Council Budget: Bid to offset £36m savings

The council says it is taking measures aimed at protecting 'the old, the young and the vulnerable'. Picture: TSPL
The council says it is taking measures aimed at protecting 'the old, the young and the vulnerable'. Picture: TSPL
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A MASTERPLAN to plug the £120 million blackhole in the Capital’s finances while “shielding frontline services” has been driven through at City Chambers.

Council leaders passed a book-balancing budget for the fifth consecutive year – divvying up a £1 billion funding pot – but faced staunch protests from trade unions, which fear relentless cuts will undermine public services.

It is hoped the bulk of this year’s savings – approximately £36m – can be offset by a sale of council properties, block-buying with other local authorities and scrapping hundreds of jobs.

The city hopes to save £4.5m in staffing costs through “natural wastage”. With staff turnover running at around eight per cent a year, finance chiefs aim to avoid compulsory redundancies by scrapping vacant posts and not replacing outgoing personnel.

A slew of fees are set to rise, including school milk and the cost of cremations. But, most controversially, parking charges face major hikes with pay-and-display fares increasing by 20p – pushing city centre rates to £3.20 per hour – while permits for central Edinburgh will climb by ten per cent across the board.

Edinburgh Conservatives branded the measures a “war on motorists”.

During yesterday’s budget debate, council leader Andrew Burns repeated a mantra of protecting “the old, the young and the vulnerable”, highlighting investment in early years, a 60-bed care home and jobs for the young.

A reprieve was granted to school librarians, who faced the chopping block amid plans to pool staff between several city secondaries, while plans to siphon £1.06m from additional support needs was also shelved amid surging numbers of special needs pupils.

But nurseries and high schools are set to come under renewed strain as the city axes places and abandons class size limits.

A pledge to limit S1-2 class sizes in English and maths to 20 will go, but council chiefs said cash would be allocated to individual schools in poorer areas to maintain smaller teaching groups and support pupils with additional needs.

Plans for joint management of neighbouring nurseries and primary schools – which will save nearly £340,000 in 2014/15 – have been given the green light.

The proposed £500,000 cut to the Police Scotland budget was jettisoned after a deal was reached to preserve the funding arrangement.

Today, finance convenor Councillor Alasdair Rankin, pictured inset left, said priorities were education, measures to allow older people to stay in their homes longer and the Edinburgh Guarantee scheme – which finds work for school-leavers. And he said that the early publication of the Capital Coalition’s draft budget meant they had been able to listen and respond to concerns.

“Given the financial challenges all local authorities are facing over the next few years, we want to invest in the areas that are essential to Edinburgh and so it is important that the public continue to tell us what is important to them,” he said.

“Last year we published the draft budget in November ahead of finalising it in February – a new approach designed to ensure we listen to what is important to the public when it comes to allocating money.

“This year we published the draft budget even earlier, doubling the length of time available to residents, local and other interest groups to have their say.”

But Lib Dem leader Paul Edie branded the “lack of sustainability” in the budget “deeply concerning”.

He said: “It has been made up of some recurring cuts but also too many one-offs which won’t be available to us next year. I dread to think what next year’s budget will look like – this year has been a missed opportunity to make recurring savings earlier and put our finances on a more sustainable footing.”

John Stevenson, president of public service union Unison’s Edinburgh branch, said: “Edinburgh Council plans to put through £36m in cuts. This is on top of £90m since 2011, and £175m since 2007. Services just cannot survive with this kind of attack year-on-year.

“We know the cuts are driven by Westminster. We know that Holyrood has just passed these cuts on, singling out local government for the lion’s share. But we want to hear our politicians standing up for our local services, not just passing the cuts on.

“We see in the south of England what the effects of failing to invest in public services, like flood prevention, can be. Services are about people, they are relied on by people and they are delivered by people who have seen their spending power slashed and workloads raised to breaking point.”

LIB DEMS FOCUS ON HEALTH

INVESTMENT to combat bed-blocking was among the key pillars of the Liberal Democrat alternative budget amid reports pensioners are more likely than almost anywhere else in Scotland to become stuck in hospital.

The Lib Dems argued for an additional £2 million of funding to be ploughed into at-home care to reverse the Capital’s poor record in delayed discharges.

Councillor Robert Aldridge said: “Edinburgh has went from being one of the best performers to the worst by a country mile.”

Revisiting the controversial Alternative Business Model – which suggested outsourcing street cleansing and waste collections to private firms in a move that would “guarantee savings of £27m” – was also proposed by the Lib Dems.

That plan was unceremoniously scrapped in January 2012 following huge opposition from trade unions and several opposition parties.

Green PROPOSALS GOOD TO GO

AN “empty homes officer” to haul vacant properties back into the housing market and extra cash to tackle fuel poverty are two Green proposals that were accepted in principle by the Capital Coalition.

The Edinburgh Greens were the only single party at yesterday’s budget debate to shoehorn policies into the ruling Labour-SNP administrations’ economic masterplan. They also sought to end planned six per cent rent rises for council house tenants and replace it with an inflation-only rise of 3.1 per cent, as well as ploughing an extra £6 million into school repairs including energy efficiency to slash fuel bills.

Finance spokesman Cllr Gavin Corbett said: “We’ll look forward to discussing these in detail so that they make a difference on the ground. I also welcome commitments to look further at how the Living Wage can be rolled out to Third Sector organisations and at energy savings and renewables at the council’s two outdoor centres in Argyll and Speyside.

“However, there remains a need to gear up our investment in buildings like schools and transport.”

TORIES TARGET SPENDING

CUTTING council tax by one per cent was among the Edinburgh Conservatives headline-grabbing budget proposals which also included “ending the war on motorists” by freezing parking charges.

They also argued a withdrawal from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (saving £250,000) and – echoing the Lib Dems – revisiting the doomed Alternative Business Model which, they claimed, would make £100 million in savings over ten years.

Peeling back “layers of bureaucracy” was another tenet of their budget blueprint, amid claims the cash-strapped local authority had increased its head-count by 300 posts.

Tory councillors also defended welfare reform, arguing the city’s no-eviction policy should be repealed to ensure a “back end sanction” against deliberate non-payment.

THE BUDGET AT A GLANCE

• £16 million investment in roads and pavements

• A new 60-bed care home costing £8 million

• £1 million investment in the Edinburgh Guarantee to create jobs for young people

• Funding to reduce P1 class sizes to 18 scrapped

• Seven per cent of transport budget ring-fenced for cycling

• £7.5 million generated from sale of council properties

• Six per cent rise in council house rents

• Investment to increase nursery hours for three and four-year-olds to 600 hours per year

• Parking charges to increase by 20p with permits rising by ten per cent