Big challenges ahead after 100 days of SNP-led rule in Edinburgh

Signing of the heads of terms of the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal takes place at the Double Tree Hilton. Picture; Greg Macvean
Signing of the heads of terms of the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal takes place at the Double Tree Hilton. Picture; Greg Macvean
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IT was a historic moment when the SNP emerged from Edinburgh’s council elections back in May as the biggest party at the City Chambers.

And with the Capital’s first Nationalist-led administration now 100 days old, council leader Adam McVey claims there are already achievements to be proud of. The long-awaited City Deal has been signed; the extension of the tramline to Newhaven has been approved in principle; extra funding has been secured for the Festivals; and new nurseries have been opened, boosting available childcare in the city.

Trams remain a point of action for the new council.

Trams remain a point of action for the new council.

But he also acknowledges serious challenges lie ahead – and he names sorting out health and social care, bringing waste collection and street cleaning up to scratch and tackling the city’s homelessness problems as the three biggest.

Cllr McVey, the youngest council leader in the Capital’s history, says despite obvious political differences between all the parties on the council there are also large areas of agreement on trying to achieve the best for the city.

And he claims the programme for the next five years put together by the SNP-Labour coalition has widespread support across the council. “We got our programme passed because there is much agreement in the council chamber on the vast majority of what we have said there.”

Edinburgh has not traditionally been the most fertile ground for the SNP.

Homelessness and begging remain a challenge for the council.

Homelessness and begging remain a challenge for the council.

The party went from just one councillor in 2005 - when Steve Cardownie defected from Labour – to 12 at the 2007 elections, the first under proportional representation. That was enough for the Nationalists to become the junior partner in a ruling coalition with the Lib Dems.

The SNP’s numbers jumped to 18 at the next elections in 2012 and the party formed a new partnership with Labour.

The Nationalists only added one to their complement at this year’s elections, but still became the biggest party and took over as the senior partner in a renewed coalition with Labour.

The administration has no majority however: together the parties have 31 out of the 63 councillors.

The share-out of seats is 19 SNP, 18 Conservatives, 12 Labour, eight Greens and six Liberal Democrats.

The SNP-Labour coalition was born in the fraught circumstances of a general election where the two parties were engaged in a fierce fight for votes, not least in Edinburgh South, Labour’s only Scottish seat during the previous parliament.

Despite their previous five years in power together, many in Labour feared a new deal at the City Chambers would undermine their national campaign against the SNP.

There was also opposition to an SNP-led coalition from a minority within the council Labour group and from local activists.

The deal was not signed off by Labour bosses until June 15 and the coalition formally came to power at the full council meeting a week later, on June 22.

Cllr McVey denies any fears at the time that the whole thing could fall through.

“I don’t think we were worried because there was no viable alternative to us forming an administration,” he said.

The new council faced immediate challenges, most of them familiar ones from before the elections.

Cllr McVey says: “Improvement in waste services is one of the key things and we are making quite a lot of progress in addressing these issues.

“Numbers are going in the right direction in terms of collections and complaints.”

Last year, in response to the Evening News “Bin Watch” campaign, the council launched a 65-point action plan to crack down on the problem of overflowing bins and missed collections.

Cllr McVey says that plan 
will soon be a year old and added: “I would expect to see a real impact across these 65 measures.”

But he says perhaps the most urgent problems are homelessness and health and social care.

“We are not managing to deliver the service people expect in either of these areas,” he admits. In May, a report by the Care Inspectorate rated five out of nine key aspects of care provision in the Capital as “unsatisfactory” or “weak”.

There are 1500 people awaiting assessment; and almost 800 who have been assessed as needing care at home but do not yet have packages.

But Cllr McVey insists moves are already under way to address the problem. And he says: “We won’t rest until the issue is fundamentally improved and we are meeting the standards the people of Edinburgh expect.”

A surge in homelessness cases as a result of welfare reforms, particularly the benefit cap, has put huge pressure on the council and highlighted an acute shortage of temporary accommodation, leaving families in unsuitable B&Bs for prolonged stays.

Last year the council spent almost £1m on an extra 15,000 bed nights in B&Bs not covered by the council’s normal contracts.

Cllr McVey says: “Homelessness is an urgent priority and we’re working to deliver a better system to support people facing the threat of losing their home. This will take an enormous effort and we’re engaging with key partners to make progress now.”

The council has committed to building 20,000 new affordable homes over the next decade, which Cllr McVey acknowledges is a big challenge. But he says: “It speaks to our ambition for Edinburgh but also recognition that we need to deal with the housing issues facing the city.

“With already over 2000 homes under construction in 33 sites across the city, we’re well on our way.”

The achievements he points to include the City Deal, secured after prolonged negotiations with the UK and Scottish governments. “The deal will create up to 21,000 new jobs, much needed housing, critical infrastructure, a new skills programme, and a world class concert hall.”

There was also the agreement on a £15m investment fund to help the city’s festivals thrive over the next five years.

And the council has given approval in principle for the extension of the tram to Newhaven, completing the route which was curtailed in the original project.

Cllr McVey says: “We need to remind people why the trams is necessary – to encourage shift from car to tram and create a faster, more efficient way for public transport to operate – and also face up to the disruption there will be.

“We have to have things in place from the outset like business support schemes for those affected and make sure businesses have the information and support so they can see the disruption through and get to the point where they are benefiting from the trams.”

Despite the lack of a majority and tensions already appearing between SNP and Labour councillors, Cllr McVey insists the administration will stay the five-year course.

“I don’t think keeping the coalition together will be that much of a challenge,” he says.

“Broadly there is agreement between our two parties on the way forward for the city.

“So long as we have common cause in trying to deliver for Edinburgh, I don’t see any substantive threat.”

FIVE TOP CHALLENGES

n Health and social care: A damning Care Inspectorate report in May exposed a string of failings in the care of the elderly in Edinburgh. Latest official figures show over 2200 people waiting for an assessment for care or already assessed and waiting for a care package.

n Homelessness: A surge in cases as a result of the benefit cap has seen families spending prolonged periods in B&Bs due to a lack of suitable accommodation.

n Waste and cleansing services: Although performance has improved, there are still problems with missed collections, overflowing bins and fly-tipping across the city.

n Affordable homes: A severe shortage of affordable homes pushes Edinburgh house prices out of reach of people on low to middle incomes. The council is promising 20,000 affordable homes over the next decade.

n Roads and pavements: Potholes are a perpetual source of complaint in the Capital. Satisfaction levels with maintenance of roads and footpaths were low at around 50 per cent in the Scottish Household Survey.