The political dialogue in Scotland has long been dominated by a clamour for higher taxes to feed ever-increasing amounts of public spending. Only Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Conservatives are willing to argue a different case. This theme runs just as hard in the council as it does in parliament. Not content with the Scottish Government’s increases in council tax for the top bands the council’s Labour/SNP administration announced early, prior to any consultation with residents, that it would make a general increase of three per cent – the maximum allowed. Where was the discussion of making efficiencies or improving services?
Many in politics also seem to have forgotten what council tax was meant to be about. Not just a replacement for the old rates, it followed the community charge and was meant to be part property tax and part a charge for services.
Those now in power seem to just regard it as a tax and are likely to stoke up the kind of anger we saw in the 1980s when “larger properties” were revalued. The tax hike for bands E to H will impose increases of seven per cent to 22 per cent this year with no discernible benefit in services. And these are not all mansions. About 40 per cent of Edinburgh households will be hit and many smaller, newer flats are included.
This knee-jerk reaction to grab and spend as much as possible, combined with an unwillingness to genuinely reform services, has seen five wasted years under the current council. Costs have finally had to be cut but at a price to services. New ways of working are yet to emerge but old ones have broken down. And our core services fail us with thousands of complaints of bins being uncollected, poor roads and pavements and traffic systems that clog up buses, cars, bikes and even pedestrians in an increasingly congested city that should be easy to navigate.
Where charges are levied these have been hiked above inflation and used as a cash cow milking many, from the motorist to those who need a building warrant, and stifling growth in the process. This left of centre “consensus” doesn’t mirror what I hear when I talk to people in the real world with many complaining of poor services that don’t provide value for the tax paid.
It is time we used all means to improve services and efficiency. If we can contract out the hard things like care of our older people it must be possible on simpler services like bin collections if we can show a better service and a lower cost. We can also do much more to improve the services the council provides directly and start to respond when the public contact the council using technology to do the job better.
The Conservative group will put forward alternative budget proposals on Thursday to limit some of the tax rises, invest in more efficient services with better standards, limit charge increases and provide more care for our older people.
We can’t promise more for nothing but it doesn’t need to be tax hikes combined with service cuts. If we think carefully about the way the council spends taxpayers’ money and ask ourselves “would we do it that way with our own funds?” we will swiftly make some changes. It is time Edinburgh residents asked all their political leaders to do the same.
Councillor Iain Whyte, Conservative group finance spokesman