Helen Martin: 161 grand buys grandiose ideas

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MY colleague John-Paul Holden’s interview last week with the city council’s new chief executive Andrew Kerr made pretty compelling reading.

After all, CEC is a council in considerable financial trouble, with massive tram debt and compelled to make swingeing cuts in services. Of course, like any council tax-payer, I wanted to know what Mr Kerr made of all this and what consideration he gave to the people who pay his salary of £161,000-a-year, the same people who are paying for every other councillor and official, not to mention paying for the services they expect in return . . . the public.

Well, I searched through his plans for Edinburgh becoming “a successful European city”, extending the tram line even further, privatising or devolving services away from council control while at the same time hiring out the people we pay to work for us to work for commercial enterprises as well, and noted his belief that the council should have more power so that decisions could be made by them, rather than the government.

It’s all very ambitious stuff and clearly in tune with the aims of those who employed him. What I found worrying was that these grandiose ideas are getting further and further removed from what citizens actually want (and curiously, of his paymasters the council tax-payers, he made no mention).

Ask any ordinary citizen what they want from their council and the priorities will be schools and education, decent housing, street lighting, refuse collection, road maintenance, leisure facilities, adequate transport including traffic flow and parking, smooth planning processes, environmental health, litter collections and social work departments, all well-staffed and efficiently delivering the proper standards of service.

Yes, it would be nice to become “a successful European city” but council policy is only a tiny part of reaching that goal.

Meanwhile, along with another bottomless pot of billions for tram extension, and all-singing all dancing all-year-round festivals, fireworks and festivities which cost millions, there are more pressing needs.

First, maintain the schools, repair our decayed roads and pavements, provide more housing, and deal with all the other basic short-comings, failures and inadequacies too numerous to mention. Start making Gorgie and Leith Walk a success before setting your sights on Europe.

In the last month I’ve known three people who were erroneously put in the hands of debt collectors despite their council tax being paid up to date. It’s a hell of a way to treat a customer, but then the council and its staff don’t seem to see the rate-payers as customers, the electorate, employers or bosses. Taking the phrase “local authority” too literally, they appear to see them more as “subjects”.

I’ve lived in many different parts of the UK, but longest in Edinburgh where by comparison, the citizens are incredibly long-suffering and tolerant of council failures and fiascos and – a phrase that has become horrifyingly familiar in the Capital – “vanity projects”.

How much of the city’s £107 million black hole is down to mismanagement and spending money on grand schemes and parties rather than the more mundane but vital and necessary services all that hard-earned cash was intended to finance? Andrew Kerr has a record of making cuts. If only he’d start with the council’s vaulting ambitions rather than pulling the plug on essential services.

Antis don’t know best

DOCTORS are being called on by the Royal Society for Public Health to promote vapourisers to smokers and explain that nicotine is no more harmful than caffeine. It’s the smoke and other ingredients in fags that are lethal. Current and ex-smokers know that. It’s the ideological “antis” we have to educate.

Postcode lottery with few winners

THE Government is using BT to provide super-fast broadband to 95 per cent of the country by 2017. Remote communities are already complaining it’s not happening fast enough, especially as telecoms companies in rural Kenya are making better progress. Just a couple of months ago we had to leave BT because they couldn’t supply a fast enough connection for the TV package they’d sold us and had no idea when it might become available. We were, they said, part of the unlucky five per cent. . . in EH9.

We must learn waste lessons

IN the UK we are tops in Europe for throwing away perfectly good food . . . 24 stones per person per year. Other than the US, which nation could be worse, especially when global food resources are dwindling and populations are expanding?

Post-war, watching newsreels of starving children in Europe with protruding ribs, sunken eyes and concave stomachs was enough to make the British think hard about food organisation and make the subject compulsory for schoolgirls. Even four-year-olds knew the “waste not, want not” adage and understood wasting food was sinful.

Our relationship with food now is warped. Starving kids can live round the corner and TV programmes and adverts show children dying of malnutrition all over the world every night. Yet families throw out almost half their vegetables and a quarter of meat because they bought more than they could eat, didn’t know how to preserve it, or the kids “didn’t fancy it” on the plate. We need compulsory food management classes for both sexes in schools, now more than ever.