Edinburgh meant to cheer tax-and-cut plan – John McLellan

Edinburgh faces an enormous budget cut even though Finance Secretary Derek Mackay has more cash than before, writes John McLellan.
Derek Mackay struck a deal with the Greens to let councils raise extra taxes (Picture: Steven Scott Taylor)Derek Mackay struck a deal with the Greens to let councils raise extra taxes (Picture: Steven Scott Taylor)
Derek Mackay struck a deal with the Greens to let councils raise extra taxes (Picture: Steven Scott Taylor)

This week I was reminded of an old after-dinner gag in which the speaker said he had two bookings for the same evening and could probably have managed them both but wouldn’t be back in time from the Motherwell district council Burns Supper in Honolulu.

An exaggeration for comic effect of course, but the fear of political profligacy was behind the resistance in the Scottish Conservative Party to embracing more taxation powers for Holyrood long after the Parliament was established.

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Six years ago, the party finally accepted it was impossible for it to campaign on a low-tax, low-spending ticket if all the Scottish Government did was spend money sent up from Westminster and, after the 2014 referendum, the all-party Smith Commission gave it new capabilities to raise income tax and many others.

In the past few days, we have once again seen the effects played out, with the SNP’s Finance Secretary Derek Mackay abandoning claims to be concerned about Scotland’s competitiveness – and his party’s own manifesto pledge – to embrace the Greens’ high-tax agenda to get his budget through. Higher council tax and new taxes on workplace parking and tourists are just three of the probable outcomes, with a new local taxation system to further squeeze higher earners likely to follow.

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Councils are now being allowed to keep an extra £90m, £7m of which will stay in Edinburgh, but we are to believe this is nothing to do with the £2bn extra coming North through the Barnett Formula.

Handing his supporters a “Whitaboot England” line, Mr Mackay has given councils the power to increase council tax by 4.79 per cent, 0.2 per cent lower than permitted in the south. But Edinburgh residents need not worry about a heftier increase because the SNP-Labour administration is opposed. It’s there in black and white in its 52-point coalition commitment, number 49: “Limit council tax increases to three per cent a year to 2021.”

However, while the Capital now doesn’t face £41m of cuts, it’s still £34m compared to the £28m it expected, plus the £19m it still needs to find from the health and social care budget.

As very much predicted, everyone is supposed to be grateful at this reprieve, with the usual meaningless waffle about fairness, vital boosts, enhanced packages and empowerment, backed up with local cheerleaders attacking critics as “carping”, aimed primarily at the Labour Party. But it’s still an enormous cut when Mr Mackay has more cash than before.

It all seemed so easy in the end, almost as if it was planned, but the upshot of it all is that the Scottish tax burden just gets wider and heavier while key services continue to deteriorate. The test is if given enough rope, whether the SNP-Green alliance hangs itself before the rest of us.

Power to which people?

Long after the yelps of triumph in Edinburgh’s City Chambers had died down, the signature-tune whistles of modern protest could still be heard in the Quadrangle. Power to the People. The rapacious capitalists who wanted to rip the heart out of Old Leith had been sent home tae think again, a development plan for the old goods yard on Leith Walk unanimously rejected.

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It took five hours on Wednesday afternoon to throw out the proposal to demolish the old red sandstone frontage to make way for 471 student flats, a hotel and 53 affordable homes, a plan which bent too many policies and created too many objections for too many local people.

The application undoubtedly became politicised, and thankfully only one councillor tried to score a cheap political point, but by far the most effective was Labour’s Gordon Munro who spat out policy after policy which he said the plan defied; the proportion of affordable homes was too low, demolition of a building of character in a conservation area, nearby homes overshadowed, inadequate cycle parking ... the list went on.

It’s unquestionably a difficult site and policy exceptions were being made in the recommendations because the conflicts were deemed acceptable. There was, however, unanimity that student flats were acceptable, just not quite so many, and had the discussions been led by Edinburgh University and the Castle Rock Edinvar housing association, the partners in the scheme, maybe the application and outcome would have been different.

I did not speak for the plan but it is beyond debate that the site is crying out for development and, for whatever reason, is now a blight on the area not an asset. The developer, Drum Property Group, is likely to appeal.

In the same week as planners backed approval for a plan which caused problems for a host of policies, came advice to refuse another which tested only one, that of acceptable uses for Princes Street properties. But rather than run the risk of official rejection, a plan to convert 123 Princes Street from a shop into a restaurant was withdrawn.

This is a direct result of the block on the Scottish Building Society’s application to take over the old Lothian Buses travel shop on Hanover Street, which failed to win a technical change of use from retail to office. Similarly, 123 Princes Street needed permission to change from retail to food, but the officers judged this would damage the city centre “retail core”.

At risk of becoming like a scratched record, with a fifth of all Edinburgh’s shop floor space switching to the new St James Centre next year, the retail core will no longer be Princes Street, certainly not the West End, and the policy is badly out of date. Meanwhile, potential investors will look at Edinburgh and wonder if it is worth the time and money to take a punt in the bagatelle which has become the Capital’s planning system.

Back to the Edinburgh administration’s 52 commitments, Number 11 said: “Ensure that council policies on planning ... give substantial weight to the needs of residents while still encouraging business and tourism.” There are no residents on Princes Street, so which part of the collapse of an important development fits with Commitment 11?