There are some questions in life we just don’t like to be asked. But my local council has had the temerity to ask us where we would be prepared to see the spending axe fall. And 50 brave, and somewhat confused, citizens gathered in a large, dark hall on the south side of Edinburgh to respond to this challenge.
It was an evening of grim unenlightenment but, as often happens in the topsy-turvy world of politics, the voting rather surprised us all. I report this meeting, similar to ones being held all over Scotland I imagine, in the hope that it gives an insight into how our great British democracy is working.
The £90m problem facing the council in Edinburgh was put to us by a forbidding row of top officials sitting behind the modern equivalent of a trestle table and speaking into the usual whining microphones. A screen on the left posed the eight awkward little questions of the night. And a front row of councillors were “there to listen”.
At the end of this consultation process, they will have to answer the one big question – how, in heaven’s name, will we cut 10 per cent from the city’s budget without anyone noticing, or at least without causing riots in the streets.
We moved slowly to question one, because first we had to let off a little steam. Some folk complained the questions were rigged or were too vague. Others declared “we should not be paying for the mistakes of the bankers”. And there were the usual tram bores – Edinburgh tends to breed a very self-righteous species of bore – who have still failed to grasp the fact that the central government is paying for 90 per cent of the tram project and most of the money has already been spent. Going on about it does not solve our present problems.
The chairman was obviously inexperienced at handling wasps’ nests but he eventually plucked up the courage to move us on to question one: should the cuts focus on back room or front line activities? Opinion was surprisingly divided on this loaded question, 24 per cent went one way, 26 per cent the other, and the other half of the audience didn’t vote. I know this because there was a clever electronic voting system rigged up in the hall.
It’s also worth pointing out that the question – each question – was preceded by a “briefing” from the officials and a couple of discussion points from the floor. This turned out to be a surprisingly thoughtful process, balancing one option against another – long term versus short term, preventive measures versus reactive measures, efficient versus tailored services.
So on to question two: should services be targeted? 69 per cent of those voting said yes, 31 per cent said no. Question 3: could services be delivered by other non-council organisations, including private firms? The answer was 60 per cent yes and 40 per cent no. On increasing charges for council services, 59 per cent said OK, 41 per cent were against. On the suggestion that dustbins should be collected every fortnight instead of every week, the hall was split 50-50.
And, most surprising of all, 78 per cent of those voting said they would be prepared to pay more council tax.
Thus the voting produced quite strong support for a radical reform of council services. This came as a surprise to me because the questions and comments from the floor had been largely against change. And at the door, as we’d come in, members of Unison had been handing out red hot leaflets warning against the dangers of privatisation.
But there were more surprises for me. We were told that Edinburgh council had saved £90m from its budget over the past three years – with the loss of over 400 jobs. This, curiously, is exactly the same figure as we are being asked to save over the next three years but, this time, the cuts will mean 1,600 job losses, or so the finance director Donald McDougan, told us.
He also told us that 40 per cent of the council’s budget of £1 billion was spent on pay and pensions – a figure so low that I find it hard to believe. Think of all those teachers, social workers, park attendants, librarians, dustbin collectors, some 20,000 in all, if you count part-timers. And not all of them are low paid. 120 have salaries of over £58,000. The chief executive Tom Aitchison is reputed to be paid £160,000 a year and will retire in January on a pension of £85,000.
And another extraordinary thing we were told was that the council has already identified £16m of savings over the next three years, cutting 300 jobs, but it hopes to keep the redundancy bill down to £2-3m. Again I found that difficult to believe.
Like many in the hall, I began to question the wisdom of this whole exercise. Cutting jobs on this scale – at a time of recession or near recession – is just what a government is not supposed to do, according to conventional economic theory. But, hey, this is local government and councillors have no choice but to go along with the cuts. 77 per cent of Edinburgh Council’s income, after all, comes from the central government.
Changes in services – targeting, privatising, reforming – are all very well, but it seems to me they would be better left to times of plenty, when the private and voluntary sectors are ready to take them over and when those made redundant by the council can find new jobs.
There is thus an air of madness about the whole exercise about the reasons for the cuts, about the cuts themselves, and about the random figures that are being thrown about, 10 per cent cuts, 25 per cent cuts, 40 per cent cuts, the job numbers involved – 50,000 – 60,000 across Scotland – and the various estimates of savings, efficiencies, redundancy costs, costs to the wider economy.
And in that dismal hall too, there was an air of phoney war, of gas masks being issued before an undefined threat, of people struggling to find a consensus about what should be done. What the councillors in the front row made of it all, I just cannot begin to guess. But under our democratic system, they have to decide where the axe should fall. May they be more enlightened than the rest of us. And may we survive the blood-letting.