Edinburgh council coalition talks: Politicians who seize power in Capital might discover it's a poisoned chalice – Ian Swanson

Edinburgh could get a new administration on Thursday when councillors gather in person at the City Chambers for the first time since the elections on May 5.

By Ian Swanson
Monday, 23rd May 2022, 4:45 pm

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It has taken nearly three weeks to arrive at this point, partly because an SNP-Labour coalition, the only two-party combination which could command a majority, had been ruled out.

At least it has not been a repeat of the six-week hiatus in 2017 when there was a reluctance to agree any formal deal until the general election was safely out of the way.

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The full council will meet in Edinburgh City Chambers on Thursday (Picture: Neil Hanna)

But as the various parties hold their negotiations behind closed doors ahead of Thursday’s full council meeting, it is perhaps a surprise any party actually wants to be in charge of the council just now.

Despite much positive talk in all the parties' manifestos, they already know that they will be forced to deliver massive cuts in the next financial year. Previous announcements about the expected levels of central government support mean that up to £60 million of savings will have to be found when the 2023/24 budget is set. That kind of money cannot be removed without a serious impact.

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Voters might wonder how the council can hope to fund ambitious projects like extending the tramline or even just find enough money to pay for improved road maintenance with cuts on that scale.

It’s true that new sources of revenue are on the horizon – the tourist tax, the workplace parking levy and the SNP’s proposed commuter congestion charge – but all are controversial, none are here quite yet and there will be many competing demands for the income they bring.

So how much will the new council be able to do? Councillors have complained in the past that, more and more, their freedom to act has been constrained by new requirements from central government and less funding to do anything else.

And at the weekend, Alison Evison, president of council umbrella body Cosla, made a plea for local authority finances to be placed on a "sustainable" footing.

She said: "Councils can't keep giving all the things that are needed without something drastic having to change, and that change will be at the expense of our communities."

Hopefully we will not get to the stage of anyone proposing that Edinburgh or other Scottish local authorities should become “Easyjet” councils, like Barnet in north London in 2009, whose radical cost-cutting programme was compared to a budget-airline approach – providing the bare minimum but allowing people to pay more for better services.

Planning applications, for example, could be processed faster for a price, just as Easyjet travellers might pay for priority boarding. The programme also included outsourcing services and reducing the size of its workforce.

In Edinburgh, Labour, the SNP and the Greens all included no compulsory redundancies in their manifestos, so that policy is likely to remain. But if the money is not there to finance current levels of spending, the threat to council services is very real and those in charge will face some tough decisions.

Whoever finds themselves forming the Capital’s next administration may discover they have been fighting to get their hands on a poisoned chalice.