John McLellan: Silent partners need to speak out on rates

A plan due to be announced by the end of the year could mean higher prices at leisure centres, the closure of some sports clubs, a surge in the number of pupils in Edinburgh schools and threaten shows at some of the biggest Fringe venues.

Thursday, 28th September 2017, 7:00 am
Updated Thursday, 28th September 2017, 1:08 pm
Organisations such as Edinburgh Leisure, which runs the International Climbing Arena at Ratho, face paying business rates as a result of the Barclay review. Picture: Ian Rutherford

These are the highly possible consequences from full implementation of the review of non-domestic rates by ex-RBS Scotland chair Ken Barclay. Barclay wants to end rates relief for some organisations with charitable status, in particular private schools, council arm’s-length organisations like Edinburgh Leisure, university facilities when used for commercial purposes and some sports clubs.

As all the organisations affected are run on a not-for-profit basis, to meet the significantly increased costs would mean either cutting what they do or passing on the cost to their customers. As I wrote here just after the review was published, Edinburgh University could face a massive bill for the facilities it hires out during the Fringe which would inevitably need to be met by the performing companies who in turn would try to recoup the expense through ticket prices.

Private schools would either put up fees or reduce supported places, probably both, and whether you agree with that or not, it could easily mean hundreds more children going back to state schools where there is no more space. If the already full Boroughmuir High is anything to go by it would be years before the capacity was met.

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John Swinney is ploughing on regardless with the 'Named Persons' policy

Under normal circumstances you might expect the council to be up in arms at the prospect, with councillors expressing great fear and alarm at the implications for key services and institutions. The stops would be pulled out to identify and prevent the biggest problems.

Instead we have virtual silence because the review was ordered by the Scottish Government and is now under consideration by Finance Secretary Derek Mackay. So Edinburgh’s SNP-led administration could easily find itself at odds with its own financial lord and master if he goes ahead.

In his statement to the Scottish Parliament earlier this month, Mackay said he intended “to move now to implement the vast majority” of the Barclay plan, but crucially he said he would continue to consult before making a final decision. “I will continue engagement to fully understand the impact of, and any wider implications and possible unintended consequences in each of these areas,” he said. In other words, Mackay opened the door for all those affected to make representations without danger of political repercussions, yet for some reason Edinburgh’s SNP-Labour administration seems strangely reluctant to walk through.

Councillors on the finance and resources committee agreed that officers should produce a report about the effect of the review but didn’t go into detail about what it should contain or when it should report. I brought forward a motion at last week’s council meeting to ensure a full report was produced by the end of October and for it to be fed back to Mackay.

John Swinney is ploughing on regardless with the 'Named Persons' policy

But the administration would only agree to producing a report after Mackay makes his final announcement and not as part of the consultation in advance. The coalition is effectively gagging itself, which is hard to understand even for the SNP with its renowned iron central grip, but Labour has no excuse.

Maybe Mackay will see sense, but it’ll be no thanks to Edinburgh’s coalition.

Somebody hand John Swinney a spade

Never has the old cliché of “when you’re in a hole stop digging” been more appropriate than to the SNP’s controversial “Named Persons” policy of appointing a state guardian for every child regardless of circumstances.

With the exception of agencies with a vested interest in its imposition, otherwise known by that dreadful modern term as “stakeholders”, the scheme has been regularly castigated, most recently last week by the Law Society of Scotland and this week by the head of the Scottish Association of Social Workers, Trisha Hall, who described it as “toxic”.

Ms Hall’s warning that child protection orders might not get the attention they need because social workers will be swamped with unnecessary work is the strongest signal yet that the plan is seriously flawed. This contradicts the Scottish Government view that tragic children like Caleb Ness and Mikaeel Kular might have been saved had this system been in place. Yet they were known to social workers and whatever went wrong it was not for want of an additional government-appointed minder.

Despite the Supreme Court ruling it unlawful, Education Secretary John Swinney ploughs on regardless rather than admit it creates more problems than it solves, imposing official intervention on thousands of Scottish families who are quite capable of raising happy and fulfilled children in absolute safety, as thousands have done before.

It has become a battle of political will, in which the priority is not what is right for the vast majority of families but what saves the Scottish Government’s face.

Class warrior is far from classy

My colleague Callum Laidlaw has made the running on tackling graffiti, especially the practice of tagging which defaces so many surfaces in most towns.

But for disrespect and utter pointlessness, the defacing of the information board about the War Poets at Craiglockhart Pond takes some beating. Next to a picture of Wilfred Owen (above), whose poetry did more than most to express the pitilessness of the Trenches, someone has scrawled “Class justice – other ranks got shot.”

Being killed a week before the Armistice just isn’t punishment enough for the Wolfie Smith revolutionaries of South Edinburgh.

Restalrig eyes a place on the heritage map

Edinburgh’s 50th conservation area is set to be Old Restalrig, the historic enclave dating back to the 12th century, under plans now being considered by council officials.

The mediaeval chapel was the focus for worship of St Triduana, by legend a pious and beautiful woman who brought St Andrew’s bones to Scotland, settled in the Lothians, and had to fend off the unwanted attention of a Pictish king. For reasons best known to her, she decided the best way to cool his amour was to gouge out her own eyes, and although I’m not sure this was the best recommendation she became associated with cures for eye problems.

Most buildings in the proposed area are already listed so in planning terms it will make little difference but it might help put Restalrig more firmly on the heritage map which could be good for the wider area.

Jambos will be heartbroken

For generations of Hearts fans it’s the end of an era; not the demolition of the old main stand at Tynecastle, but the end of the Royal Ettrick Hotel as a matchday watering hole. Proprietors Ann and James Barlow have called time and, like the nearby Orwell Lodge, the hotel is set to be converted into ten flats. And like the Tynecastle stand, those fans who want a memory of their association with the place can go along to a public auction of its contents in November. As for the locals, it’s a fair stumble back from Morningside.