IF THERE is one person who is excited about next week’s election day it’s Jeremy Balfour.
It’s the first test of his leadership of the Conservative group at the City Chambers at the polls, and he believes that, not only will the party have more councillors come May 4 when the votes are all in, but that the Tories could well be part of the council administration – for the first time in almost three decades.
Indeed, it’s been so long since the Conservatives held any sway in the Capital it’s difficult to remember that, before 1984, Edinburgh had more or less been consistently run by Tories since elections began – and also sent them to Westminster.
However, since the Thatcher era, times have been hard for those of a blue political hue. Councillor Balfour, though, seems unbowed by the weight of such a poor polling history. In fact, he’s rather bouncy about the campaign and is especially delighted that the council elections won’t be skewed by concurrent Holyrood or Westminster elections.
“People can really focus on what matters for Edinburgh rather than either parliament,” he says. “I’m very excited about the fact that people will be able to judge alone on the visions that the parties have for Edinburgh, although I do think we have to work hard to make people realise how important these elections are.
“Schools, older people’s services, transport – all of these are delivered by the council and so the decisions we make over five years will affect everybody’s lives. People need to come out and vote and make sure they feel their vote is important – we don’t want a low turnout.
“But I am convinced we are going to have more than 11 Conservative councillors after the election.”
The slight problem is that, under the proportional representation system, it’s possible to end up with a coalition council that people didn’t vote for, leaving them feeling just as disenfranchised as they did under first past the post.
“Clearly, there will be a coalition of sorts, and right now we don’t know what that will look like as it would be presumptious to judge how people will vote. Right now, I’m interested in getting as many of our excellent candidates elected as possible,” he says.
“Of course, we will seek to work with other groups post-election if we can get some of our policies adopted. We want there to be a real Conservative force within the city to do what’s best for Edinburgh over the next five years.
“We wouldn’t rule out working with any other political group as long as our agenda is being delivered. And we’re bringing to the table policies and ideas that I think are radical and can help Edinburgh become a really successful city.”
There is a certain naivety to Cllr Balfour, which is engaging and belies the fact that he’s been a councillor for the last 17 years. But he says he’s now long enough in the tooth to know what people really want – good services, low tax and a council that is financially competent.
“From the start we would introduce a zero base budget,” he says. “So before 2013 we would have officials look at every budget for each department and justify why it was getting the amount of money it does. Why does one department spend £30,000 on that, and another £5 million on this? Ask the questions – do we need to be spending that? Are we getting value for money, should we stop it, is there another way of doing it?
“It’s the only way to go about reducing the council’s deficit and still provide essential front-line services. It would be a major amount of work across the council, but then the public would know that every penny was justified.
“From our research and what we’ve been told by officers, we believe there is money there which could be spent better on front-line services.”
To the same end, Cllr Balfour says he would like to see the alternative business model (ABM) – pioneered by the current administration but abandoned when the SNP refused to back it – given another airing to see if the private or third sectors could run council services more efficiently.
“A lot of work on ABM has already been done and there are businesses and voluntary organisations out there ready and willing to run services in partnership with the council. We should be asking, does the council really have to do it? Can’t we facilitate someone else to do it? The reason it didn’t happen was purely political. We want to see it back on the agenda.”
The so-called Third Sector – charities and voluntary groups – would play a big part in a Conservative administration. So much so that it would appoint a senior councillor to help such organisations work with the council.
“The Third Sector is vital to Edinburgh’s economy so we’ve said that we will give organisations guaranteed fixed funding for the next three years so they can plan their budgets,” says Cllr Balfour.
“Also, the council is a massive organisation and people can get lost in it, so we want to set up a Third Sector champion, a senior politician who will be a point of contact for the voluntary sector, who will be able to open doors and get them to the right information.”
He also wants to see more of the money generated by Edinburgh through business rates stay in Edinburgh. “We give millions away to the rest of Scotland and we need to change that at government level. We need to get more of our money back into the city. Edinburgh is the gateway to Scotland for many people, but the Scottish Government doesn’t pay enough attention to the Scottish capital.
“The SNP sometimes feels as though it’s anti-Edinburgh and we need to change that. We need to make them realise that investment in Edinburgh is required or we, and Scotland, will go backwards.”
One of the likely biggest drains on council resources in the future is the tram. The Conservatives have always backed the idea, so does Cllr Balfour feel it will hurt them at the polls? It seems not.
“Most people are more concerned about roads, pavements and dog mess,” he says. “Once the tram is built and running it will bring people back into the city centre and businesses and shops will want to come back. It will help Edinburgh expand and develop for the benefit of business, residents and visitors to the city.
“But the tram is only one part of the transport problem. Over the last five to ten years we’ve closed streets off, made one-way systems and changed them back – it’s a mess.
“Drive around Edinburgh and you realise traffic isn’t moving and people don’t know where to go, it’s very confusing. So let’s have a look at all the streets where roads have been closed and see if it can’t be done in a different way to keep cars moving. It’s started to become gridlocked at certain times because of the mess of the road system.
“Of course, people use public transport but cars will always have an important part to play in people’s lives.”
He adds: “It’s all tied up with how Edinburgh is doing economically. If people can’t get about easily, they won’t. As a child I would be taken into town by my mum along Princes Street to John Lewis every weekend. These days are gone. People don’t think, ‘let’s go to the centre of Edinburgh and shop’ anymore.
“One reason for that is the difficulty in getting around, the other is parking charges. So let’s look at not having them on a Saturday morning to see if that would encourage people to come back into town, but also to shop across the city.”
Education is another issue on which the Conservatives seem vastly at odds with most of the other parties. Looking to Sweden and the United States, Cllr Balfour’s group is proposing opening the worst-performing schools in Edinburgh to the influence of philanthropists, big business and entrepreneurs. They would pay for extra courses, and individual schools would be given their own unique curriculums in a bid to ensure that school leavers were able to go into work.
“What people want more than anything,” he says, “is the best education for their children. How that is delivered is, to some extent, a secondary issue for many.
“We have many good schools in Edinburgh providing a first-class education but there are schools which are plainly not doing as well as they could. We want to look at whether there are different methods of providing education for people which will change that. That might mean a philanthropist or an entrepreneur putting money in to bring a specific type of school to an area.
“So you might have music schools, or arts, or science. There are people out there of goodwill who want to see schools which are open to all but set up in a different model, like the free schools down south which have proved popular.
“This is not ideological, but it’s time to be more pragmatic about what’s going wrong and how it can be put right.”
Overall, Cllr Balfour believes Edinburgh has suffered from a lack of leadership under the Lib Dem/SNP coalition – something that the Tories would change.
“As politicians we are there to set the agenda, to spend taxpayers’ money wisely, to hold officials to account – that’s all about leadership, which has not been in evidence. A Conservative administration would offer that, and ensure that council officers do what we want them to do, not the other way round. That has to stop.”
• Deliver a zero-based budget for 2013-14, forcing each council department to justify what it does to ensure value for money from all services.
• Review what the council is obliged to do by statute and assess whether services can be delivered better by, or with, someone else.
• Revisit the alternative business models programme to examine the potential of all sectors to deliver better and
more effective services.
• Seek to reduce council tax if possible.
• Give a commitment to a three-year funding package from the 2013 budget onward to give the Third Sector certainty for its budgets and establish a high-profile role for a councillor to advocate on behalf of this sector.
• Deliver a larger return of business rate receipts from central government.
• Support all our town centres, not simply the nine presently designated.
• Reduce unemployment, with a particular focus on youth employment.
• Continue support for the Edinburgh to Glasgow rail improvement programme.
• Say no to a tourist tax.
• Deliver the renewal and maintenance of roads and pavement infrastructure.
• Make pavements safe to walk on and ensure potholes are fixed quickly and done correctly first time.
• Review parking charges to ensure that parking provision meets the need of local residents and local businesses.
• Find a more efficient use of existing road space through a re-examination of traffic flows.
• Encourage more cycling in the city both for getting to work and for leisure and improve cross-city routes.
• Deliver a tram, within the current contract, on time and at the best possible price.
• Enable an expansion to car clubs in suitable parts of the city.
• Establish a new cultural body, similar to Edinburgh Leisure, to run and maintain the King’s Theatre, the Festival Theatre and the Usher Hall. We would encourage this body to use outside experience.
• Increase investment in parks and libraries.
• Pilot a trust management approach for some community centres.
• Continue support of and invest in Edinburgh Leisure.
• Help the festivals grow and be more commercially successful.
• More private sponsorship to run our festivals.
• A more devolved system to give headteachers and school staff more freedom.
• Parental choice at the centre of decision-making.
• Pursue choice, diversity and efficiency, allowing schools to develop vocational and subject specialisms.
• Extend the use of underused school buildings.
• Address underperformance by supporting firm discipline to prevent disruption in classrooms.
• Pursue partnerships with new providers: business, philanthropists and experts to work together to deliver better education.
• Continue to increase recycling levels across the city.
• Increase the number of dog waste bins and bags available especially around our parks and green spaces.
• Manage and maintain the trees in our city and make sure it is done in a more efficient way.
• Expand older people’s services across the city to help people live longer lives in their own homes.
• Invest more resources in home services, making sure each person gets what they need as well as providing better community services to allow individuals to socialise and stop isolation.
• Promote the use of direct payments.
• Work with the Third Sector to facilitate the appropriate services.
• Prioritise housing development on brownfield sites.
• Pilot a self-build project on an area of land where the council will put in some infrastructure and individuals can build their own homes.
• Planning guidance to be reduced and clarified.
• Promote the World Heritage Site status including the designation of a buffer around the site where it is not already abutted by a conservation zone.
• Reintroduce a self-financing Edinburgh stair partnership, seeking sponsorship from the private sector.
• Work with business and the Third Sector to make sure that our streets are safe.