John McLellan: Carry on regardless is Labour councillors’ mantra

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Edinburgh Council officials preparing for the next budget round are expecting the cost of a rising population and further cuts to the block grant by the SNP Government will leave them needing to find around £28m a year at least until the 2021 elections.

So the latest blog from Labour Councillor Scott Arthur makes interesting reading. “In the five years since 2013-14, funding for day-to-day council spending from the SNP Government has decreased by 7.1 per cent,” he points out, but adds “The UK Government only cut the Scottish Government’s revenue budget by 1.8 per cent.”

These are not figures the SNP-Labour administration cite, instead usually relying on the mantra of “Tory austerity” and “Westminster cuts” to explain away their shortcomings. No-one on the Conservative side denies public spending restraint has been difficult after the splurge before the banking crash of 2007 but the light at the tunnel end is intensifying, with UK government borrowing now at its lowest level since 2002 and the £2bn income-expenditure surplus in July the biggest in 18 years.

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Rather than blame everything on Westminster, the facts point to the SNP’s key role in local services decline, as Illustrated by the Accounts Commission which last year estimated Scottish council budgets were slashed 9.6 per cent in the previous eight years.

Therefore it’s not the case that Edinburgh is alone in facing financial challenges and while the other 31 Scottish local authorities might not be experiencing a population boom each is dealing with the repercussions of the Scottish Government sucking more resources to the centre.

But a report before Edinburgh councillors today shows the administration is not only failing to meet a swathe of performance targets it set itself but is behind other Scottish councils in a host of functions.

The SNP-Labour leadership put much store in the results of the council’s Edinburgh People Survey which usually demonstrates how satisfied residents are with their lives, which in a beautiful, low-crime, low-unemployment, affluent place like this is to be expected.

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Even so, half the population is unhappy with the state of the roads, something which was at least reflected in a recent transport paper which with some understatement admitted the city “has issues with road maintenance and sustaining continued investment in its transport infrastructure”. Readers will therefore be staggered to learn, setts or no setts, the £20,000 cost per kilometre of maintaining the road network is nearly double the Scottish average.

Comparisons with other authorities paint a troubling picture, particularly in education where the council has the lowest satisfaction rate for its schools, perhaps because it spends the second least on both primary school pupils (£4105 per head) and secondary students (£6252).

The People Survey revealed a third of residents are unimpressed by waste collections and street cleaning and Edinburgh is bottom and third bottom of those respective leagues. The city is in the bottom third for satisfaction with adult care and social support, leisure facilities and also the percentage of homes which meet Scottish quality standards. There are no categories in which Edinburgh leads the way.

So returning to Cllr Arthur, he writes, “Every single Labour councillor was elected on a pledge to stand up for their ward and our capital.” Fair enough, but then comes the punchline: “The willingness of SNP Councillors simply to pass on cuts from their masters in Holyrood to the people of Edinburgh is in sharp contrast to that solemn pledge and must call into question the very existence of the current coalition governing Edinburgh.”

It is overstating Cllr Arthur’s clout to call him the Labour Group’s conscience, and with nine out of a 12-strong group having have special responsibilities as committee conveners or vice conveners if they do question the coalition’s existence the answer will be “Carry on”. Which indeed it is.