Edinburgh council: No SNP councillor would admit what Cammy Day just has – John McLellan

Acting Edinburgh council leader Cammy Day’s letter to Scottish Finance Secretary Derek Mackay was remarkable for the admissions it makes about the city’s finances, writes John McLellan

Thursday, 3rd October 2019, 7:00 am
Updated Friday, 4th October 2019, 1:50 am
Cammy Day’s letter is unlikely to have any influence on Derek Mackay’s thinking. Picture: Ian Georgeson

I don’t know if Edinburgh’s Labour leader Cammy Day is a golfer, but his begging letter to Scottish Finance Secretary Derek Mackay reminded me of the old golf cliché that you drive for show and putt for dough.

Cllr Day has taken advantage of his brief tenure as acting leader of the city to write to Mr Mackay with demands that the Scottish Government gives Edinburgh a better deal when it comes to the budget at the end of the year, and we’d all support him in that. But while the letter looks like it is a big drive for show, particularly to his agitated members who want to see the council group putting up more resistance to the SNP’s cuts, whether it results in more dough is another thing entirely.

The letter is certainly remarkable for the admissions it makes, and is not something his SNP counterparts could have written, far less make public. Firstly he confesses that the city administration is not going to hit its cost reduction targets, but does not explain what happens next, especially as the council must set a balanced budget and even if Mr Mackay agreed with his solutions they are not going to happen any time soon.

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He admits the council doesn’t have the money to build the infrastructure necessary to meet the demand for new homes. “A substantial shortfall remains to deliver necessary infrastructure to support housing growth in the city,” he writes.

Nor will Cllr Day’s SNP colleagues thank him for pointing out there is a £60m shortfall in the administration’s affordable housing programme, given how keen housing convener Kate Campbell is to close down committee discussion about how her strategy is going to be achieved.

A glib manifesto pledge?

It has been clear for some time that there is neither the supply of unconstrained land nor the funding for the goal of building 20,000 affordable homes by 2027, but it has been equally clear how anxious the administration is to avoid admitting it is a lot easier to stick a glib line in a manifesto than it is to deliver. “There is a real danger that the council’s vital role in increasing the supply of affordable housing at a crucial time is constrained,” he writes, with a candour which is lacking in every other discussion about affordable homes at which I’ve been present.

His solution is for all the Land and Building Transaction Tax (LBTT) revenue from sales of new property in Edinburgh to stay in Edinburgh but does not specify how much this would raise. With completions running at about 2,500 a year, it depends on how many are sold and at what rate but it could be in the region of £50m.

But even if Mr Mackay went along with it, the chances are that the money would just be deducted from the block grant, currently £615m, as are business rates at present, so the city would be no better off.

It’s the same problem with the tourist tax because so far there is no guarantee that any money such a scheme might generate will not be clawed back via a circuitous budget route.

The core of the problem is that the national economy is becoming more reliant on Edinburgh and by extension so too are the Government’s finances. The amount of domestic property sales taxation generated in Edinburgh is a reflection of the demand for houses which continues to drive up prices and so swells Mr Mackay’s coffers, which he’s not going to empty in a hurry.

LBTT raised in Edinburgh in 2017-18 was £86m, a staggering 33 per cent of all the LBTT revenue in Scotland, and the Additional Dwelling Supplement for second homes raised a further £28m, just under a quarter of the Scottish total.

By sending the letter Cllr Day can tick off a box, but he’ll be lucky if it makes Mr Mackay’s pending tray.

Lothian Buses not a council cash cow

Last week’s observations about the City Centre Transformation programme generated a bit of heat but nothing by way of light and the unanswered contradiction is how to get people out of their cars when the sketchy plans pose a substantial threat to the main means of getting about the city, Lothian Buses.

No angry reaction can disguise the uncomfortable truth that the bus service faces the double whammy of disrupted services and rocketing costs. The Labour and SNP groups make the baseless accusation that the Conservative group threatens the company’s future by selling off the council’s stake, but it is they who pose the biggest risk by treating it as a cash cow.

There is an old joke about a drunken Scot who is woken up by a visit from his fairy godmother, who says it is his lucky day and he has three wishes. “I’ll have a never-ending bottle of whisky,” he replies when asked for the first, and sure enough as the bottle is drained it immediately re-fills. “And what are your other wishes?” she asks. “I’ll have another two of them,” he replies.

Lothian Buses doesn’t have a never-ending supply of cash.

Councillor Cameron might be better suited for transport brief

The lady’s not for turning, but she is for returning ... Councillor Lezley Cameron, who does so much to shore up the city’s SNP-Labour coalition by selflessly voting for policy after policy with which she disagrees, says she will repay the private journeys racked up in her £1400 council taxi bill. But resign as deputy finance convener? No chance, apparently.

She says she has no idea how these trips made it into her claim and it’s an easy mistake to make when you just keep ordering them on the contract number and, as chance would have it, no-one chases you for the loot.

I have some experience of inadvertent taxi use, like a staff member who every Thursday booked a company cab to tootle round Edinburgh picking up a posse to visit the Roseburn Bar, and the same at closing time to drop them all off. Keeping up contacts was the explanation.

On another famous occasion a reporter ordered a company taxi and then got the driver to pop into the convenience store and bring up a packet of cigarettes to her top floor flat.

That was private money and Cllr Cameron knows her expenses come from the public purse, but there is a simple solution. Councillors can be given an account, claim back for essential journeys before they settle their own bills. Or is that too difficult?

And with her extensive experience of taxi patronage, her free car park space and her council bus pass, Cllr Cameron’s knowledge could be put to good use on the transport committee.