This week I took part in my first Budget Meeting as a City of Edinburgh Councillor. The whole thing took over five hours, and in many ways it was a lost opportunity. It was undertaken in a manner which suggested the whole Capital was watching, when in fact anyone who watched the whole thing on the Council’s rather grainy webcast probably deserves a medal.
Throughout the marathon session, I felt that as a Labour Councillor I was stuck in the middle. This started with the representations from Edinburgh’s trade unions. Labour engaged them in a discussion about the impact of SNP\Tory cuts, whilst other parties largely either looked on with indifference or sought to pick a fight with them.
Then came the blame game. The Tories blamed the SNP and Greens for cutting Edinburgh’s budget, whilst the SNP blamed the Tories. The truth is, of course, that both are to blame. The UK Government has been squeezing public spending, but the SNP have been squeezing Councils hard er. On top of the 3.4% real terms cut this year, between 2013 and 2018 Council funding fell by 6.9%, whereas the Scottish Government Budget fell by only 1.6%. On top of this, Tory Welfare reform places huge demand on Council services. We need to change both governments.
The opposition parties, of course, realised that Labour’s priorities were tackling homelessness, protecting libraries, investing in social care and increasing the School Clothing Grant. Knowing this, they sought to drive a wedge between us and the rest of the administration by putting forward alternative budgets with extra funding in these “moral” areas. The problem was that this was largely grandstanding and the alternative budgets proposed simply did not hold water. Quite frankly, they’d have been alarmed if their budgets had been passed. This is why the whole “debate” was a lost opportunity.
The opposition parties hold the majority of votes in Edinburgh – 33 out of 63. If they had worked together, the Tories, Greens and Lib-Dems could have engaged Labour in a positive and constructive discussion on key issues. Perhaps they could have forced us to scrap the plan to charge for garden waste collection (I have real concerns about this), fund the School Clothing Grant better or increase funding for road repairs. Instead, all I saw was grandstanding and political tribalism from the cheap seats.
A good opposition is indispensable at all levels of government. A city administration should learn more from its opposition than from its enthusiastic supporters. Edinburgh’s problem is that it needs an opposition that goes beyond tribalism and grandstanding.