Lib Dem demise may leave a poisoned chalice for Edinburgh victors

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by a Newsnet reporter

The total collapse of the Lib Dem vote in Scotland continues unabated as Scottish voters turn away from them following the party joining the Tories at Westminster.

This national voting trend in Scotland combined with the Edinburgh tram project debacle could result in near annihilation for the Lib Dems in the upcoming council elections in May, resulting in the biggest local party losing a minimum of at least half its present 16 Lib Dem Edinburgh city council seats.

The Edinburgh Central by-election result indicates the main beneficiaries of the Lib Dem collapse will be the SNP, in agreement with the national voting trends in Scotland, making Steve Cardownie the next Lord Provost of Edinburgh city council

At the moment, Edinburgh city council is already adjusting the political balance of committee memberships to reflect the changed political party group numbers in the City Chambers following the defection of a Lib Dem Elaine Morris councillor to the SNP.  The SNP becoming the biggest party in the capital at the next May council elections would make it the winner for the first time in Scottish political history.

However, the ‘winner’ at the next council elections in May 2012 will have to deal with voter fall out following deep service cuts that the Lib Dems have made necessary after the recent council vote to continue the tram project – the SNP voted against continuation of the tram project.

Victory could well be a poisoned chalice as the council will have to borrow £231 million repayable over the next 30 years, with payments of £15.3m per year.   This means that another £4.8m a year will have to be cut from local authority spending on services on top of spending cuts which the council will have to make to meet the huge funding gap they already have to close.  Thus £11 in every £100 the council spends will go on interest payments to meet the ever-increasing debt.

Total borrowing is currently said to be running at £1.3bn (it may actually be higher than this figure) with interest repayments of approximately £100m a year.  This will take council debt to over £1.5bn with over 11 per cent of the council budget paying back loan interest.

It seems therefore inevitable that front line services will be affected.

However, the recent council vote to push forward with the tram project was based on a costing report that apparently overpriced the cost of cancelling the tram project by £80 million and predictions are that the eventual cost of finishing the tram project could in reality top the £1 billion mark.  This would mean a final required council loan of nearly twice the £231 million loan currently required.  That is to say £100 million to cancel the tram project or up to £500 million plus interest to continue it.

The disastrous poll for the Lib Dems in the Edinburgh Central by-election did show that the Tory and Labour vote ran a close race with the SNP (albeit a voter turn-out of approx. 25%).  Based upon current trends, that may leave the possibility open to the two unionist parties, Labour and Conservative, to form a coalition if they wish to stop the march of the SNP.  Yet, Labour knows the Scots have already visibly rejected the Lib Dems for their coalition with the Tories in Westminster and Labour could well endure the same fate as the Lib Dems should they form a coalition council.

Whoever wins the May elections in 2012 may be very tempted to get out of the tram project altogether, if at all possible, but if not victory could well be a poisoned chalice and Labour and the Tories might just wish to let the nationalists reap the tram project fall out rather than form a unionist coalition.

At the moment the real losers appear to be the citizens of Edinburgh.