John McLellan: Internet-only ‘garden tax’ is unfair to elderly

Only about half of those over 75 have access to the internet
Only about half of those over 75 have access to the internet
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When is a charge not a charge? Well, when it’s a saving of course. That is the logic of the latest pronouncement on this week’s belated launch of Edinburgh’s £25 garden waste levy from council leader Adam McVey.

In this month’s leader’s report – parroting the same line used earlier in the month by his transport convener Lesley Macinnes – he says “We decided to introduce a charge for garden waste, a non-statutory service. By doing so we’ll be saving around £1.3m.” Saving? How so? The only way the council is saving anything is by putting people off paying for the service so they have fewer bins to empty which, based on the experience of other authorities, is what they expect 54 per cent of all garden waste bin owners to do.

We have been here before, with echoes of the great bin bag rammy of 1996 when the council decided to end the distribution of free bin bags and only reluctantly agreed to continue supplying them until everyone had been issued with a wheelie bin.

Then, the man in the firing line was the environment convener Ian Perry who might be out of the bins hot seat now, but as education convener has been in hot water for some unguarded remarks about parents with the temerity to speak up for their local school. Some things really haven’t changed.

Given the waste trucks will be going round the same streets every fortnight rather than once every three weeks, even with fewer bins to empty there is no operational cost saving, and indeed a quick calculation shows that the £1.3m simply represents the £25 about 54,000 households are expected to trouser up.

READ MORE: Robert Aldridge: City’s garden tax plan is starting to get messy

For most of those people resigned to parting with the 25 quid, registering and paying for the service online is relatively straightforward, but as the information letters flopped onto doormats across the city this week there was a flurry of phone calls to the City Chambers from the hundreds of people for whom it is anything but.

The fact that the council is only accepting online payments obviously means difficulty for those not digitally connected, and most of the calls which came in to our group office were from older people wondering what to do. One woman ended up getting her son to pay her fee from his home in Wales while for others the only choice was to head to a council library or locality centre to get help from staff.

In an era when, according to Ofcom’s latest “Adults’ media use report”, some 88 per cent of the population regularly use digital communications, it’s easy to dismiss the impact of online-only communication as affecting only a very small number of people, but not surprisingly when it comes to digital connectivity the elderly are disproportionately disadvantaged.

Edinburgh is a relatively young city, the population skewed by the number of students and people who move here for work, but even so the most up-to-date census figures show there are about 16,700 people over 75, 40,300 people aged between 65 and 74 and around 57,000 between 55 and 64.

READ MORE: John McLellan: Me? A new councillor, in council tax arrears?!

The Ofcom data shows nearly half of over 75s (47 per cent), 35 per cent of 65-74s and 18 per cent of 55-64s are not online. That works out at approximately 50,000 older Edinburgh people who do not use the internet, so it’s no wonder the phones were ringing off the hook on Monday.

The council stands to make big savings by driving all transactions and communications towards the internet, and with 98 per cent of 16-24-year-olds now regularly communicating digitally, in 20 years’ time it will be universal. But the imperative to get there risks getting well ahead of thousands of citizens who, as many did this week, find themselves bewildered when traditional means of staying in touch and paying for services are no longer deemed acceptable.

Overheard in the SNP group room this week ...

“Wasn’t Clear Air Day brill? Everyone was so happy strolling down the Mound thanks to our temporary traffic ban. So happy ... The kids we bussed in all had fun so let’s have a few more.

“Eh? Who needs to evaluate the experiment? The smiles spoke for themselves so let’s just crack on and ban cars altogether. The Greens’ll love it so it’ll sail through.

“What do you mean people were stuck in queues of diverted buses and all you could breathe was diesel? Well, we’ll just have to ban traffic there as well ...”

Doddie’s the star at MND event

Around £50,000 was raised for Motor Neurone Disease research at the Gordon’s Fightback dinner at Prestonfield last week, in memory of Labour Party research chief Gordon Aikman who died from the disease last year, aged just 31. While Deacon Blue’s Ricky Ross performed a moving solo set of his biggest hits, star of the show was undoubtedly ex-rugby player Doddie Weir, who despite showing signs of his own MND, was at his effervescent and ebullient best running the auction. Inspirational doesn’t cover it.