Nothing is ruled out as Edinburgh's budget D-Day looms '“ John McLellan
Tomorrow is political D-Day. No, not the latest twist in the Brexit farrago, although no doubt there will be one, but for Edinburgh when the city council reveals its plans to find the Â£50 million it needs to balance the books in the coming year.
If prosperity relies on business stability, it’s remarkable how well Edinburgh has managed to do with the double-whammy of uncertainty over Brexit and Scottish independence dominating the headlines over the past seven years and now comes possibly the biggest crisis to face local administration since the 1970s.
Since the turn of the year there has been a steady drip-drip of suggestions from inside the city’s administration to test the water for various options, from axing teachers in nursery schools and reducing school budgets to ending the additional payment to Police Scotland for extra community officers. Previous experience suggests the more public fuss is made about a controversial policy the less likelihood there is of it happening, but with administration backs against the wall and bound by their own policies this time it might be different.
When the details of how the money might be found are published they will inevitably make grim reading. The council was already in a quandary about how to make an expected £28m worth of cuts on top of about £10m it still needed to make up from the current year, but the additional £11m reduction in the SNP Government’s budget was a hammer blow.
A perfect illustration of the pressure the city’s SNP-Labour administration is under came from Labour leader Cammy Day this week, when he described the cuts as “disgraceful” and demanded that the SNP Government dipped into its £200m reserves to preserve Edinburgh services.
“It’s got to the point where it could have to impact on schools, social care and services people use on a daily basis,” he said. “I don’t think the parliament understands the importance of local services. We only hope they come round and see sense.”
The language is significantly stronger than previously, when Day was content to argue that while being in the administration wasn’t easy, at least Labour’s influence could be brought to bear on decision-making. His reward is to help the SNP make even deeper cuts.
Observers might expect the Conservative group to be happy with a reduction in public spending, but public spending is not coming down; instead council grants are being slashed so people are getting a worse service for more money. Cost savings should aim to improve efficiency but also limit tax rises, but because of an ideological opposition to compulsory redundancies and outsourcing, the administration is forced to scour about for new revenue sources like the Garden Tax, workplace parking charges and the tourist tax while ramping up the council tax without tackling inefficiencies head-on.
On the basis that services can’t be reduced while surplus staff stay on the payroll, to avoid compulsory redundancies the administration must rely on volunteers or retirements. But even with 14,000 employees there is no guarantee leavers will match service reductions so close co-operation with the unions to make sure departures are in the right areas is essential.
Cllr Day confirmed that “we have red lines about compulsory redundancies”, but the use of the phrase “and to see mass-privatisation of public services” was curious. Opposing “mass-privatisation” is expected, but does that include localised waste collection, which his predecessors were happy to outsource until the SNP pulled the rug from under the policy in 2012?
It’s certainly hard to argue after the experience of the last three months that Edinburgh’s bins system should be put on a pedestal as a monument to all that’s good about council-run services, and Cllr Day concluded: “We can’t make any guarantees – we have to look at everything.” Maybe pride is about to be swallowed along with the SNP’s medicine.
Business as usual – voting cuts through
Labour councillor Scott Arthur does more huffing and puffing than most about the effect of the SNP’s budget cuts. Yet as has been repeatedly pointed out, he is so unhappy about his party’s partnership with the Nationalists that he dutifully votes through all their business.
But surely £50m cuts to local services must be the last straw and he will vote against the administration budget? Sadly no. “I expect it to be the least worse,” he said on Twitter. “Hopefully opposition councillors will seek to improve it rather than posture and aim for glorious failure of their own budget failing.”
So the opposition is supposed to do the administration’s job to help out administration councillors to vote for something in which they have little faith? Pardon us if we don’t take up such a kind offer.
Cleaning is non-partisan
As the city council wrestles with both the budget crisis and the ongoing bins chaos, and the administration remains guided by ideology, I came across a quote from the great Republican New York mayor of the inter-war years, Fiorello La Guardia, the man who broke the stranglehold of the infamously corrupt Tammany Hall political organisation, steered the city through the Great Depression and after whom one of the city’s airports is named. “There is no Democratic or Republican way of cleaning the streets,” he said. Quite.