Let’s go public on privatisation

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The longest-running farce in the West End of Edinburgh is now going to run a little further. The trams are going to St Andrew Square to be exact, thanks to the intervention of John Swinney and the SNP group who between them thankfully kicked out the ludicrous Labour-Conservative plan for ending the line at Haymarket.

Though I thought the whole thing should be mothballed, I’m willing to be persuaded that since the decision to end the line at Haymarket was by far the worst option of all, the SNP group really had to step in and put an end to this farce. They did something that went against their own grain for the good of the city – I wonder how many voters will remember that and vote for the party next May? As an SNP member, I can only hope this act of municipal munificence doesn’t end up as political suicide.

Above all, if it’s got to go ahead then what the public want is this – get the blasted project finished soon, and once and for all.

With one farce seemingly now under control, it is not going to be long before the council embarks on a production which I predict will make the movie Dumb and Dumber look like a theory by Einstein.

Remember the words “alternative business models” because by the end of the year, and probably starting later this month, you are going to be reading and hearing a lot about what could be a monumental cock-up which has already cost you, the council taxpayer, a seven-figure sum, and we haven’t even seen a sensible report yet.

From my researches, I can say that no matter what it is called, this council appears intent on privatising a whole swathe of its services and functions.

No one is being kidded. The “alternative business models” which the council is looking at will effectively mean the privatisation of services from housing benefit to street cleansing, from customer services to council tax collection, from the maintenance of council buildings to the provision of janitors for our schools. It is privatisation, pure and simple. Any attempt to portray this process as “alternative business models” or any other piece of jargon is misleading and hypocritical, and from now on I am going to call it what it is – privatisation.

The council’s ruling coalition say they had no choice but to consider privatisation. The hammer blow of a reduced budget inflicted by the Westminster Government has given them no alternative as they have to save £90 million over three years.

Actually there is an alternative, but no-one would like it. Chop 3000 jobs off the council payroll next year and the problem is solved.

A further alternative is to deal with budget cuts sensibly and with real and genuine consultation with unions and the public alike, and make cuts in a long-term, realistic fashion. But that would mean hard work for councillors’ wee brains, and they’re overworked already.

Consider this: not any of the parties had these cuts issues in their last manifestos and certainly none mentioned wholesale privatisation. What we have here is a fundamental alteration of the way this city works, so why should a discredited council be allowed to make such an overwhelming change?

Like it or loathe it, for many decades, the council or councils have been a major employer of people, one of whom was me from 1985 to 1995. It was an interesting period, especially as I became a Unison shop steward and watched in horror as Thatcher’s government brought in compulsory competitive tendering for council services which only proved one thing – that Tories understand the price of everything and the value of nothing. It was a damaging and demoralising piece of nonsense and in the end it proved only that council employees did the job as well as anybody and better than most.

Thatcher tried to destroy local government, but it was Labour down south who achieved her aim with their mania for outsourcing.

Now I am sad to see the SNP in the Scottish Government and in Edinburgh’s ruling coalition apparently taking on Thatcher’s mantle and looking for savings by sending perfectly decent, hard-working people into the nightmare that is privatisation.

I accept the need for every council and public service, and indeed the police and emergency services, and for that matter the NHS and the defence services, too, to be scrutinised to see what money can be saved. But the council coalition must call this latest policy what it is – privatisation.

They should publish their privatisation plans and then all the parties must do something revolutionary and unheard of in Edinburgh democracy – they must state their case on privatisation in their manifestos and let the public decide next May.

Leave the biggest decision in the history of Edinburgh local government – to go private or stay public – until after the next election. It’s only eight months away, after all, and allowing the voters to call the future is the right thing to do.

For if the trams farce has taught us anything, it is that the people of Edinburgh above all detest having their views ignored.

Let the people decide on privatisation. This council long ago hit the tram buffers and has lost the moral right to make such a massive city-changing decision.

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