When the council set its one-year budget in February, I warned that the lack of forward planning by Labour and the SNP meant they were storing up a financial black hole for the future.
I also said they were failing to make the limited savings they promised and things were likely to get worse. Sadly, I have been proven right.
The black hole has already risen from £10 million to £22m for 2015-16 and gets much worse in future with the council having to find over £67m in savings by 2017-18.
The cause is base politics. We have known for years that budgets would be squeezed as the effects of the recession worked through into public sector finances. But the bulk of politicians in Scotland haven’t prepared for this. They have simply budgeted for the present. The SNP is most to blame as it will do anything to avoid bad news prior to September 18.
In Edinburgh City Council it is joined by Labour – a party always keen to spend other people’s money. Sharing power, Labour has no appetite to challenge the SNP’s wish to avoid difficult decisions. The result is the kind of economics that saw Gordon Brown rack up the national debt even before the crash.
That some on the left now call for more borrowing or increased taxes to fill the hole is folly. Borrowing has to be paid for and tax rises simply take money away from hard-pressed families just when we need to give them something back to allow them to regenerate our economy – creating jobs and growth through the private sector. Successive council administrations have failed to modernise our services, increasingly ignoring the council’s core responsibilities. We must become more efficient and effective if we are to solve this problem. But that demands tough action which will have its critics – especially in the council trade unions – hence the fear among the ruling politicians.
Two immediate examples spring to mind. Edinburgh’s waste collection has been expensive for as long as I can remember. An Audit Scotland comparison shows it costs £38.53 per house to collect the bins in Aberdeen and £72.92 in Edinburgh per year – almost double. By rejecting partnerships with the private sector, Labour and the SNP have failed to modernise this and other basic services. In the long run that means poorer services or even deeper cuts.
Another area where there is a lack of action is council staffing. There are grand plans to move the public’s contact with council services online where possible. With some safeguards this is a no-brainer as there is huge public demand for online transactions and it is far cheaper than call centres or face to face.
However, there aren’t any long-term plans to reduce the workforce in line with this change and despite the financial problems staff numbers are rising. The likelihood is that, combined with commitments from Labour and the SNP not to use compulsory redundancy, any plan will be far too late to make the savings needed.
Reform and efficiency in public services takes time and we must act now. The head in the sand approach of the SNP is storing up huge problems for the council and Scotland regardless of the result of their referendum.
As a Unionist my challenge to Labour is to ensure its coalition doesn’t make the party complicit in the SNP’s referendum campaign. That would fail the people of Edinburgh on two fronts.
• Councillor Iain Whyte is the Conservative finance spokesman at Edinburgh City Council