John McLellan: Unforeseen outcomes in this zero-sum game

More children may end up in the state sector, increasing the councils costs. Picture: Getty
More children may end up in the state sector, increasing the councils costs. Picture: Getty
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It was a bold attempt to reform a hideously complex system, but the new plans to change the way businesses fund local services could strike a blow at the heart of the Edinburgh Festivals.

Every year tens of millions of pounds of non-domestic rates slosh around between businesses, councils and the Scottish Government, in Edinburgh’s case some £355 million comes its way to pay for the services it provides. Some organisations, like churches, charities and 100,000 small businesses, pay little or nothing at all, while other companies face hefty bills. Even councils pay rates, which seems perverse given the whole point of the rates is to fund them.

It is possible to sympathise with the view that Edinburgh needs to be more bike-friendly. Picture: Ian Georgeson

It is possible to sympathise with the view that Edinburgh needs to be more bike-friendly. Picture: Ian Georgeson

Recognising the pressures businesses are under, the Scottish Government commissioned a review under banker Ken Barclay, the former chief of RBS in Scotland, and its findings were reported this week to a mixed reception.

But Barclay’s hands were tied from the start by a remit to produce a programme which would not change the amount raised. Therefore his team has been forced to rob some Peters so the most important Pauls pay less and although the economy was at the top of the agenda, the review’s 30 recommendations are not the blueprint for growth they could have been.

It’s not all bad, and the call to cut the extra amount large businesses pay should be good news for Edinburgh given the number of big firms here. So too, full relief for day nurseries to make childcare more affordable is welcome, although how parents would be guaranteed to benefit was not explained.

But it’s in education, now one of Edinburgh’s biggest businesses, that a problem lies; the recommendation universities should pay full rates when their premises are in commercial use. This could hit Edinburgh University particularly hard, more than most universities given the use of its facilities during the Festival.

Not only is Edinburgh University a major supplier of venues, its halls of residence are packed with Fringe company personnel to whom the extra cost would inevitably be passed on and potentially make what is already an expensive business prohibitive. And your comedy ticket might get dearer.

So trying to ensure universities don’t have an unfair advantage in commercial markets could hit the Festivals where the market is international. The universities themselves compete in international markets and income from facilities subsidises their primary function, so threats should be avoided. In fairness, Barclay acknowledges that some of the suggestions may never see the light of day and this should be one Finance Minister Derek Mackay should dump.

Easier for him to support will be ending relief for private schools, for which they qualify because of their charitable status. Logically, Barclay sees no reason why private schools should receive rates relief when state schools have to pay, but then why do state schools pay rates at all in what is effectively just an accountancy procedure in which the council pays itself?

In a city where a quarter of all children are privately educated a hike in fees might force a few families out the system and so increase the number of children in the state sector, and the council’s costs.

Nothing is without consequence and when the whole plan must add up to zero, scrapping one idea means the whole thing begins to fall apart.

A spokesman for jobsworths

Cycling to the City Chambers this week, I had some sympathy with my Green friends who argue that Edinburgh needs to do more to be bike-friendly.

There I was cycling up the completely car and pedestrian-free Johnston Terrace when into my path stepped one of those unsmiling chaps who love exerting the little bit of power accorded by their hi-viz yellow jackets. “The road is closed, you’ll have to get off your bike,” he said. And so I dutifully wheeled the thing the remaining 100 or so yards up an empty street to the top of the hill.

Can whoever is responsible for recruiting these people please ensure they pass a common sense test before earning their Yellow Coat? On a road with no cars or people at that point, the only person in danger was the unfit 55-year-old bloke peddling uphill.old bloke peddling uphill.

Best laid road plans gang aft agley

City transport leader Lesley Macinnes has taken me to task for claiming that there will be traffic disruption around Leith Walk for the 40 months it will take to complete the tram line to Newhaven. She correctly points out that lane closures on Leith Walk itself are currently estimated to last 18 months.

But as the extended closure of Princes Street demonstrated, even when engineering work is seemingly finished there is no guarantee the road will fully re-open immediately. And although it is the aim, there is no guarantee the project will be completed within 40 months or Leith Walk construction finished in 18 months. The team knows from bitter experience there will be more “conflicts” than the 1200 already identified and obviously can’t estimate how long it will take to resolve those they have yet to uncover.

There is justifiable confidence the protracted contractual wrangles behind the worst delays last time can be avoided, but that’s not the same as promising everything will go according to schedule. As the closure of Leith Street this week and the current delay in completing the Meadowbank junction illustrate perfectly, the best laid Edinburgh road plans usually gang agley.

Councillor Macinnes has also accused me of a “blasé trivialisation” of road deaths in last week’s column, when it was anything but and I said as much. But rather than answer a legitimate question about how many lives the 20mph speed limit will save, Cllr Macinnes instead attacked me for asking. How predictably and depressingly disappointing.

This one will run and run

The next chapter in the Old Royal High School saga will be written a week today when the development management committee will rule on the revised application to turn the decaying building into a six-star hotel.

Councillors have received two boxes of objections to the late Gareth Hoskins’ design, led by Carol Grigor, the arts philanthropist and ex-concert pianist who is bankrolling the rival plan to turn it into a new home for St Mary’s Music School which already has planning permission.

My hunch is the hotel will be refused and so trigger years of litigation because of the deal struck years ago by the council to allow the hotel plan to progress. An elite hotel or elite music school, most Edinburgh people will be as likely to cross the threshold as they have been for the last 40 years.

Bike crime fears are realised

While details about the dreadful incident in which a ten-year-old boy was critically injured in Drylaw last weekend are unclear, Edinburgh Police will take no satisfaction from having their concerns about motorcycle crime proved correct. In March this year they warned about the growing trend in North Edinburgh, specifically that they feared a sharp increase in the summer which could lead to a tragedy. Of particular concern is the vulnerability of tourists’ bikes and officers are understandably keen to get the message out that the heaviest-duty locks and chains are needed to foil thieves. Hotels and guest houses need to help spread the word.