“The situation is stark for us” - an interview with City of Edinburgh Council leader Andrew Burns
The Labour politician discusses the challenges facing Scotland’s capital
Budget day for Scotland’s councils is a long and often fraught occasion.
As all local authorities across the country battle with the joint issues of falling budgets and rising demand, cuts to services have become an inevitable fact of life.
In Scotland’s capital city, financial issues hit the headlines in December last year when public spending watchdog, the Accounts Commission, highlighted that the council would need to find £67m over the next three years. In 2015/16 alone, that figure is £22m.
Come budget setting day on 12 February, all eyes were on elected members to see where the money would be found.
What we’ve attempted to do as a coalition is to protect frontline services
City of Edinburgh’s council leader, Andrew Burns, knows many people living in the city will be concerned about the level of savings the council needs to make.
Speaking exclusively to Holyrood, Burns says: “My message to them is we are doing our best to try and deliver top quality services in the city against a backdrop of reducing budgets and increasing demand.
“I think most people do understand that, they know we are trying to do our best with the resources we’ve got.
“As long as we’re open and transparent about why we’re making the decisions we’re making – and we’ve tried to do that – then even if people disagree with you, they can see why you’ve arrived at your decision and they will respect that.”
Burns says it is an “undeniable fact” that as a local authority, Edinburgh is getting less money than ever.
He adds: “I’m not making a political point about that, the Scottish Government has less money from Westminster and the economy, and that’s now feeding its way down to local authorities. We’ve got difficult backdrop of reducing budgets and an increasing demand.
“The situation is really quite stark for us. This year we’ve had to find savings of £22 million and over the next three years that figure is £67 million. However, it is worth sayings that while £22 million seems like a really big number, to put it in context, it is under 2.5 per cent of a billion pound budget.
“It is not anywhere close to the levels of savings that English local authorities are having to find, for example. I’m grateful for that but to take £22 million out of a billion pound budget is a challenge.
“What we’ve attempted to do as a coalition is to protect frontline services, particularly for the old, the young and the vulnerable. We’ve tried as much as feasible to protect those services and to take the savings from back office functions. I’m not demeaning back office workers because they provide support for the frontline but we’ve tried not to impact on the frontline where possible.
“It is difficult, there’s no point in denying that there will be an impact on some service areas [but] we’ve taken a political decision to prioritise certain areas and that squeezes out problems elsewhere.”
Detailed proposals on how the council intends to make these savings, both in the short and long terms, have been published by the council. The programme, known as BOLD, highlights a number of key areas where changes could be made to save cash. They include improved neighbourhood and locality working; a more efficient corporate centre; improvements to the way the council interacts with residents; working with third sector partnerships; and managing council property effectively.
While the local authority has an agreed pledge of no compulsory redundancies, it is believed as many as 1,200 jobs could be lost from the 19,000 strong workforce.
Burns adds: “We can’t keep on making these savings just by salami slicing across all of the departments, we’re at the stage now when we can’t keep repeating that approach. We recognise that we have to do something more transformational and fundamental. That is what BOLD is about.”
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