Council tax and rent freezes top budget day concerns - John McLellan

It’s budget day at Edinburgh Council, with a last-minute flurry of number-crunching thanks to the extra £1.1bn in UK funding the Scottish Government distributed in Tuesday’s revised spending plans.
It is budget day in Edinburgh. Picture: Lisa Ferguson/JPIMediaIt is budget day in Edinburgh. Picture: Lisa Ferguson/JPIMedia
It is budget day in Edinburgh. Picture: Lisa Ferguson/JPIMedia

Finance Secretary Kate Forbes specifically earmarked £275m for local authorities, but councils will also be boosted by an additional £120m for affordable housing and £60m to help school pupils make up for lost teaching.

And would you believe it, after years of maximising increases Edinburgh’s SNP-led administration is now backing a council tax freeze. Is there an election in May, by any chance?

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Council Tax and rent freezes are top of most Edinburgh residents’ agendas, but what else do they want from the authority?

Helpfully, today’s reports include the results of the budget engagement where the authority seeks residents’ views and a significant number of the 2,267 respondents praised the council for keeping essential services going (754) and for emptying the bins (737). On the negative side was closure of gyms and leisure centres (861), libraries (769) and recycling centres (385).

Three findings were particularly instructive; that the biggest impact in the pandemic was the closure of schools and nurseries, that helping business to recover is essential, and that core services had already been “cut to the bone” with no room for more reductions.

This all makes sense, but the central theme is residents’ demands for the council to concentrate on rebuilding basic services and boosting the recovery.

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Accompanying the survey is the Council’s business plan for the next decade, grandly titled “Our Future Council; Our Future City” and you’d expect it to reflect the priorities of the people it serves. But the question is whether it prioritises the people or political ambition.

As is usual in official “visions”, and Edinburgh is by no means unique, it is peppered with empty managerial buzz words, like holistic, empowering, transparent, welcoming and thriving, which are either so obvious as to be meaningless or just plain meaningless. Who knows how much time is spent polishing page after page of public sector jargon, but nowhere in the engagement survey were residents demanding more waffle.

For documents which trumpet inclusivity, the vacuous language is more likely to exclude and befuddle when people just want to know what the authority is actually going to do and when.

In fairness, the business plan identifies 15 key outcomes, which the rest of us would take to mean targets, but bets are so hedged that measurable goals are few and far between. Three of them are just to be “on track” to deliver an ambition, which aren’t outcomes at all. It’s Plans ’r’ Us, because with one or two exceptions like Granton it’s all grand designs without concrete.

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Learning a lesson, the promise to “deliver a programme” to build 20,000 affordable homes no longer carries the 2027 deadline, understandable given the promise to build 10,000 affordable homes by 2022 will be missed by half.

But what is most telling is that despite the public’s clear marching orders, of 15 outcomes “Core services are maintained or improved” comes in at number 14. That’s eight below “We will end the stigma of poverty by promoting and valuing all learning pathways”, whatever that means, and considering “the city’s historical links to racism”.

For an administration with a messiah complex, maybe they are due time in the wilderness.

John McLellan is councillor (Scottish Conservatives) for Ward 14 (Craigentinny/Duddingston)