CITY leaders launched an appeal for people power to help win the cash-strapped Capital the right to levy a tourist tax after members of the public showed near-unanimous support for the idea.
Finance convener Alasdair Rankin told a Question Time-style meeting on the council’s budget plans there was widespread support across the council for the tax, which could raise up to £15 million a year.
He said: “What we need to do is persuade the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament to pass the legislation to allow it to happen.”
He said raising the issue with ministers had so far failed to get any progress.
“So I would encourage you to write to your MSPs, get involved, lobby on behalf of the city and we will continue to make our representations as strongly as we can in order to get this to happen.
“It’s a logical, simple thing to do, it’s not difficult to administer and it would provide the council with a useful amount of money.”
A show of hands found almost unanimous public support for the tourist tax idea.
The question had been sent in by John Wilson, who said a relatively small tourist tax could raise a substantial amount of money to finance services which tourists benefited from, including good roads, public toilets and clean streets.
Council leader Adam McVey confirmed Edinburgh was liaising with London over the policy.
He said: “London have done a lot of work on the business case and the impact on their hotel sector. But Edinburgh has the highest occupancy rate in the country and the highest per night hotel spend.
“That was an overwhelming response in terms of support for the policy.
“But don’t underestimate the forces at work against it.
“The local general managers in the industry in Edinburgh I think get it. The forces at work against it are the national bodies – the British Hotelier Association, those nice people that argued against the minimum wage and every other employment right that has been progressed.
“I would echo Alasdair’s call to arms: write to your MSPs, your MPs and make sure we have the political backing, every politician in this city pulling in the same direction.”
The meeting at the City Chambers last night, chaired by Evening News deputy editor Euan McGrory, also heard concerns about many of the proposed budget cuts which aim to save £21m.
Cllr McVey said most of the pressure faced by the council was not from budget cuts but from increased demands on health and social care, schools and transport infrastructure.
“What we are trying to do is balance the challenges we face with our ambition.
“We want to make sure what we are proposing has buy-in from the people of Edinburgh.”
As part of the cuts, Edinburgh Leisure is set to have its funding reduced by £420,000 and also will be charged £375,000 for ground maintenance, sparking fears of higher charges for users of the service.
Questioner Pauline Hunter asked whether it was wise for recreation to come under such pressure when childhood obesity was increasing. “Edinburgh should be investing in our future fitness,” she said.
Education convener Ian Perry said the number of people using Edinburgh Leisure facilities had gone up, against the national trend. But he said: “I appreciate prices have got to go up and we’re not going to hide that.”
The controversial plan to introduce a £25 a year charge for garden waste collection was raised by Jane Johnson, who said she had a big garden and two bins.
“It’s like a garden tax,” she said. “I could be paying £50 a year. A lot of people might say no, I’m not paying, I pay enough in council tax and they may start burn their waste. I think that would be quite a negative way to go in the city.”
But transport and environment convener Lesley Macinnes said Edinburgh’s proposed charge – which worked out at 50p a week per bin – compared favourably with other local authorities which already charged for garden waste.
Another questioner, Jim McColl, asked what would happen if a private operator offered the same service for less money.
But Cllr Macinnes said the council’s system involved millions of pick-ups and careful route planning and she did not think a private company could undercut it. “I don’t believe anyone could do that and pick up piecemeal customers across the city and make it work.”
Social care was one of the topics which prompted the most questions and Ricky Henderson, chairman of the Edinburgh Integration Joint Board, acknowledged problems caused by increased demand and reducing budgets.
He said despite the quality service they delivered, care workers were often paid the same as people who stacked supermarket shelves.
“Across the UK for many years we have undervalued care workers. I suspect if we paid care workers the same as teachers and social workers we probably would not be in this situation, but we don’t. I think we need a step-change in terms of respecting and supporting workers in the care sector.”
The meeting heard from one woman who said some of the cuts being considered involved questions of life and death.
She said: “I think a lot of people are frustrated that in this so-called consultation we are just being asked our opinion on where the axe was going to fall. If only one councillor stood up and said, ‘I’m not prepared to make these cuts any more’ they would get an amazing amount of support. There has got to be a campaign against these cuts.”
Finance vice-convener Marion Donaldson responded: “What you are saying is true, but as local councillors our statutory obligation is to deliver a budget and that’s what we do.
“This is a budget of necessity, it’s not something we’re choosing to do. We care deeply.
“So please make a noise about this and we will join with you on this.”