This week we will see the City of Edinburgh Council set its budget for the coming year. That’s not unusual but what is different this time is the unprecedented financial circumstances the council finds itself in, some due to Scottish Government choices but much of its own making.
It is apparent that, despite SNP claims otherwise, Edinburgh is being slowly starved of resources. As the Scottish Government makes cuts to local government our capital city is hardest hit with the lowest grant per head of population in Scotland.
Some might argue that those cuts reflect a growing city bringing in more council tax. But all those extra houses bring additional need for services and our biggest growing populations are at the top and bottom of the age range – the most expensive when providing public services like schools and social care.
And don’t expect any cavalry coming over the hill due to the SNP budget deal with the Greens. Their hike in taxes on everything they can think of will take time to implement and the extra cash awarded didn’t even take us back up to the city’s initial budget expectations before the SNP’s latest axe fell.
So what is the council response? More painful cuts that still leave the SNP and Labour councillors short with a black hole of £19m in the social care budget and a coming fight with our partnership board with the NHS over whether that’s enough to run the service.
The real way to solve this problem is to look at our many restrictive practices, antiquated IT systems, crumbling and unfit estate and modernise the way the council works. If you start early enough and look for real change you can make decisions that appear difficult at the time but can pay off in the medium term. Our Conservative budget will show precisely how this can be achieved. I see little evidence of this from the administration and their track record of delivering savings and efficiency is poor. After all, a large part of the budget hole is down to a failure to deliver last year’s SNP/Labour plans.
Against this backdrop we see the council leader and his deputy hailing plans to complete the tram line to Newhaven despite the costs soaring way above £200m. If you include the full contingency the cost per mile is more than we paid for what we already have, expensive dispute and all. The question the public should ask them is what price would be too much?
Their ludicrous claims about learning lessons from the tram inquiry and that it won’t affect the council budget have been denied by the inquiry team and we already know that funding currently being spent on trams could easily have been spent on other transport projects. I suspect what we will hear shows that trams really are a choice as alternative budgets are produced.
With a decision on trams in March the next few weeks will have long-lasting consequences for the city’s finances and public services. That needs a focus on service delivery and a lean, efficient council that manages the basics well. I fear instead that what we will get from the SNP and Labour will be damaging cuts, more poor service delivery and the council mortgaged to the hilt for the sake of a vanity project designed to disguise their mismanagement.
Cllr Iain Whyte is the Conservative group leader at Edinburgh City Council