You don’t believe me? Let’s look at the most recent meeting of Edinburgh City Council. The agenda was a cornucopia of daily life in the capital, from a report on child protection, that made sombre reading, to support for taxi drivers, whose livelihoods have been all but destroyed by Covid.
Councillors have direct responsibility for the public services that we all depend on, from nursery schools to social care; local transport to sport facilities; refuse collection to clean air.
Your local councillor may not have the same high profile as your MP or MSP – and she most definitely does not earn the same generous salary as her parliamentary colleagues – but her decisions, good and bad, will directly affect your life. Just don’t expect them to be always clear cut.
Take public toilets. Not the most glamorous of subjects I grant you, but essential to public health, and if we are to be persuaded to abandon our online shopping carts and return to the high street, clean, accessible, and safe public toilets are an absolute necessity.
Not everyone can afford to rush into their nearest Starbucks and order a non-fat mocha latte to go, just so they can use the loo, and the queue at the ladies in Marks and Spencer is usually longer than the one at the Food Hall self-service tills, so I was relieved to learn that Edinburgh City Council has a plan for the “future provision of public conveniences”.
Councillors have just agreed to spend £5 million to upgrade its existing public toilets (except the ones in Colinton, a pretty village suburb) and install “emergency” ones in busy city parks to stop people (men) relieving themselves in public.
The revamped loos will be “gender neutral”, “easy to clean”, “cost effective” and will maintain “proper privacy and dignity”. And instead of spending a penny – or 20p – access to the gleaming new cubicles will be by contactless card. So far, so 21st century.
The phrase gender-neutral gave me a bit of a start. I don’t have a problem with stand-alone unisex toilets, as long as the man before me remembers to wipe the seat he has just dribbled on, but I would object to queueing in an enclosed space with a group of drunken lads, or worse. And I most definitely would not take my young granddaughters into a public loo awash with blokes.
Don’t worry, said Councillor Lesley Macinnes, convenor of the city’s transport and environment committee, after I expressed my concern on, where else but Twitter. “There is no intention by @Edinburgh_CC to create mixed toilets in an enclosed setting,” she tweeted. “Instead, new provision will centre on individual toilet units for all to use. Also, greater emphasis on accessibility as well as safety.”
So far, so clear, but as ever, the devil is in the detail of the council report. There are 17 public conveniences in Edinburgh, not including poor old Colinton, which no longer “aligns with proposed plans for public provision”.
The majority – 15 – are to get investment, but don’t expect the public loos at Portobello or South Queensferry to stay where they are after a makeover. According to the plan, five of the existing loos will be “aligned” with the “20-minute neighbourhood programme”. A quick Google search and I discover that this programme is a city-wide plan to develop council hubs where “everyone can use services in a 20-minute round trip on foot, cycle or public transport.”
Digging beneath the jargon, such as “new models of shared delivery”, “synergies between services” and my favourite, “the 'serendipity' of finding out more from one visit”, I discover that over the next ten years, the city council plans a network of these hubs, which will include library services as well as public loos.
The first phase – city-wide engagement – is due to start soon, and the council hopes that they will be able to create “a strategic approach to the location of our services rather than the existing organic way buildings have grown up over the last century”.
I rather like organic towns and cities, where 1960s brutalist blocks sit next to Edwardian sandstone tenements, but I understand the need for a more structured approach.
Edinburgh is a growing city, with plans to build at around 50,000 more homes over the next five years. This will mean more schools are required, more bus routes, more public services, more councillors even. And councillors will need more money to invest on our behalf, on essential stuff like social services, new transport routes and safe public toilets.
But funding to Scotland’s 32 councils has been slashed in recent years. According to Scotland in Union research, from 2013-14 to 2019-20, the UK government cut Scotland’s revenue budget by two per cent, but the Scottish government chose to reduce council funding by a staggering seven per cent. The cost of the pandemic will only make things worse for Scotland’s councils, and by extension, us.
In its recent manifesto, the SNP promised a Local Democracy Bill, to “further empower local communities”. More jargon. What we need as we emerge from lockdown, is not “synergy” or “serendipity”, but for our councils to get their fair share of funding. It’s Councillor Macinnes and her colleagues who will rebuild our communities, not Nicola Sturgeon. Time to loosen the purse strings, First Minister.