John-Paul Holden: Tight 2015 for our skint city
The city is at last beginning to move on from many of the most reputationally damaging catastrophes to afflict it in recent years – and the small matter of a council election in 2017 is sure to focus minds on delivering results over the coming weeks and months.
Passenger numbers recorded since the delayed £776 million tram line came into service in May look set to smash a 4.5 million target set for its first year of operation – and without hitting bus-ticket sales.
The positive figures have already paved the way for a £400,000 scoping exercise to examine extending trams to Leith. Efforts to fix the statutory repairs scandal, and clear the £22m tenant debt mountain it created, will continue apace as scores of disputed cases are reviewed and billed, and with a revamped enforcement service preparing to swing into action.
But a whole plethora of problems (some long-standing, others less so) emerged in 2014, ensuring councillor in-boxes stay stuffed in the new year.
The city’s public buildings, and in particular its schools, have come under the spotlight as never before after 12-year-old Keane Wallis-Bennett was killed by a wall collapsing at Liberton High School in April.
A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) probe into the tragedy is continuing, as the school community recovers slowly. And major question marks remain over the future of Castlebrae Community High – saved from closure but still under-occupied and struggling to boost exam performance after multiple changes of headteacher.
However, the biggest topic of debate over 2015 will almost certainly be the increasingly parlous state of Edinburgh’s finances. Following a wide-ranging public consultation, the council will agree a finalised 2015-16 budget in February, which could mean crippling cuts to basic facilities including sports centres and public toilets.
Like all Scottish local authorities, the city council is in the position of having to fund key services while Scottish Government grants continue to take a hit amid the Conservative-Liberal Democrat austerity drive.
And like other councils, Edinburgh must hit multi-million pound savings targets if the books are to be balanced, with measures worth nearly £30m set to come in over 2015-16 as city bosses target £67m in total by 2018.
But almost uniquely within Scotland, the Capital finds itself mulling tough choices on spending cuts despite record surges in demand.
Already the country’s fastest-growing city and with a population set to top 600,000 by the mid-2030s, Edinburgh has soaring birth rates which were recently revised up and are expected to jump to 6000 a year by 2022. The result will be relentless and growing pressure on crowded schools, housing and hospitals, not to mention congested and crumbling roads.
A busy programme of new-build extensions and replacements is underway, but the likelihood is that significant new funding streams will be needed, and quickly. In recent months, councillors have become increasingly vocal in insisting Edinburgh is given control over more of its own finances, and calls for the introduction of a visitor levy – or “bed tax” – persist.
Expect those demands to increase in frequency and intensity over 2015 as council chiefs try to resolve the stark paradox of why one of Europe’s wealthiest and most economically dynamic cities faces deciding whether it can afford to paint white lines on football pitches or not.