Less than 12 months ago the council’s SNP/Labour administration was overseeing a budget consultation process mired in farce and one which singularly failed to capture the imagination of the Edinburgh public
Forced under Conservative-led pressure to ditch their baffling proposal to close the City of Edinburgh Music School at Broughton before the consultation even went live, they then proceeded to ignore the one clear outcome from the meagre response to their botched consultation and plough ahead with the deeply unpopular garden tax.
The shambolic implementation of the garden tax, complete with IT failures, an unsecure payment process leaving vulnerable residents open to fraud and finally DIY stickers rather than the individual barcodes we were promised, is a fitting legacy for last years’ chaotic budget process.
With the current administration merely a rehash of that which existed for the previous five-year term and with the finance convenor Councillor Alasdair Rankin now a veteran of several budget rounds, the citizens of Edinburgh should rightly expect much more from this process.
This year’s consultation does bring some welcome changes, the longer consultation period for one and the use of more imaginative methods of engagement in place of last years’ spreadsheet-driven snore fest.
However, the promise of strategic ideas from the administration has not materialised in the consultation document. In their place we have a focus on a tourist tax which the council does not have the power to implement, vague general themes and some nice graphics which officers clearly hope will distract attention from a startling lack of content, all the more worrying given that this is the product of almost a year’s work.
The longer consultation period does mean it is essential for the SNP and Labour to carefully manage messaging around budget proposals to avoid unnecessary and prolonged worry for citizens and council staff who may be impacted by any proposed cuts. They have clearly learned nothing from the anxiety experienced by the staff, pupils and parents of the City of Edinburgh Music School last year.
The leaking of budget proposals unveiled in the Evening News before opposition councillors had even had sight of them is a symptom of the disharmony in the fractious and dysfunctional SNP/Labour coalition.
While Cllr Rankin may try to brush these off as only “officer proposals” at this stage, the fact we are seeing the same tired ideas, such as public toilet closures and cuts to music education trotted out again shows that this administration has already more than run its course.
Whether the proposals originated with officers or not, there has to come a time where the political leadership say “enough is enough, these proposals should never see the light of day again”.
Finally on the point of engagement, the consultation document produced shows a distinct Nationalist bias, speaking of “mitigating the impact of Westminster policies” while making no acknowledgement of the role of the Scottish Government. Council finances are impacted by the policies of both Holyrood and Westminster. That is a fact but sadly it is a fact which a leading SNP councillor seemed to deny. A perfectly reasonable suggestion to add “and Scottish Government” to the wording was not even met with a response from the finance convenor.
A consultation with no imagination, no ideas and no detail, targeted to Edinburgh’s dwindling Nationalist minority and one which the Labour coalition members, who were oddly silent on the question of Nationalist bias, should be ashamed of given their party’s ever weaker commitment to the Union.
Cllr Graham Hutchison is Conservative Group finance spokesman at Edinburgh City Council