Martin Hannan: Time to sell off City Chambers

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There are times when you have to have sympathy for our city councillors. No, I have not lost my marbles, I really mean that.

They are having a very tough time balancing the books, and it shows on the worried faces I saw going in and out of the City Chambers the other day.

It is self-inflicted, for as it contemplates serious budget cuts, the council seems to have taken its collective eye off the ball and is not employing any kind of out-of-the-box thinking about its budgets.

Therein lies the problem. How do you balance the books when you are stuck with systems and ways of working that are seemingly immutable? How do you come up with workable budgets when no-one, but no-one, can resolve the biggest single issue – the sheer lack of money.

The latest plan announced by the council’s education leaders to adjust school holidays by cutting the Christmas break and lengthening summer holidays is symptomatic of the problem.

The Labour/SNP coalition, which seemed to be working well enough, has come up with a lulu of plan which will have teachers and parents alike fizzing. It will annoy them most of all because it is not in any way about improving the education of the city’s children but is all about saving money.

The council must make cuts and keep on making them, that is the mantra voiced by all the top councillors. But where’s the imagination to get the council out of its admittedly horrendous situation?

My take on the necessary cuts is very simple – the co-alition must prioritise certain principal services and be prepared to make hard decisions on the rest, or find better and more cost-effective ways of making them work.

Those services, in brief, are those which provide care for the elderly, children and vulnerable people in our community; the education of the city’s children; and the maintenance of a healthy city through adequate rubbish collection and disposal, and proper roads upkeep.

Everything else has to be secondary to these prioritised services. Economic development, museums and art galleries, sports facilities – all of these and more must be the targets for less direct spending, but what is really needed is for the council to earn money.

If that means selling off assets such as Lothian Buses, then so be it. The only municipal bus company in the country is an anomaly that could be sold to fetch a colossal sum.

The council has been selling off some buildings – a public toilet in Morningside fetched a pretty sum – but now it is time to think about getting the crown jewels on the market. The City Chambers would make a wonderful luxury hotel and developers would pay vast sums for the building – so why not move the councillors’ offices and flog off the Chambers?

There are some parks and open spaces in the city which are just not fit for purpose and seem to be used only for dog fouling. There is demand once again for land for houses – why not sell more land?

Hard decisions? Well, if we really are in total crisis, that’s what councillors must do, otherwise we can only conclude that the crisis isn’t that bad after all.

UNION FLACK

So Gordon Brown thinks that Westminster should share sovereignty with the other nations of the UK. This SNP member thinks the Unionists will say two words – no chance.

Wiping away winter Bleus

You may have noticed a change of air in the city at the weekend. The distinctive atmosphere which the French rugby fans bring with them – a heady mixture of garlic, Gauloises and joie de vivre – was, as always, a delight to savour.

On Princes Street and the High Street, the French supporters celebrated even before the match kicked off.

The result did not go Scotland’s way, but you don’t really mind losing to the French in particular, because they cheer us up no end and bring a touch of Gallic sunshine to our wintry city. And judging by yesterday’s weather, perhaps they have left some of that sun behind – we hope.

‘M’ status will get bypass motoring

Stuck in yet another traffic jam on the City Bypass, I watched incredulously as we approached the cause of the hold-up – a tractor which had broken down at Hermiston Gait and was being pushed on to a low loader, presumably to be taken back to the farm whence it came. It’s time that the A720 was fully upgraded to a motorway with proper “straight through” connections to the M8. Side roads would be necessary for tractors and the like, but at least the bypass would stop being hell on wheels.

Don’t let ads leave bad taste

I have now seen a moving tram on a couple of occasions, and very sleek they look, too, in their livery. The plan to turn them into moving adverts will no doubt annoy those who abhor that sort of commercialisation, but it is worthwhile because it will earn much-needed money for the system. But can we have a “taste tsar” to ensure the advert designs are not too gaudy?