Helen Martin: Back to basics is the way forward

HANDS up all those who were against the Edinburgh trams project in the first place. Keep your hand up if your reservations weren't actually about the trams, but about your faith in Edinburgh City Council being able to deliver.

It would be wonderful if all of us who agreed could wander about all day tomorrow with our hands raised heavenward just to prove what a damn fool idea it was and how many of us have always known it was doomed to failure. Alas, we'd be wasting our time.

Because whether we land up paying 300 million for nothing, or 1 billion for a tram system, we know that public opinion is the last thing that will sway the cooncillors when it comes to spending our money.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Certain disapproval didn't make them think twice about blowing 84,000 on a new microphone system for their debating chamber, or 9m on developing plans for congestion charging despite it being obvious that the vast majority of the public (75 per cent as it turned out) would vote against it.

Edinburgh City Council is no worse than any other in the country. And to be scrupulously fair, the present ruling group had little choice in the tram matter, it having already been signed and sealed, though certainly not delivered, by the previous Labour group.

But, put at its simplest, all modern councils, regardless of their political affiliation, are just too big for their boots and function under delusions of grandeur.

Councillors need have no particular business expertise, no expert knowledge of economic development and, crucially, no money of their own sunk into whatever wacky endeavour they choose to undertake.

One of the most telling comments, I thought, came from a council spokeswoman asked about the possible abandonment of the tram project. She said: "It would not be appropriate to put anything in the public domain that would impact on talks with the consortium."

Hello? Who's paying for this? Who is funding this secret squirrel Monopoly game?

And there we get to the heart of it. Big projects involving big money need big guns. If an Alan Sugar or a Richard Branson was involved and it was their private investment at stake you can be sure they would not be excluded from contractual talks and they would make damn sure it didn't go off the rails.

Indeed, that is the calibre of hand on the tiller that is essential for such a huge undertaking, not a motley crowd of butcher, baker and candlestick maker, wannabe politicians who may, in their professional life, have run nothing bigger than a whist drive and who have come to regard the public purse as bottomless.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

In reality, our pockets are getting shallower by the day. More and more people are going to have to choose between eating and paying council tax. Meanwhile, the Accounts Commission for Scotland has criticised all councils for squandering millions and ignoring the economic catastrophe under their noses.

Just as Nero fiddled while Rome burned and Marie Antoinette questioned why the starving people who couldn't afford bread didn't buy cake instead, our councils still take a third of our council tax money for their own pension pot.

The banking system isn't the only thing in need of an overhaul. There is a strong case for councils going back to basics. They are not, as they seem to believe, entrepreneurs, economic developers, gifted speculators or visionary politicians.

They still struggle with the basic services of refuse collection, street lighting, road maintenance, swimming pools and libraries – and perhaps they should be confined to running these . . . if they can.

There's an argument for Scotland-wide authorities on the tricky bits such as planning, education, social work and housing to ensure consistency and capability.

There's no evidence that I can see to show putting local services in the hands of local authorities has paid off, either in quality or value for money.

On the contrary, a return to part-time councillors with a limited, back-to-basics remit is now compellingly attractive to the average council taxpayer.

Penny drops

When RBS built its corporate village in Gogarburn, I was among its clients who thought: "Is that what they're spending my money on?"

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

If only. The reality of millions spent on toxic overseas debt was even worse.

Now the full horror has come home to roost and up to 20,000 RBS jobs are going to go. I note that, where possible, staff are to be relocated to the "Western Wonderland" as I like to call it, and some city branches will close.

After all, why put customer convenience ahead of a monstrously huge white elephant that could be sold and redeveloped as a holiday camp or a government building?

Good gracious! People might think they were actually desperate for business and that would never do.

I fear by the time the penny drops it will have gone out of circulation. . . and so might the bank.