The leaders of Edinburgh City Council have vowed they won‘t shy away from tabling ambitious projects including an overhaul of the Capital’s transport network – despite being forced to cut £41m from next year’s budget and £150m by 2023.
On Friday, the council revealed around 80 proposals to be brought forward in the next financial year in a bid to shave £41m from the 2019/20 budget.
While some core services have been largely untouched, qualified teachers may no longer be used in nurseries, some community police officer posts could be cut while health and social care has been asked for a £3m “efficiency”.
Around 300 full-time equivalent jobs are set to be axed from the local authority next year, while the £9m economic development budget will lose £1.5m in each of the next two years.
The council’s 19 depots across the city will be consolidated into six sites, if the proposals are agreed by councillors following a public consultation.
The seriousness of next year’s budget cuts is described by officers in a report to the council’s finance and resources committee as “the first step of systematic service redesign and re-prioritisation of everything the council does, and how it does it”.
The SNP-Labour administration’s four-year change strategy, which will transform how council services are delivered in the long-term, is committed to plough more than £600m into new homes or upgrading existing properties and almost £200m for school construction and refurbishment.
The coalition is also set to commit at least £125m towards Edinburgh’s roads, pavements and cycle paths over the four-year period – as well as proposals for the transformation of the city centre. Initial plans for that and a Low Emission Zone are set to come forward at next month’s transport and environment committee. The council is also currently holding a public consultation on plans to overhaul George Street and other parts of the New Town.
Council leader Cllr Adam McVey has insisted the budget cuts are no excuse for halting ambition, despite Conservatives calling for “expensive vanity projects” to be paused.
Cllr McVey said: “The programme that we have committed to is going ahead. We saw no reason to throw out the aspirations that this city has and that we have.
“This is not an excuse not to be ambitious. Other parties very clearly, who say so publicly on a daily basis, would throw anything out the window that hints at ambition. They would just want to focus on essentially core services and to hang fire on how the city is growing and how we deal with that – which would lead to massive congestion and massive under-housing, even more-so than there is now.
“We are not using this as an excuse to shirk from our responsibility to plan for the future of this city. The things that we need to do now to plan for Edinburgh in five, ten or 20 years’ time are not being put on ice just because we have a challenging budget position.”
But Conservative opponents have called on the administration to focus on delivering day-to-day services.
Conservative finance spokesman, Cllr Graham Hutchison, said: “The use of expensive vanity projects as a smokescreen for their general incompetence has been a hallmark of this SNP-Labour administration. It is no surprise that they are choosing to press ahead regardless of the council’s dire financial position and current inability to deliver across multiple service areas.
“With the SNP Government at Holyrood intent on smothering local authorities and Cllr McVey seemingly incapable of persuading Derek Mackay to properly fund our capital city, it is time for the faltering administration to re-assess their priorities and focus on delivering basic services to the citizens of Edinburgh.”
But other opposition parties have backed the administration pressing ahead with long-term projects.
Green co-convenor Cllr Mary Campbell said: “Edinburgh is the fastest growing city in Scotland with major pressures on affordable housing, school places and other community services. To try to stand still is to go backwards.
“That is why it is right to target new school building by pushing the Scottish Government hard for the funding we need. And it is right to up the game on affordable housing, drawing in extra council tax on empty and second homes to help along the way.
“And it is also right to push ahead with major changes to the city centre and transport systems. The successful cities of the 21st century, the ones with the economies that prosper and therefore pay for services, are those which tackle climate change, reduce energy costs and congestion and are attractive to be in. A sustainable Edinburgh is our only future – for people and for our budgets.”
The council’s finance and resources committee will approve the draft proposals on February 1 following a public consultation ahead of the council’s budget meeting on February 21.