated complaints by three directors about the company’s chief executive Ian Craig’s “abrasive management style” as well as other allegations. What her report says, only they and the council’s transport convener Lesley Hinds know. But Faulds is understood to have been in favour of Mr Craig leaving the company.

That hasn’t happened, and instead Cllr Hinds is now on the board and the three directors are believed to be considering their positions.

Whatever is going on with the buses, it needs to be resolved sharpish. After all, this is not a 70s comedy movie.

Will Paddington bear all in film?

PADDINGTON Bear has obviously changed since the days I watched the TV cartoon. The new film about the bear from darkest Peru has a PG certificate because of “dangerous behaviour, mild threat, mild sex references and mild bad language”.

And I just thought it was his taste in sandwiches which was mildly appalling.