John McLellan: City doesn’t have the money to test next fad

The 'Citizens' Basic Income' would pay everyone a sume of money without any means testing
The 'Citizens' Basic Income' would pay everyone a sume of money without any means testing
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If something looks too good to be true it usually is, goes the old cliché, and into that category falls the so-called Citizens’ Basic Income, the latest political fad Edinburgh City Council has just pledged to test.

It extends the principle of the basic state pension to the entire population, on the basis that it’s more efficient to give everyone an income than maintain a complex system of means-tested welfare. Of the need to simplify the tortuous benefits and tax credit system bequeathed by Gordon Brown there is no doubt, but as the universal credit programme demonstrates it’s far easier to say than do.

Henry Dundas, commemorated in St Andrew Square, is a controversial figure. Picture: Callum Bennetts

Henry Dundas, commemorated in St Andrew Square, is a controversial figure. Picture: Callum Bennetts

So why not do away with the whole shooting match and just give everyone money? No means test, no requirement to look for work, no benefits trap and no fraud investigations because everyone gets paid regardless. The concept is not new, but has gained impetus from the best-selling book Utopia for Realists by Dutch journalist and academic Rutger Bregman.

The theory is a permanent income cushion creates an incentive to earn more, encourages volunteering, boosts personal freedom and even creativity. What’s not to like? It’s not entirely clear how, but if that’s the prize why not give it a go? Underpinning Bregman’s work is a five-year experiment from the 70s, in which all residents of the rural Canadian town of Dauphin were offered a minimum income. According to Bregman, people became “richer, smarter and healthier”, it was not a disincentive to work, but a right-wing government pulled the plug and buried the data.

But a senior academic from the project says it’s a myth. The number taking up the money was too small to be conclusive (only 40 per cent of the population), health data wasn’t collected, the impact on work behaviour was minimal, the project ended by agreement because of cost and the data was not hidden but subject to several studies.

Investigations continue in Finland, Glasgow, Ayrshire and, soon, Edinburgh. Models vary, but they involve increasing income tax for higher earners, because the total UK welfare budget would only provide an average income of around £80 a week, not enough to cover rent. Some welfare payments like housing benefit would need to stay and therefore reduce the savings from streamlining bureaucracy. One study estimates a 3 per cent hike in total income tax revenue would be needed for a UK system, in other words a good old tax-the-rich policy with all the disincentives that entails.

An enthusiastic report two years ago from the Royal Society had very little to say about inflation, although giving 95 per cent of the entire population a significant spending boost without a parallel increase in productivity could simply push up prices. The payment’s value would drop, the Government would be pressured to react as it has been over pensions, and an inflationary circle would be quickly established. What then? Universal pricing policies?

As for the pilot scheme to which Edinburgh Council has just signed up, the Royal Society paper recommends city-wide projects because handing out money in small areas will prove nothing; Dauphin is smaller than Dalkeith and even after five years and a bill equating to around £35m at today’s prices the experiment was inconclusive.

Edinburgh doesn’t have the money for a definitive project; last week’s decision was more about posturing than piloting.

‘Truth’ about Dundas a matter of interpretation

I suspect more than a few people would struggle to identify the bloke on the St Andrew Square column, or know if 18th century Home Secretary Henry Dundas tried to block the end of slavery or smooth its gradual abolition. Indeed no-one can definitively answer something that’s a matter of degree and historical interpretation.

So the petition for a plaque to reveal the “truth” about Dundas will at least help people understand who he was, but the precise wording should not be left to a partial political activist. A debate involving Scottish historians like Tom Devine or historical novelists like Alan Massie would help explore the complexities of an undoubtedly controversial figure and such a panel could agree a form of words.

At least no-one is talking about the same fate for Dundas as Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin, blown up by Republicans in 1966.

New community council could be just the job

As the inventors in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang sing, from the ashes of disaster grow the roses of success… and so it might be in Craigentinny and Meadowbank where the community council is now being dissolved.

The long-serving chair of the old community council, Giacomo Modica, resigned last week in acrimonious circumstances, followed by one of the only two remaining community councillors. There is no option but to close it down, but there is now an opportunity for more local people to get involved in shaping the district by forming a new organisation.

Showing what is possible is the well-organised and lively Northfield CC which rose from the embers of its predecessor only at the end of last year. Community Councils are not just talking shops, but have a statutory right to be consulted in planning matters and the work done at Northfield was instrumental in halting an unpopular student flats proposal for the Mercedes garage on Willowbrae Road. They also have considerable influence in directing council spending decisions and accessing funds for local projects.

A public meeting will be held to wind up the old council formally, but it will also be the forum to demonstrate support for a replacement. If 20 people support the formation of a new body then elections will be organised to appoint a new council and get it off the ground.

The meeting will be at 7pm on Wednesday, October 25 at the Craigentinny Community Centre on Loaning Road.

Festival boost means cuts for us

I was surprised council leader Adam McVey couldn’t answer when I asked him at full council last week about the Barclay Review of non-domestic rates, but perhaps it was unfair to catch him on the hop about a complex set of measures.

To recap, the proposals from ex-RBS Scotland chairman Ken Barclay and his team are potentially damaging for the Fringe in particular, by forcing Edinburgh University to pay full rates for the premises it lets out for the Fringe.

But McVey’s troops did approve a hastily-arranged motion to give an annual £1 million boost to the Festivals for the next five years, and although it has yet to go through the full budget process, a council bulletin says a new report will look at “how the impact on other council activities can be mitigated”.

That’s cuts to the rest of us.

Eyes on grant applications

THE list of council grants to community groups published last week revealed an impressive array of good causes, but also a wide inconsistency in applications. For example, one or two savvy Scout troops secured grants to buy equipment, but only one or two out of the scores of Scout, Guide and Boys Brigade companies who will have similar needs but perhaps didn’t know there were funds for which they could apply.

Culture and communities convener Donald Wilson, above, has promised to look into how applications are sought and received, but it’s one for the council’s communications team to start thinking about now.