Edinburgh agrees council tax freeze but more money for roads, schools and buses

Criticism of Edinburgh 900 spending and warning of health and social care cuts to come
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Councillors in Edinburgh have voted for a council tax freeze, along with record spending on roads and pavements and more money for schools and buses, as part of the city's budget for 2024/25.

Savings are expected to come from a reduction in the use of contract and agency staff.  But there was criticism of plans to spend £500,000 on celebrating Edinburgh's 900 years as a city and a warning of serious cuts to come in health and social care. The council also agreed to raise council house rents by 7 per cent.

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A three-party deal avoided a repeat of last year's budget embarrassment when tactical voting by the Greens meant the minority Labour administration's package was defeated and the Lib Dems' alternative proposals were approved.

Intensive negotiations between the parties led to the Lib Dems and Conservatives voting with Labour to pass the budget in return for extra spending on their priorities.

The council agreed to freeze the council tax, in line with Scottish Government policy, on the grounds that to do otherwise would result in a loss of government funding. Finance convener Mandy Watt said: "It is not a good look from our residents' point of view to be saying we need more money from the Scottish Government and then effectively handing back nearly £17m to them and asking our residents to make up that difference. That's why, with some reluctance, we have incorporated the council tax freeze in our proposals."

It means the council tax bill for a Band D property in Edinburgh will remain at the current £1,447.69 for 2024/25.

Councillors voted for a council tax freeze but record spending on roads and more money for schools.Councillors voted for a council tax freeze but record spending on roads and more money for schools.
Councillors voted for a council tax freeze but record spending on roads and more money for schools.

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The budget for roads, pavements, streetscapes and lighting will see a record allocation of £12.5m every year, for the next three years, building on the £11m one-off boost agreed this time last year.

The administration had already said cuts of £8.2m in school budgets, proposed by officers, would not go ahead. But the approved budget included a Lib Dem proposal a £2m increase in the cash given to individual schools to be spent on anything from classroom materials to extra staff.

Labour also agreed to a Lib Dem proposal for £300,000 per year for the city's network of supported bus services serving remote, rural and disadvantaged communities and a further £240,000 proposed by the Tories to restore the Nos  69 and 20 bus services for Willowbrae/Lady Nairne and Dumbiedykes.

The Tories also secured support for £892,000 additional spending for a “Scrub our Streets” programme allowing residents to request the cleaning of their street, and limiting the increase in parking permit charges to 5 per cent rather than 10. 

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Both the Lib Dems and the Tories proposed funding for the Edinburgh 900 programme, which was agreed. But Labour Leith councillor Katrina Faccenda was among others who made clear their unhappiness at the move. She said: "I will reluctantly be voting for a budget which includes £500,000 for an Edinburgh 900 party which could easily have been funded through the type of partnership and sponsorship we seem to be enthusiastic to apply to other events. It is going to have no significant impact on tourism, given that for this to happen it should have been planned months ago with events already announced. I'm also sorry we could not consider more cuts to the civic budget - in this day and age I'm afraid the chauffeur-driven cars, unique number plates and sparkly chains should no be subsidised by public money."

The budget includes an increase in the budgets handed to school heads for anything from classroom materials to extra staff. The budget includes an increase in the budgets handed to school heads for anything from classroom materials to extra staff.
The budget includes an increase in the budgets handed to school heads for anything from classroom materials to extra staff.

Other Lib Dem proposals which were accepted included: £300,000 in 2024/25 and a further £200,000 in 2025/26 and in following years for  extra tree officers to plant more trees and deliver the Million Tree City project by 2030; £100,000 for 2024/25 to install temporary public toilets in parks;  £500,000 for 2024/25 for advice and support families to ensure they are receiving all the benefits they are entitled to; £75,000 for 2024/25 to improve safety on off-road pedestrian and cycle paths; and £50,000 for 2024/25 for enforcement and signage to address amplified busking. 

Labour council leader Cammy Day reminded councillors that Edinburgh continued to be the lowest-funded council in Scotland per head  – £1,878 compared to the Scottish average of £2,350.

But SNP finance spokesperson Lesley Macinnes rejected the suggestion the council's funding plight was "all the Scottish Government's fault". She said: "In the UK Government's autumn statement, the Chancellor chose to use his £27 billion worth of headroom to fund tax cuts and to actively decide not to invest in public services. The annul Scottish Government grant has been cut in real terms by £700m since 2022 and the impact of this on council funding is undeniable. Simply laying the blame for funding challenges in Scotland only at the door of the Scottish Government is lazy politicking, which chooses to ignore the realities of the overall funding picture."

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The Greens were the only group to call for an increase in council tax. Noting the widespread criticism of the council tax freeze from other councillors, finance spokesperson Alys Mumford said: "Unlike national budgets, the city of Edinburgh's budget is within our control. Of course, lots of people in the city don't want to see higher council tax bills  But our job as representatives is to make difficult decisions, not just popular ones. If councillors think the freeze is a bad idea because it is regressive then councillors should reject the council tax freeze put forward by national government."

Independent councillor Ross McKenzie - who announced his departure from Labour at last year's council meeting - also backed a council tax rise after voicing concern about health and social care cuts looming from the Edinburgh Integration Joint Board (EIJB), which is funded jointly by the council and the NHS.

He said that the EIJB's chief officer, unveiling a funding gap of almost £70m, had said the amount of money that needs to come out of the service this year would have a huge impact, and warned that "given the scale of what we have to save, it will be a serious struggle to deliver our statutory duties". 

Cllr McKenzie said: "As far as I can see the response from in here has been to pretend we didn't hear those words. Maybe some people think it's not our problem - that they can blame the Scottish Government, blame the UK Government - and yes, blame them as much as you like, but you can't get away from the fact that there are choices being made here that will result in worse care being delivered to people and will result in the withdrawal of some pretty basic services." The EIJB is due to set its budget next month.

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After the budget was approved on the combination of Labour, Lib Dem and Tory votes, a different three-party combination of Labour, Lib Dems and Greens passed the 7 per cent rise in council house rents, which the administration says is the right balance between keeping rents as low as possible and producing enough revenue to build more homes and carry out upgrades to exisiting houses. Edinburgh Tenants Federation had urged a freeze; the Conservatives proposed a 5 per cent rise; and the SNP voted for 8.4 per cent.

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