A budget for schools, social care and children

Green councillor Gavin Corbett explains why Green councillors are giving priority to schools, social care and vulnerable children in this week’s budget.

This week is budget week for City of Edinburgh Council.  Setting the budget is the single most important decision the council takes each year.  But this year, it has heightened significance, for two reasons.  The first is that the council is setting a 4 year budget, which means that the value of the decisions being taken is well over £5 billion.  The second is that the context is much starker, with local government facing the biggest cut in funding since devolution in 1999.  In Edinburgh, the council needs to find £85 million of savings in 2016-17 alone.

A £10 MILLION PACKAGE OF INVESTMENT IN SCHOOLS, OLDER PEOPLE AND VULNERABLE CHILDREN

Cuts on this scale are painful.  The Council can and should do a lot to reprioritise spending and to squeeze every inch of efficiency out of the way it works.  But the stark truth is that, even with those efficiencies, the budget coming before the council contains cuts that few find palatable: in school music provision, for example, or community centres, or care for older people, support for children in special schools, leisure centres. And on and on, the list goes.

That is why there are growing calls to look at the other side of the equation; to look at the case for raising income by increasing the council tax for the first time since 2007-08.  In the budget consultation carried out by the city council before Christmas, 63% of respondents said that council tax should rise to pay for services and offset cuts.

On behalf of the Green group of councillors, I agree with that view.  That is why I am proposing a 4.3% council tax rise in 2016-17, in order to raise £10 million extra for schools, for social care and for vulnerable children.  £10 million won’t reverse all of the cuts but it will allow the council to head off all of the most damaging cuts outlined above plus allow extra investment in school buildings and paying care staff.

Thumb Gavin-at-City-Chambers-close-815x1024What does a 4.3% rise mean for people in the city?  For the average band D house council tax will rise by £50 a year from £1,169 to £1,219.  That is a rise of 97p a week.  The rise will be 64p a week in Band A properties and £1.93 a week for the most expensive Band H homes.  And, of course, the lowest income households will pay nothing extra, through the council tax reduction scheme, while single person households will pay 25% less.

Had council tax risen by inflation since 2007-08, then the charge in a band D home would be £1,429 by now, so, even with the rise proposed, people are still paying considerably less.

So that is my proposal: 97p a week extra to see:

  • Continued support for community centres and community work
  • Services for disabled children and their families protected
  • Budgets for social care for older people protected
  • Better maintenance of school buildings
  • A properly-funded school music service in the long term
  • A “Living Wage Plus” of £9 per hour to attract and keep staff in care work so that everyone who needs care gets it.

IS THERE ANOTHER WAY?

But could this be done by finding other savings, without raising council tax?  Surely, other, less essential, budgets can be reduced?

As mentioned above, even a £10 million package only partly offsets cuts.  The budget will still contain many other reductions.  In addition, I have identified about £3 million of further savings, from marketing, communication, councillor costs, consultants, travel and energy, all of which help fund libraries, parks and leisure centres.

So arguing for council tax to rise works alongside a very substantial programme of savings in other areas.  One does not preclude the other.

And, yes, I’d love to have the power to use other sources of income.  I’d love to have £11 million extra from a modest “tourist tax” of £2 a night.  I’d like to be able to apply a private workplace parking levy and raise £10 million.  I’d like Edinburgh to have proper say over non-domestic rates.  I’d even like to be able to raise council tax by different amounts in different bands, with a bit more asked of bands G and H.

Indeed, I put most of these proposals in the Green alternative budget last year and, I’m heartened that, according to the Edinburgh Evening News, the Labour-SNP Council Coalition now supports one of my proposals, to raise higher council tax in bands G and H.

So I’ll continue to lobby for all these powers. But currently we don’t have them and we won’t have them by 2016-17.

Which brings me back to the need to charge 97p extra a week to support a £10 million package for schools, older people and vulnerable children.

COUNCIL TAX THAW

But there’s a catch.

Council tax has not risen since 2007-08 for a reason.  And the reason is that the Scottish Government has twice now pledged a council tax freeze in Scottish manifestos and has devised a series of penalties should any council decide to raise council tax. The penalties have been so severe that no council so far has challenged it.

In England, the Chancellor, George Osborne, has shown flexibility with the English version of the council tax freeze and is allowing councils to raise council tax by 2% to fund care costs. I am pretty sure that Scottish Finance Secretary John Swinney worries a lot more about public services than Mr Osborne, so the good news, for Mr Swinney, is that there is scope to offer a bit more freedom to Scottish councils. The SNP 2011 pledge is to freeze council tax for this parliamentary term. And since this parliament dissolves on 23 March 2016, that pledge has already been delivered before the 2016-17 financial year starts. To insist on going beyond the pledge simply smacks of rigidity as my colleague Cllr Steve Burgess argues in writing to the Cabinet Secretary.

This is why, in my view, the rules for this year’s local government settlement have been couched more vaguely than in previous years. It is legitimate of councils to raise council tax and be accountable to their local electorates if they choose to do so. That is local democracy after all.

So I believe the city council owes to it to the people of Edinburgh to have a proper grown-up debate about the right balance between revenue and investment. To shrink away from that debate, to meekly accept whatever cuts central governments dole out is to infantilise the capital city, to impoverish vital services and to simply store up yet greater problems for the future.

Let’s have that grown-up debate.

Cllr Gavin Corbett is the Green Finance Spokesperson on City of Edinburgh Council