Edinburgh council budget agreed as plans to cut library opening hours dropped

Council tax will rise by 4.79 per cent

Friday, 21st February 2020, 6:00 am
The council agreed a budget which means 88m of cuts over the next three yeats

CITY chiefs dropped proposals to cut library opening hours and promised to reconsider their controversial plans for staffless libraries as councillors approved spending plans for the next three years.

Council tax will rise by 4.79 per cent, school budgets will be cut by £1.8m, qualified teachers will be withdrawn from nursery schools, £500,000 will be cut from teaching of musical instruments, council funding for policing will end and Edinburgh Leisure’s budget will be slashed by £1.5m.

The SNP-Labour administration had proposed to close libraries on Saturday afternoons, which would have meant job losses, saving £300,000.

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But ahead of yesterday’s full council meeting to pass the budget, the coalition decided to use £300,000 of unallocated money to maintain the existing opening hours.

The administration also said it would look again at its plan for “Open Libraries” where users can access the building with a card and there are no staff in attendance.

The scheme was due to save £1m in 2022/23 and that saving remains in the budget, but culture and communities convener Donald Wilson hinted the emphasis would now be on including libraries in community hubs rather than staffless libraries.

The cut in library hours was said to have led to tensions with the administration coalition, with Labour backbencher Scott Arthur tweeting: “I am happy to confirm that the cuts to library opening hours has been blocked by the Labour group.”

Unison’s David Harrold urged the meeting to resist the whole concept of staffless libraries. He said: “Staffless libraries do not work. The evidence is there for everyone to see from our colleagues down south - it’s not inclusive, public safety is not guaranteed and anti-social behaviour has become the norm in certain areas.

“A library without dedicated professional staff is quite simply a building with books.

“We have unemployed people who come in for help with their CVs to find work. There are elderly people whose main point of contact with the outside world is their weekly visit to the library. Libraries are not just places you go for the latest best-seller, they help build up the population’s self-esteem, it takes people to better places.”

Cllr Wilson said he shared the concerns voiced about staffless libraries. “We are looking again at these proposals. What is important is we have library service fit for the future.”

He invited the unions to co-operate with the council “to work out how we take this forward as we move towards community hubs”. Mr Harrold said the unions would be than happy to work with all parties.

Two 16-year-old clarsach players, Bronwen Stahl and Lili McShea from James Gillespie’s High School, made a direct appeal at the meeting for the funding for musical instrument tuition to be maintained, saying they wanted the opportunity they had received to be available to future generations of Edinburgh pupils.

Education convener Ian Perry told the meeting: “We will be entering into discussions next year with headteachers and parents about the possibility if charging for music tuition.

“However we will ensure no pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds or studying for an SQA will have to pay.

“It is not the objective of the exercise to reduce the service, it is to find out of those parents willing to pay will help us to support that service.”

The administration emphasised its plans for £570m investment in new schools, funded from a big chunk of the money raised by the council tax increase.

And finance convener Alasdair Rankin said: “Our proposals are considered and shaped by our priorities of tackling poverty and improving sustainability.”

He also said there could be changes later once the UK and Scottish budgets were passed.

Tory finance spokesman Graham Hutchison accused the coalition of having failed to make the case for a funding settlement which recognised Edinburgh status.

He said “The systematic destruction and underfunding of local government by the SNP Scottish Government at Holyrood and the financial mismanagement and lack of strategic planning by the SNP-Labour council administration has fundamentally broken the finances of our capital city.”

Lib Dem group leader Robert Aldridge said the removal of the council’s £2.1m funding for the police would mean “a diminution of service”.

And he criticised the school cuts. “Our instrumental music service is a jewel in the crown of Edinburgh’s education service,” he said.

Tory councillor Graeme Bruce claimed the cut to Edinburgh Leisure broke the coalition agreement pledge to increase access to sport and leisure.

He claimed it would put sport and leisure out of reach of the poorest in society. “It will put off all sections of society from participating in sport and fitness, thus leading to more people with health issues later in life.”

Urging a budget to tackle the climate emergency, Green councillor Claire Miller said: “Our constrained scope for spending can be adjusted and directed to ensure the best possible start to the single decade we have left to slash our carbon footprint.”

The Greens proposed a £5m investment in climate projects which had to be started now, including solar panels, more tree-planting, more electric vehicles in the council fleet and more electric charging points, as well as funding for community action on the climate.