Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Shining a light on political distortion

An online petition is currently doing the rounds in Midlothian. It states "Midlothian's SNP and Green Councillors have voted to withdraw funding for the erection, dismantling, insurance and maintenance of Christmas lights across our communities", with the emotive strapline "Make the most of your lights ... they'll be your last".

To give some background, a budget was agreed last week between myself and the SNP on which not only were both parties comfortable, given the severe financial constraints, but which also contained significant overlap with Labour's proposals.

However, one line in a long list of officials' proposals which Labour wanted removed was  entitled 'Review Christmas light funding'. Note the word 'Review'. During the budget debate, this item was not raised as a priority by Labour, so its importance to them now would appear to be more by virtue of its being an emotive issue at this time of year than anything else.

However, that did not stop the Bonnyrigg Events Committee from setting up and wildly promoting a petition to 'name and shame' councillors who heartlessly voted to get rid of our lights.

That the Bonnyrigg Events Committee is run by two people who will be the Labour candidates in May should be lost on no-one, and the straying into what may be seen as party political activity by a community group is, well, unusual.

The actual budget proposal "seeks to review all funding for the provision, erection and dismantling of Christmas lights, trees, etc. This will require a specific focus on promoting greater community involvement for the erection, maintenance and dismantling of the lights, etc. The alternative is where the local community provide funding to allow this to continue to be carried out by the service".

My own view is that the review should focus on other forms of external funding - sponsorship or advertising, perhaps by companies which specialise in this kind of thing, for whom the costs would be substantially less than those incurred by the council, and would benefit from the publicity.

Because those costs are now significant - £60,000 a year, or the equivalent of about 3 learning assistants in our schools, and growing as more lights are purchased by community groups. Buying the lights is the easy part, but who pays to then check them, put them up and then take them down every year? Bonnyrigg alone costs around £20,000 a year.

As it's a review, there will be no decision to stop erecting or dismantling them until the review is complete. We do, however, have a responsibility to council taxpayers to review this escalating cost and reduce it if at all possible. If a petition is to be launched, surely the time to do that is after the review is completed and a final decision about to be taken. And yes, if there is strong feeling amongst the population that they agree with the Labour Party that this is one of the highest priorities council taxpayers hold, then the funding will be no doubt be kept.

But let me ask this of those signing the petition. Do you have any idea about the financial problems our council faces? Where do you think the £60,000 should come from? Social care? Education? Children's services? Closing libraries? Road maintenance? 

If you really are getting so animated about a £60,000 cut to a non essential service, how will you feel when the full £40,000,000 of cuts start to hit over the next five years? Yes, you read that right, £40 million.

The Labour budget proposals offered no solution. Although they, rightly in my opinion, called for a more thorough analysis of staffing costs across the council, their savings proposals were vague, involving the bringing forward of staff cuts which are far from even being identified, and assume cutting more back room staff will have no impact on front line services. I'm sorry, but all the low hanging fruit has been plucked and further cuts will hurt, no matter where they are taken from.

That's why my own budget proposals sought to bring in more income, rather than spending less, with a major investment in council owned renewable energy. And I believe we need to start looking for other income streams too.

I'm disappointed that Labour has yet again taken a confrontational position, especially when there was significant agreement across all parties during the budget debate. By working with other parties as I did, they would undoubtedly have achieved some of their aims - probably including this one if it really such a high priority for them. But this is an election year and it seems that some things will never change.