Edinburgh Council is using coronavirus to sneak through major changes to city – John McLellan

The Phoney Peace that has broken out during the coronavirus crisis does not seem to extend to Edinburgh Council, writes John McLellan.
In refraininig from her default setting of attacks on  Westminster, Nicola Sturgeon has been both smart and pragmatic (Picture: Michael Schofield/The Sun/PA Wire)In refraininig from her default setting of attacks on  Westminster, Nicola Sturgeon has been both smart and pragmatic (Picture: Michael Schofield/The Sun/PA Wire)
In refraininig from her default setting of attacks on Westminster, Nicola Sturgeon has been both smart and pragmatic (Picture: Michael Schofield/The Sun/PA Wire)

Outside the nasty little bubble of social media, and to an extent Westminster, the prevailing political approach to the coronavirus crisis has been to seek agreement.

There have been the expected exaggerated accusations of incompetence thrown at the UK Government from the usual suspects, but First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s public appearances have been marked by the absence of her customary attacks on whatever comes out of Downing Street. It’s both politically smart and pragmatic.

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While the weekend’s Panelbase poll for the Sunday Times might be out by a few points – it habitually inflates support for the SNP and independence – the overall picture of SNP dominance is undeniable. While Conservative support is unchanged, the exodus from Labour is unabated while Europhiles abandon the Lib Dems because Ms Sturgeon is doing nothing to put them off and obvious failures like education are being set aside for now.

If health experts are unsure how this will pan out or what tactics will prove to be the most effective, then the public sure is too and politicians squabbling about who’s the best virologist would be both unseemly and confusing. And what seems like a cutting attack one day might prove to be a total embarrassment the next.

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All kinds of armchair epidemiologists have pointed to the likes of Norway as acmes of excellence in dealing with the disease while ignoring the entirely different approach in Sweden where there has been no lockdown so far. So if no-one really knows yet, it’s best to keep criticism under dignified wraps. But the danger is that all decisions receive no scrutiny at all apart from by the Press, and even then that has resulted in ridiculous criticism that press conferences are only to keep journalists happy, rather than part of democratic accountability and public communication.

Need for consensus

It was only due to scrutiny and comparatively polite opposition from Conservatives and Lib Dems that the ill-advised proposal to suspend trial by jury in Scotland was ditched just before emergency powers were approved yesterday, but it was extraordinary that such a basic human right, enshrined by Article 6 of the European Convention of Human Rights, even made it into the legislation. Respectful opposition and the need for consensus eventually won the day.

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By contrast, it’s business as usual at Edinburgh Council where the administration has taken advantage of the crisis to drive through its pet City Centre transformation project with reduced scrutiny and continues to divert officer time on to a traffic reorganisation plan when there are so many other priorities.

As a result, far-reaching changes to how the city centre works – like cutting off a major North-South route and installing traffic camera traps around Waverley station – were approved by a majority vote of party leaders on a Skype call with little proper public debate. This is despite the very obvious fact that nothing is being built and no new projects will get under way until long after suspended projects get going again and the construction industry gets back to normal. Claims that Sustrans funding will run out is a red herring.

No Phoney Peace in City Chambers

So there is still time to play fantasy traffic management while other council services like glass collection are being withdrawn and because of a lack of resources the city administration has also decided that impending decisions on all except major planning applications will be taken by the chief planning officer in consultation with the planning convener and vice-convener but without public process. All that will happen are the outcomes will be reported to the next public committee meeting as faits accomplis and many applicants will be tempted to hold back or withdraw, and who could blame them.

Legitimate concerns about such moves have been ignored because the decisions have already been taken between officers and administration councillors behind closed doors. What passes for consensus is making sure the Green Party doesn’t rock the boat, which of course it doesn’t.

The Phoney Peace might be holding at Holyrood and is strained at Westminster, but is sadly lacking in the Chambers.

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