Gina Davidson: Cash magic will not do the trick

THEY should have been dressed in top hats and waistcoats, perhaps accessorised with a spangly bow tie. That’s the requisite get up for magicians, after all.

The trick which Jenny Dawe and Steve Cardownie have performed in the last week is certainly worthy of membership of the Edinburgh Magic Circle. Unfortunately for them, it looks likely that the public will see what their miraculous £26 million spending spree just weeks before the council elections really is – a fiscal illusion.

A straw poll of friends and relatives gave one reaction to the news that, as if from nowhere, the council had discovered millions to spend on services – it’s an election bribe.

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Not that those in the current coalition are the first to attempt to pull off such a cunning wheeze of course. Every election, no matter the colours of the party, a war chest of funds is “discovered” to try to give the electorate a little boost, a touch of the feel-good factor, in the misguided hope that they will forget the previous years of cuts and financial mismanagement.

No doubt there are times when it works. This won’t be one of them.

Less than two years ago, Ms Dawe was telling us of the “horror stories” facing the council when it came to cutting budgets as the city needed to save £90m over the next three years. Yet last month she was boasting that Edinburgh is in fact in “rude economic health”. With such an apparent turnaround in 15 months, in a time of global recession and cutbacks, it’s a wonder that she’s not been asked to Westminster to reveal her sorcery secrets, or hired by RBS.

So how is it possible to “find” £26m to spend now when council borrowing has risen to £1.5 billion and 11 per cent of its budget is spent on financing this debt? How is there money to spend when the main project to get staffing costs down – the alternative business model, or privatisation by its real name – collapsed?

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How is all this at all possible when council officials are already warning that the next administration will have to impose millions of pounds of cuts in the next few years? Let’s not even begin to mention the massive overspend in the trams budget.

Ms Dawe puts it down to prudence and strict control of departmental budgets – always a good thing – and describes how such scrutiny has actually led to an underspend in some places rather than just meeting targets. Am I the only one who doesn’t think that’s a great thing? It can only mean that there have been unnecessary cuts over the last few years. Leith Waterworld, BlindCraft, Braehead recycling centre, school and nursery closures immediately spring to mind, before we get on to grants to the voluntary sector.

No, the real reason this windfall has suddenly fallen into the council’s lap is that the Scottish Government has given it an extra £22m for this year and next because it decided that no local authority should receive less than 85 per cent of the Scottish spending average per head of population. Without that little boost this splashing of cash wouldn’t be happening.

Not that I’m averse to spending on public services, quite the opposite. Investment in the fabric and fittings of our schools is a great thing. More investment to help school-leavers get apprenticeships has to be welcomed and getting the potholes in our roads repaired – however temporarily – will please many people, as will the reversing of decisions to close public toilets and reduce library opening hours.

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I’m all for the council actually meeting its obligations and spending our money on services we need, but it can’t claim that it’s seen the light through its prudent administration of budgets, nor deny that it’s all rather timely with an election dead ahead.

And that’s when the real magic will happen.

Paying the penalty

I’M finding it hard to feel sympathetic to the plight of Rangers Football Club.

While I feel heart sorry for all those who may well lose their jobs, for the businesses who rely on the club to keep them ticking over and, of course, for the fans, I can’t bring myself to feel an ounce of pity for a business which has not paid its taxes or towards those which tried to dodge their moral – and legal – responsibility to do so.

In fact, I’m surprised that more hasn’t been said about this by Rangers fans – mostly low-paid, working-class men who spend the little they have on travelling the country to support them.

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If they have to pay their tax to support the services we all benefit from, why shouldn’t the club and its enormously well-paid players? Why should a football club look for ways to get out of paying its dues, which ultimately go back to helping its own supporters through schools, hospitals, and other essential services?

I was glad to hear that Hearts finally settled their latest bill with HMRC. For a community club not to pay the money which helps the very community which supports it is just wrong.

Former Rangers owner David Murray once described the club as an institution second only in importance in the nation to the Church of Scotland. If only it had been guided a little more by its teachings rather than rampant greed, it might not be facing being morally and financially bankrupt today.