SCHOOLS, nurseries and elderly care are set to be shielded from major budget cuts as the city aims to claw back savings worth £35 million in 2014/15.
Cash-strapped finance chiefs have pledged to ring-fence frontline services despite shouldering a £1.4 billion debt and having to plug a £120m shortfall across the four remaining years of the Capital Coalition’s reign in the City Chambers.
To meet the cuts of just over three per cent and get back into the black the city is pinning its hopes on a series of innovative “efficiency savings” including the prospect of sharing offices with public bodies such as the NHS, an improved council presence online and greater scrutiny of department spending in a bid to wring out every spare penny.
Micro-generated energy from solar panels will also be investigated as a way of making cash. In a move likely to prove popular with the green lobby, solar panels would be fixed to council-owned buildings to help cut bills and help raise cash by selling the power back to the National Grid .
Key areas on the chopping block include the city’s procurement process – where contracts are offered out to private firms. They will be put under the microscope to ensure best value is being achieved. This could account for a huge chunk of the £35m that needs to be found.
The newly-formed corporate programme office will also pore over expenditure on any project costing more than £5m. Relocating council departments into a single hub, echoing the proposed removal of staff from Chesser House to Waverley Court, will form part of a “rationalisation” strategy for the city estate and may also see under-used buildings sold off.
Around £1.65m of savings are likely to be found through this strand of cost-cutting.
But in a move likely to concern the unions, some staff leaving the council through “natural wasteage” – a total of around nine per cent per year – may not be replaced and may see a heavier burden placed on the remaining workforce.
It is hoped this step will stave off any threat of compulsory redundancies.
The use of agency staff within council services is also due to be revised amid plans to dramatically reduce expenditure on “temps”.
Vice-convenor of the finance and budget committee, Councillor Bill Cook, said that staff numbers could be reduced and managed without redundancies.
He said: “When you have a staff turnover running at around ten per cent that means there is scope for the headcount to be reduced through natural wasteage.
“So if we manage vacancies, manage how people are organised and challenge whether a vacancy should be replaced or not, then you can begin to see how we can make these savings.”
And he added: “When you think about any endeavour it’s going to be assets, material and labour. So if you want to reduce costs these are the things you have to address and that’s what we believe we are doing.
“We are doing it in a way that we believe isn‘t going to involve compulsory redundancies and hopefully will never cause us significant reduction in services either.”
Finance convenor Councillor Alasdair Rankin stressed that a major overhaul of the council’s IT system would ensure many more online services will soon be available, including parking permit applications, council tax payments and a function for reporting complaints about missed refuse collections or other failings.
The enhanced web presence may also help the “overall managing down of the workforce”, he said.
And the finance chief repeated that the city was facing up to “considerable” budgetary pressures in the wake of funding cuts from central government, rising birth rates, an ageing population and a straitened UK economy.
He said: “Despite these challenges, Edinburgh’s Capital Coalition has clearly set out where it wants to focus its spending next year and it will prioritise spend and investment in the core areas set out in the coalition pledges.
“We are committed to protecting frontline services and maintaining investment in areas which will provide more support for our most vulnerable residents.
“This includes more support for older people as well as improving schools, nurseries and facilities and services for children like foster carers. Helping people into employment, particularly the young, through initiatives such as the Edinburgh Guarantee and supporting the third sector are our other key priorities.
“We have delivered our coalition pledge to demonstrate sound financial management and we are working more efficiently and smarter than ever before. Savings have been made in areas such as procurement, property rationalisation and improved partnership working to ensure that we can maintain investment in frontline services.”
More details on the draft budget for 2014/15 are due to be released today, but finance chiefs are publishing their initial blueprints six months ahead of February’s committee hearing to gauge voters’ input and address any concerns.
It is understood there are no plans for “significant borrowing” during this budget proposal.
Speaking about consultation, Cllr Cook said: “Last year we published the council’s draft budget in November ahead of settling on it in February.
“This was a new approach to ensure we can listen to what is important to the public when it comes to allocating money.
“This year we are leading the way for other local authorities by publishing the draft budget even earlier to give us more time to listen to the views of residents, local and other interest groups in the coming months.
“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.
“Several budget decisions which we made in February of this year for the 2013/14 budget – such as doubling funding in roads and increasing our investment in education – were influenced by feedback we received from the public.”
The draft budget will be debated next Thursday. It will then be taken forward for approval at full council in February.
Going green could bring in much-needed cash
BANKS of solar panels would be fixed to a string of public buildings under radical plans to boost the council’s green credentials . . . and the city’s coffers.
In a bid to harness potential new income, the Capital Coalition is weighing up proposals to self-generate energy from its own estate and sell electricity to the National Grid. It is thought council-owned buildings rather than the stock of council houses would test-run the solar panel programme and gauge its effectiveness to offset potential legal and ownership difficulties in future.
It comes as the city aims to plug a £120m shortfall over the next four years and ahead of sustainability assessments being carried out on council buildings – including care homes, schools and leisure centres – that may fall short of energy efficiency targets.
Cllr Alasdair Rankin, convenor of the finance and budget committee, said: “From a personal point of view I think it would be negligent for the council not to look at such a large potential income stream.
“We need to investigate it thoroughly and come up with solid proposals and any ideas like this will go through a business case process.”