Edinburgh council’s reputation goes up in smoke with burning of memorial benches – John McLellan

Edinburgh City Council strains to appear caring and sharing but actions in its name demonstrate the opposite, writes John McLellan.

Thursday, 23rd January 2020, 6:00 am
A whistleblower's picture shows memorial benches from Princes Street Gardens being burned

The bonfire of the benches… compared to people dying in the Australian bush fires or in a passenger jet shot down by Iran, the destruction of old seats from Princes Street Gardens is no big deal.

But everything is relative and it matters because these resting places were bought by citizens in memory of loved ones who enjoyed strolling through one of the most beautiful places in any city centre in the world, a beautiful place entrusted to the care of the city council.

And it matters because it is the latest symbol of an administration which so lacks grip that barely a week goes by with yet another bond of trust with the Edinburgh public broken, or in this case turned to ash.

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Memorial benches set on fire by Edinburgh council depot workers to 'save money' ...

It’s probably true that most people have a low opinion of their local authority because councils are responsible for so many day-to-day services which have the annoying habit of going wrong – street-lights out, bins uncollected, pot-holes unfilled, littered streets and all the usual gripes of urban living – but few will have had the run of bad publicity that Edinburgh Council has been experiencing since the autumn.

But as most readers know, the negative headlines go back much further: the tram delay and over-spend spoke to a staggering level of incompetence, the Statutory Repairs episode was an example of local government corruption unmatched since the days of T Dan Smith, the intimidation of whistle-blower John Travers for highlighting problems in the Lifelong Learning Partnership was an utter disgrace, and the baby ashes scandal exposed a level of heartlessness and deceit few could comprehend.

Political correctness

It has never gone away and the reputational problem the authority continues to face is such that it is blamed for things which are not necessarily its fault, like the removal of trees from Princes Street Gardens for the National Galleries’ improvements, even though it might be argued that permission could have been refused.

Nor are residents’ access applications for Edinburgh’s Hogmanay or entry fees for the Loony Dook new, but public regard of an authority with a meticulous adherence to political correctness which strains to appear caring and sharing continues to plummet because actions in its name demonstrate the opposite.

So precious Princes Street Gardens has a vast scaffolding platform built across it without planning permission while ordinary householders must jump through hoops to put a dormer window in the attic. Memorial benches for loved ones are piled in a heap while the scaffolders move in, and now those same benches have become a pyre on which what’s left of this authority’s reputation has been incinerated along with respect for the families who bought them.

A lost piece of history

The reason for burning the benches was said to be the cost of recycling, but maybe more likely was a misguided view that sending the benches for pulping might make for bad publicity so someone decided to burn them instead. The vivid pictures taken by whistle-blowers at Inch Park could not have been more damning.

How difficult would it have been to replace the benches and put the old ones up for sale? Contrast the pictures on the front of last Saturday’s Evening News with publicity about the sale of the old benches which would go towards the cost of replacements or go to charity, the One City Trust perhaps. People would be queueing up to buy a piece of Edinburgh heritage, like they buy old seats from football grounds.

I paid £99 for a softwood bench from a garden centre a couple of years ago which is already looking the worse for wear, and while I have no up-to-date research into the garden furniture market, I reckon plenty people would think £100 for a varnished hardwood seat with history attached as a bargain. But nobody thought, or if they did someone obviously thought it was a bad idea or too much hassle.

As is now the norm, council leader Adam McVey expressed his dismay on social media and demanded a report, and no doubt a middle manager will get hauled over the coals, as it were. However the problem is not one rogue official, but an administration in control of little more than its own self-righteousness.