Ian Swanson: If cuts are in the pipeline, the public needs to know
CUTTING school budgets, closing public toilets, Âreducing spending on road repairs and street cleaning and stopping emergency repairs to tenements are just some of the drastic measures the city council administration has been considering as it tries to find savings of Â£28 million in next year's budget.
The list of potential cuts was drawn up by council officials for the ruling SNP and Labour groups at the City Chambers to consider – and, so far as we know, no decisions have yet been made, either to go ahead with them or rule them out.
In previous years, the council has held a public consultation on proposed cuts and there has often been vigorous debate, sometimes resulting in proposals being dropped or changed.
But this year the administration has chosen not to consult on specific cuts but instead to focus on a four-year strategic approach and ask people in general terms what their priorities are for council spending. Council finances are under pressure – more pupils in schools, more older people needing care, a growing population and less money from central government – and things are unlikely to get better any time soon, so it makes sense to think ahead.
But people are obviously also interested more immediately in any threat there might be to services which are woven into their daily lives – like the size of their child’s class, whether they will have to pay for their music lessons, the state of the roads and whether there are loos available when they need them.
Finance convener Alasdair Rankin points out that the council will not know for certain how much funding it will get from the Scottish Government until November or December. They have to wait for an announcement from Finance Secretary Derek Mackay, who in turn is waiting for UK Chancellor Philip Hammond to present his Budget on October 29.
Although the council is working on the assumption of a £3m real-terms reduction, whatever is announced by Mr Mackay could change again when the SNP minority government has to bargain for support from the Greens or Lib Dems at Holyrood. Last year the council ended up with more money than it had expected and some of the cuts it was ready to make turned out not to be necessary.
Cllr Rankin reasonably argues there is no point in worrying people with lots of potential cuts which may not happen.
Nevertheless the council is making plans for what might have to happen. Is the public not entitled to know what it has in mind?
Councillors from all parties have spoken of their regret at the leaks which allowed the Evening News to reveal the details of proposed cuts last week.
They fear the fact that people now know spending on schools, roads and cleansing could be under threat will prove a distraction from the consultation on longer-term priorities.
But without the revelations, people in Edinburgh – including opposition councillors – would be in blissful ignorance of where the axe could fall.
It is worth remembering it was a leak last year of the council’s plan to close the city’s world-renowned music school which led to a determined campaign to save it and caused such an outcry that the proposal was dropped before the consultation even began.