Council chiefs plan for extended tram line, tourist tax and Low Emission Zone

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One year ago, political rivals from Labour and the SNP came together to form a new coalition administration on the City of Edinburgh Council.

Twelve months on, the coalition has set the ball rolling on bringing in a Low Emissions Zone, continued to roll out 20mph restrictions across the city centre and propelled forward an ambition to extend the tram line to 
Newhaven.

Council Leader 'Adam McVey hasbig plans for the Capital

Council Leader 'Adam McVey hasbig plans for the Capital

The council is pushing ahead with bold plans to introduce a tourist tax, which would make Edinburgh the first UK city to do so. The council leader is hopeful the charge will be in place by next summer, despite the plans being met with resistance by opponents and still to seek the approval of the Scottish Government.

The council has also set itself ambitious house-building targets, made progress through its homelessness task force and is set to re-establish a poverty commission.

SNP leader Cllr Adam McVey, the youngest ever leader of the authority, and his Labour counterpart, Cllr Cammy Day, have highlighted some of their biggest achievements over their first year at the helm of the council.

The minority administration needs the support of at least one opposition group in order to pass policies at City Chambers after the resignation of two councillors, Cllr Lewis Ritchie and Cllr Gavin Barrie, from the SNP group.

Cllr Day said the administration is open with opposition councillors about its intentions and lots of work is done behind closed doors to reach agreements.

He said: “The decision-making process is a lot more challenging for us. There’s a lot more work for us to do in negotiating final decisions.

“The approach we have taken is to be open with other group leaders. We are engaging with the opposition whenever we can to try and get the best out of it so long as it aligns with our commitments.”

Cllr McVey added: “I think in some ways, not having a majority has pushed us to be bolder.

“We need some sort of political consensus to get anything through – we need three out of the five parties in the chamber to agree.

“By needing to get that consensus, I think it has pushed us to be bolder in the last year and I think it will push us to be bolder in the next four years.”

Education

Amid problems with the city’s stock of school buildings and a hefty repairs bill, the council has pushed ahead with its commitment to build new high schools across Edinburgh.

A new Boroughmuir High School opened its doors earlier this year, but opponents say there is no space to expand it for the expected higher number of pupils.

Cllr Day said: “Boroughmuir was a massive achievement. It wasn’t without its challenges along the way but it is an absolutely fantastic state-of-the-art school. We have committed to ten new schools over the tenure of the administration. Young people who get new schools are obtaining much better results and enjoying their school experience more.

READ MORE: Tourist tax to be unveiled in Edinburgh ‘within 12 months’

“As much as we have had some issues with the school estate, we continue to get on with our commitment to build new high schools across the city.”

The council had to halt its planned closure of schools in the south west of the Capital after failing to gain support in the council chamber for the plans. Wester Hailes Education Centre (WHEC) and Currie High School will now both be replaced and the council will have to go back to the drawing board to

try closing the attainment gap for

pupils in the South West of the city following the decision.

Cllr Day added: “We accept the decision that’s been taken and we will get on with making sure that WHEC can be the best it can.

“We need to do something about attainment of young people in that area.”

Housing

The administration has committed to constructing 20,000 new homes over the next ten years.

As well as redeveloping the city’s northern waterfront at Granton, the authority is pushing ahead with its ambitious programme of construction.

During the last financial year, around 1,300 homes were completed or were under construction and 1,500 homes won approval by planners. There are currently around 2,200 affordable homes being built on more than 30 sites across the city. Cllr McVey said: “It shows not just that we have managed to deliver for this year, but that we are teeing up future years of success towards our target.”

Cllr Day added: “I’m really keen to us bringing forward more key sites like that.”

But plans to push ahead with housing at the India Quay site were branded a “fiasco” by Conservatives. The council’s ambition to build housing as part of it’s Meadowbank revamp was met with anger from campaigners amid an apology by council officers over a flawed consultation with residents and groups.

The authority also came under fire for its failure to move all children housed in temporary accommodation from B&Bs. Housing Convener Cllr Kate Campbell said no-one should be temporarily housed in B&Bs, but a lack of housing has meant some still are. Cllr Campbell put in place measures to improve facilities at B&Bs including access to washing machines and the use of kitchens.

Trams

The council leader is fully behind plans to take the Capital’s tram system down Leith Walk to Newhaven. The revised proposals for the stretch of Leith Walk between Pilrig Street and the Foot of the Walk show that cars would share lanes with trams.

The findings from the Tram Inquiry, which will highlight the failings of the council during the first phase of the project, are not expected to be published until after the council confirms it will push ahead with the extension in December.

Cllr McVey said: “We’ve come up with a design that is quite bold as a direct response to the consultation.

READ MORE: Revealed: New plans for trams and cars to share single lane on Leith Walk

“Whether it’s exactly within the reality of what people are asking for and whether that will be universally supported is yet to be seen.”

He added: “I think when people look at the details of it, I think it’s quite an innovative way of trying to find space for everyone – with people absolutely at the centre of it.

“There’s a huge number of small and independent businesses that can only benefit from that public realm being improved for people who live in Leith and make it a real destination.”

Conservatives have called on the council to ensure people’s views are listened to.

Cllr Nick Cook said: “It speaks volumes that the council’s consultation completely fails to ask residents and businesses whether they actually want the tram extended or not. Instead, taxpayers are only given the chance to tinker around the edges of this expensive, unnecessary scheme.”

Tourist tax

The tourist tax, or Transient Visitor Levy (TVL), as it has been branded by the council, could see a £1 charge added to hotel guests’ bill in order to tally up extra funding to improve the city – estimated at £11 million a year in extra revenue.

Cllr McVey believes the policy will be in place by next summer amid criticism by Conservatives that there’s no guarantee the money will be spent in Edinburgh.

Initial proposals for the policy were met with resistance by the hospitality industry. But the council leader is confident the policy will gather support and is hopeful the Scottish Government will give the scheme its stamp of approval within 12 months.

He said: “I think we have made quite a lot of progress. We’ve started the discussions with the sector – having the key industry players around the table. I think in a year’s time or so, we will have a TVL of some sort.

“Directly to the government, we have engaged with them pretty consistently – articulating what we want and to be fair to them, we have listened to what they have said, in terms of the circumstances that they would entertain it.

“Fiona Hyslop said any scheme would require engagement with the industry and that’s exactly what we’re doing. We have taken a far more robust and professional approach and I’ve noticed a huge amount of openness to the idea in some quarters that were fairly dismissive of our previous attempts as a local authority.”

Roads and environment

The council’s Transport and Environment Convener, Cllr Lesley Macinnes, has pushed ahead with bold policies including banning on-street advertising boards, started work on setting up a Low Emissions Zone (LEZ) for the city and allowing streets to be opened up for use by pedestrians and for children to play.

More than £24 million has been spent or allocated by the council this year on road improvements.

READ MORE: Edinburgh should ban lorries and vans in Low Emission Zones ‘from the start’ say campaigners

Cllr McVey said: “The A-board ban is going to make our city far more accessible. I think it’s going to make a huge difference to people getting around the city.

“We will bring forward a report that Labour and SNP have agreed in principle to look at clean air car-free days in the city. Paris has got to the point where chunks of their city are pretty much off one Sunday a month.”

The council has come under fire from opposition councillors for its delayed garden waste tax, which will see householders charged £25 a year for brown bins to be collected. Questions have also been raised as to what other services the authority will charge for.

Conservatives hit out at the planning of the council’s car free days - saying it caused more congestion across the city - while Green councillors supported the plans. The Greens had removed their support for the tram extension over lack of protection for cyclists, but are set to back the scheme following the updated proposals.