Edinburgh council leader under fire over lack of meetings with ministers

City council leader Adam McVey came under fire from Labour politicians today after the Scottish Government said he had not had any official meetings with Finance Secretary Derek Mackay over funding for the Capital despite his repeated claims he was lobbying ministers.

Thursday, 17th January 2019, 5:00 am
Edinburgh Council Budget meeting, Edinburgh City Chambers. Cllr Adam McVey speaking at the meeting. Pic: Ian Rutherford

Labour MSP Daniel Johnson accused Cllr McVey of letting people down by failing to have any formal talks to press for a better deal for the city.

But Cllr McVey insisted he had a range of informal contacts with various ministers and always took the opportunity to argue Edinburgh’s case - even if he bumped into them at a bus stop.

The row came as SNP and Labour councillors try to agree on a package of cuts to meet a £47 million funding gap in next year’s budget.

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Derek Mackay MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work speaking in the chamber of the Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh.

The council had originally expected it would have to find £28m of savings but the figure increased after Mr Mackay announced council allocations last month.

Mr Johnson lodged a parliamentary question at Holyrood, asking when Mr Mackay had met Cllr McVey since January 2018 and on which occasions the funding for the council had been discussed.

In her reply, public finance minister Kate Forbes said Mr Mackay “did not meet” Cllr Mackay “in a Scottish Government official capacity last year”.

She added that the government negotiated the local government settlement with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on behalf of all 32 councils.

Mr Johnson said: “It is very disappointing that the council leader had no formal meetings regarding funding for Edinburgh according to Scottish Government Ministers.

“Edinburgh has the lowest level of funding per person of any local authority in Scotland.

“Citizens of Edinburgh expect the leader of the council to stand up for this city. But without so much as a single official meeting to raise the cuts faced by this city at the hands of the SNP, people will feel let down by Mr Mcvey’s inaction.”

Meanwhile, according to records released under freedom of information, Cllr McVey has had two meetings with Mr Mackay since the SNP came to power in the Capital in May 2017 - one on August 29, 2017 in Scottish Government headquarters at St Andrew’s House to discuss “a range of finance issues facing local government” and the other on September 11, 2018 at the Scottish Parliament on economic development.

Cllr McVey also had one meeting with Local Government Minister Kevin Stewart on August 22, 2018.

Leith Labour councillor Gordon Munro has made a point of asking regularly at council meetings what Cllr McVey has been doing to lobby his SNP colleagues in government over Edinburgh’s funding.

He said he was disappointed to find there had been so few official meetings between Cllr McVey and Mr Mackay and none on the crucial issue of funding.

He said: “We’re talking about the capital city of Scotland and it needs to be fully and properly funded. This is about putting the city first. It’s in the coalition agreement that we would stand up against austerity whether it’s from Holyrood or Westminster.

“I’ve been asking these questions for over a year now and I’m disappointed. I took Adam McVey at his word.”

And Cllr Munro argued informal encounters were no substitute for proper meetings. “Cosy chats over canapes are not the same as sitting down with ministers and representing the city.”

Scott Arthur, Labour councillor for Colinton/Fairmilehead, said: “Since the day he became council leader Adam McVey has been assuring the city that he’s been holding regular meetings with Derek MacKay to demand fair funding for our Capital.

“Now we find that Edinburgh is facing the worst financial settlement in living memory and that these meetings appear to have been a figment of his imagination.

“I feel let down, but I expect many people in Edinburgh will find these revelations simply incredible.”

Tory councillor Andrew Johnston joined the criticism. He said: “Cllr McVey spent the best part of last year talking about a tourist tax he does not have the power to implement, and now we find it was at the expense of arguing for a fair budget settlement for Edinburgh. Why could he not make the case with his own party colleagues half a mile down the road at the Scottish Parliament? Is this the reason Edinburgh now faces cuts of 50 million pounds after Derek Mackay once again hammered local government in his December budget statement?

“The people of Edinburgh deserve far better than a council leader who meekly accepts another terrible budget settlement from the Scottish Government.”

But Cllr McVey said in the past 12 months he had met a whole range of ministers at events and in other circumstances.

“I always take the opportunity to talk about Edinburgh’s situation and the financial challenges facing it,” he said.

“I meet them in informal circumstances, party meetings, even one minister at a bus stop and I stopped to say hello and talked about Edinburgh’s financial position. Literally every time I bump into a minister with relevance to our budget situation I take the opportunity to lobby and make Edinburgh’s case.”

And he claimed his lobbying had helped change government attitudes, for example on the tourist tax. “The engagement I have had with ministers has helped build Edinburgh’s case for that policy and the government has not moved as much as we would like it to, but there has undoubtedly been a shift in its position. That has been driven by Edinburgh’s work and my work in making the case.

“And the engagement I have had with Derek Mackay and Kate Forbes and a range of ministers has made Edinburgh’s case strongly.”