The city council launches its budget strategy consultation today. In a departure from recent years, it is looking at a four-year period, between April 2019 and March 2023, and beyond.
Faced with a gap of over £100 million in funding over that period I think it is reasonable to get public views on how best to bridge that gap. And it’s right that this should look at big themes like how to provide services which are about preventing rather reacting to problems; or how to get teams and organisations to work better together. I really hope that people in the city take the chance to respond to the consultation and take part in the budget challenges.
It is equally right that the council should press the Scottish Government much harder on ways in which council funds can be increased. The powers to levy a tourist tax or private workplace parking are two such examples and, whatever you think of the merits of those ideas, there should be common ground on allowing councils to choose whether or not to introduce them. But more broadly, my Green MSP colleagues in the Scottish Parliament have made clear that they expect the Scottish Government to demonstrate real progress towards a much more fundamental overhaul of council funding. That includes seeking to replace the council tax and giving councils the kind of leverage over income that councils throughout Europe take for granted. It has been really encouraging to see councillors from all parties and none, through local government body Cosla, come to very similar conclusions.
However, at the same time as all of that, there is clearly public interest in what the budget specifically for next year will look like. That is a much more detailed debate and it’s where recent headlines about school budget cuts, music services, common building repairs, public toilet closures and many others have come from.
Like many readers of the Evening News, I have read those news reports with some dismay. And like readers of the Evening News, that is all I have seen, despite being a councillor for more than six years now and having led on budget matters for the Greens throughout that time. So there is a real danger that the two-month consultation about budgets launched today becomes entirely dominated by concerns about proposals that only councillors in the ruling SNP/Labour groups have sight of. That is no way to make billion-pound decisions.
So that is why I secured cross-party backing at the council’s finance committee last week to require council officers to publish specific options for the 2019-20 budget as soon as possible. I originally thought that could be after the Scottish Government publishes its own draft budget in late November or early December. But it is now clear, of course, that it’ll have to be far earlier.
So, in effect, the council will have a twin track process: hearing ideas on what might be introduced right through to 2023; and, at the same time taking soundings on more detailed and costed proposals for next year. If that means some are ruled out, well and good, and if it means some need more work, so be it.
Setting the council’s budget is certainly about reflecting long-term goals and looking at the big picture. But it is also inevitably about having proposals for income and spending which balance to zero for the year ahead. The council needs to be equally open about both.
Cllr Gavin Corbett is Green Finance Spokesperson at Edinburgh City Council