Pete Gregson : Edinburgh Council needs fresh ideas not cuts

Edinburgh City Council Offices, Waverley Court. Picture: Andy O'Brien
Edinburgh City Council Offices, Waverley Court. Picture: Andy O'Brien
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Youth and community groups across Edinburgh have just got letters from the council saying their funding is being cut. Many have been catering for deprived communities for more than 50 years, The Venchie in Craigmillar, for example will close. Edinburgh also faces 2000 redundancies, 12 per cent of the workforce, with big cuts in many areas. For instance, the playpark budget has gone.

The council has asked the public for suggestions on its website, but rather than argue about which local services should disappear, we ought to set our sights higher.

This council and others can profit from economies of scale and save millions of pounds if they work with neighbours and merge some departments such as roads and education. My idea is spelt out in detail on the council site as “Merge big Depts with East, West and Midlothian Councils”. Evening News readers can show support by adding comments – and voting – on this and other proposals.

The area that needs to be cut is the back office: Edinburgh’s bureaucracy is duplicated in every council in Scotland. I’m not suggesting the Scottish Government takes over emptying our bins or agreeing our house extensions. There needs to be local accountability for services, but road maintenance and education are two obvious candidates for regional management, as they were under Lothian Regional Council until John Major abolished it in 1996.

Back then we had had just one director of education, rather than the four we have now. Just one of these, Edinburgh’s Gillian Tee, is paid £170,000 a year, significantly more than the Prime Minister. By reducing four bosses to one, at every level, and cutting duplication in admin staff, overhead costs could be cut by 75 per cent – education is almost half the council’s annual budget of a billion pounds a year – without affecting schools.

Many front-line staff are now seeking early retirement. But if they’re in what are deemed to be essential services (like homelessness), they’re not getting it. With this idea those front-line staff could leave, with the back office workers filling their posts.

In 2010, the former chairman of the Accounts Commission, Alastair McNish, saw austerity coming and put out a call to merge Scottish education authorities. The Christie Commission in 2011 said public services must become more efficient by reducing duplication and sharing services. That led to Police Scotland.

In four years little has changed, although last year East Ayrshire and South Ayrshire councils launched the Ayrshire Roads Alliance to deliver a range of roads services, expected to deliver more than £8 million in savings over the next ten years. I know that Stirling & Clackmannanshire Councils have tried it too.

The idea is not just best for Edinburgh, but for the whole of Scotland, which has more public sector staff per head than anyone else in Europe.

Will senior council officers propose merging services to councillors in the forthcoming budget meetings? Would they suggest cutting their own jobs? Unlikely. Do turkeys vote for Christmas? No. But we can.

Let’s use the council’s public website to tell our politicians to think big – not small. Readers can submit their views on this proposal via the Edinburgh City Council website, which is currently exploring options from citizens as part of its “Budget Challenge” consultation.

Pete Gregson is founder of the Kids not Suits ( campaign group and a former council worker