Council incompetence still costs us dearly - Kevin Buckle

Edinburgh Christmas MarketEdinburgh Christmas Market
Edinburgh Christmas Market
​As City of Edinburgh Council continues to stay in the news over its handling of the trams and the Christmas Market there is at least some small consolation that as yet, at least, it has not driven itself into bankruptcy as has now happened with Birmingham Council.

By the very nature of how Councillors are elected they cannot be expected to be experts in the many fields on which they are then required to vote. But you would hope that those chosen to sit on the various committees do have some experience in those areas, yet that often seems not to be the case.

Of course this is where the council officials are meant to come in. They certainly should have the background to be able to advise councillors on what the correct decision is on any matter. However we hear more and more about either incredibly bad decisions being made by council officials or, even worse, the implication that officials have deliberately misled councillors.

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As I have mentioned before, when Avalanche moved to the Grassmarket after the pedestrianisation, I was surprised at the depth of feeling from local businesses when the council failed to deliver on the promises they had made that they wanted those responsible to lose their jobs in the same way people were losing their businesses.

It seemed a bit harsh at first but as time has gone on and I’ve seen mistake after mistake made by the council across a wide variety of matters I have had some involvement in, I now completely understand their frustration.

Birmingham’s experience with the equal pay claims highlights the fears all councils have now of being sued and they have consequently become incredibly risk adverse. Meanwhile council officials are regularly accused of caring more about their pensions than the devastation their poor decisions often cause, and again councils seem loath to dismiss officials no matter how poorly they are doing their job.

I read that in general councils’ incomes have gone down over the last ten years while costs have gone up and of course a big part of that income comes from business rates which are clearly far too high already. Businesses see very little return for the rates they have to pay in the city centre but at the same time if those rates were reduced to a more reasonable level the council’s finances would become even more precarious.

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In a post-pandemic world we might have expected priorities to have changed but instead all the usual interest groups still push their agendas to a council who struggle to get the basics right.

It is not to say these groups are necessarily wrong in their thinking, and for instance only somebody with their head in the sand would not agree we need to address climate change, but even something as important as this needs to be properly costed and funded.

The figures in Birmingham are colossal, with it being disclosed it will take in the region of £100m to put their new IT system right. Interestingly the new leader of the authority is calling for officials to be held to account. City centre businesses in Edinburgh see very little return for the high rates they pay to a council which struggles to get the basics right. This year’s Christmas Market will soon show if any lessons have been learned.