Martin Hannan: Cutbacks must start at the top

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There have been many crunch times in the life of Edinburgh’s council, whether it was the old town council, corporation, district council or the current Edinburgh City Council.

It’s probably fair to say, however, that this week will witness the start of the biggest crisis in the governance of the city since the Second World War.

Actually it started last week, when the Accounts Commission reported its “growing concern” about the way the council was tackling its budget shortfall.

There is simply no gainsaying the reality that faces the people’s elected representatives. They must make cuts in the near £1 billion budget of some £138 million by 2017, including £67m of savings which have yet to be identified.

The Accounts Commission’s verdict was that there is some progress by the council, but the sheer amount of savings – effectively £67m ON TOP of what has already been earmarked – is a frightening proposition. By any sane standards that is a monumental amount of savings, and I do have some sympathy for councillors as they look to reduce the council’s spending.

There’s no point in blaming the UK or Scottish governments for these massive cuts at this time. The blame game can occur at election time next May and in 2016, but the crisis is now and will be discussed in hopefully sombre and reasoned tones at the full council meeting on Thursday. For many people’s jobs and the public’s services are on the line, and any councillor playing party politics at this time will be exposed as a self-serving nincompoop.

Whether you agree or disagree with the Westminster cut in real terms to Scotland’s budget or the Scottish Government’s council tax freeze, the simple truth is that as long as austerity rules in public services, then councils have to cut their budgets. That’s democracy for you.

As an SNP member, I don’t like what is going to happen (I remind you that I always state my party allegiance in this column and invite all other Scottish columnists to do the same). It goes against the grain to reduce public services and public sector employment at this time, but there is no choice.

The council must substantially reduce its staff numbers, and chief executive Sue Bruce’s report to the council will definitely say so. Council leader Andrew Burns has already indicated that middle management roles will be targeted, and the council will keep to its 
policy of no compulsory redundancies. If that is the case, then I expect the Labour/SNP coalition to proceed along the lines that Ms Bruce, left, has indicated.

They could do more, however. The councillors could show an example by refusing to take any increase in allowances, by cutting back on the extra cash for “responsibility” payments and by tackling the over-governance of the city.

Do we really need four councillors for Liberton/Gilmerton and for Leith Walk? Do we really need three councillors to represent Almond? The council website lists more than 50 committees, groups and forums, all of which have to be serviced. Do we really need NINE policy and resources review sub-committees?

Let the cuts start at the top with the budget for councillors and committees themselves. They will make a tiny dent in the overall shortfall, but it’s about showing example at this time.

I’m still fuming over ongoing bypass mess

The tragic death of Murray D’Angelo on the M8 on Saturday will be fully explained in time, I’m sure. Like many motorists, I was caused considerable disruption by the closure of the motorway, but in such awful circumstances the diversions were acceptable and indeed well managed by the police.

What a pity we cannot get such management on the City Bypass on a daily basis. It really is now disastrous, and nobody seems to know what to do. Perhaps all our green-concerned politicians should be made to stand on the Lothianburn bridge and breathe in the toxic fumes from the standstill cars.

ALL WHITE FOR SOME

Our lovable Jack Russell terrier Hamish has discovered a new substance – snow. Thank goodness for his black markings, or he might disappear as winter closes in.

No rush for Leith trams extension

The Accounts Commission’s negative verdict on the council was swamped by a clever piece of media manipulation – I don’t believe in coincidences – by whoever gave out the story about the trams being extended to Leith. That was always going to get bigger headlines.

The plan to spend £400,000 on a feasibility study to see if the trams can go down Leith Walk, as they were always meant to, is surely a bad joke at this crisis time.

I am sure we would all like to see Leith connected, but let the trams run for a year or two to see if they really do make money before we even contemplate extending the line. The groundworks won’t disappear, so we can wait.

We’ve got the quake shakes

The latest earthquake in Penicuik last week is the seventh in the area in seven years. The experts say they were caused not by old mines, but by faults deep underground.

My old trade union colleague Adam Montgomery, above, said: “I’ve been councillor here for 20 years and never knew such faults existed.”

Well everyone in Midlothian now does. And it’s slightly scary!