Budget dilemmas

Green Finance Spokesperson Gavin Corbett previews the annual council budget this Thursday.

This week is council budget week. For the vast majority of people in the capital it will be like any other week: caught between reflecting on being able to live in the stunning city that Edinburgh is and frustration at repairs not done, services neglected or the disfiguring gulf between rich and poor.

So the budget matters. The city council spends well over £1 billion each year and spending it wisely is the biggest decision it takes.

This year is the latest in an increasingly bleak-looking future for local council services. The council faces a shortfall of £22 million in 2015-16, rising to £67 million in three years time. Some of that funding crisis can be laid squarely at poor governance, such as the mounting bill from a previously collapsed statutory repairs service. But when government funding declines and the demand for services grows – the rising school aged population and the greater number of older people needing care – then something has to give.

Thumb Gavin-at-City-Chambers-close-815x1024For this week’s debate, I support some of the steps the Capital Coalition of Labour and SNP has done to take the rough edges off a draft budget which was issued last October. It has listened to feedback on a number of controversial proposals: from public toilet closures to disabled transport; from allotments to grants for charities.

But there is still an awful lot that leaves a bitter taste. Edinburgh Leisure which runs swimming pools and sports centres still sees its budget cut; as does community education. Health and social care budgets remain under severe pressure. Meanwhile, new capital investment of £13.3 million barely dents the £188 million bill for unfunded projects, from schools, to footways, to parks and public buildings.

That is why, last week, I published an alternative budget paper which showed that, even with the most modest version of powers which other cities in Europe take for granted, Edinburgh could raise an extra £25.7 million, enough to wipe out the worst cuts and to fund greater capital investment in our city. That’s more money for school repairs, potholes and pavements and sports facilities which should grace a 21st century capital. More money to invest in the energy efficiency of our buildings and homes – future-proofing tomorrow’s budgets against price rises and tackling the blight of fuel poverty.

With Edinburgh Labour declaring that “local government funding is broken” and the SNP Government setting up a commission on alternatives to the council tax, there is growing recognition that we are in the dying days of the council tax freeze and the damage it has done to local services and the accountability of councils. And, for the first time that I can recall, the public feedback to the draft budget echoed that disquiet, recognising that raising additional income should at least be as much of a choice as slashing budgets.

So, the annual budget is not simply an exercise in accountancy. It is about what vision we have for the city: one where we invest in high quality public services and a low carbon economy; or one where Edinburgh slowly fades like a forgotten outpost of a vanished frontier.

This blog was first published in the Edinburgh Evening News on Monday 9 February.