A proposal by SNP councillors in Edinburgh to de-fund city leisure centres until they raised the wages of their lowest paid staff has been knocked back amid fears it would close swimming pools, shut sports halls, and cancel youth clubs.
It comes after Edinburgh Leisure pulled out of the optional Real Living Wage scheme, which sets a minimum hourly rate of pay people need to “get by” based on the cost of living. Over 600 Edinburgh employers, including the council, are signed up to the scheme, which it is estimated puts an extra £1 million into the pockets of the city’s workers each year.
Edinburgh Leisure, which is a council-funded arms-length organisation, said it “wants to pay the real living wage and have previously done so,” but did not have the funds available to do so this year.
A row over its stance broke out at the council’s policy and sustainability committee on Tuesday, October 24, as the SNP suggested making all future funding conditional on the company ensuring all staff were on the rate, which was just raised to £12 an hour. Although a report said the authority “cannot instruct Edinburgh Leisure to pay the real living wage immediately” an amendment tabled by the opposition group said its funding agreement could be changed to make them increase the pay of the 305 employees who are paid above the government-set national living wage but below the real living wage.
After the meeting, Lib Dem group leader Kevin Lang called the move – which was defeated by nine votes to eight – “one of the most irresponsible acts I have seen in all my time as a councillor”. He said: “Such a decision would close swimming pools, shut sports halls, and cancel youth clubs right across Edinburgh. I can’t begin to imagine the impact this would have, especially for many of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our city.”
The SNP’s Kate Campbell argued it was the “only lever we have” to force arms-length organisations out of paying “poverty wages for people delivering services on behalf of the council”.
During the committee Labour deputy council leader Mandy Watt quizzed officials on what the ramifications of the decision would be. Executive director of place Paul Lawrence said Edinburgh Leisure “could accept that and therefore they would have to find money in their budget which may – and I only say may – mean service reductions”. He said this could see operating hours reduced or some facilities closed to fund the amount needed to boost the wages of the lowest paid, understood to be £473,000.
Lib Dem councillor Sanne Dijkstra-Downie said: “A requirement to pay the real living wage now would lead to service reductions – and the very real possibility of centre closures.” She pointed out the council’s contribution to Edinburgh Leisure was “less now than it was 25 years ago” despite the company’s income and expenditure “going up four times and three times respectively”.
On Monday a special finance and resources committee was held to decide how to allocate the £13.7m underspend from last year’s budget and the SNP group argued £473k of it should go to fund the Edinburgh Leisure wage increase. However members voted to give the full amount to cash-strapped health and social care services on the recommendation of council bosses.
SNP group leader Adam Nols-McVey said: “Just yesterday we proposed a funded way through – that was voted down by the Labour, Tory, Lib Dem administration parties.” He said it was a “red line” for his party and added: “I am concerned that we are trading off the living standards of the poorest employees of Edinburgh Leisure against whatever we fantasise will be the consequences of this decision.”
A report will come to committee in January setting out the “financial and operational implications” of the leisure group becoming a real living wage employer again.
June Peebles, CEO of Edinburgh Leisure, said: “As shared previously with councillors and as reflected in the debate at the committee meeting, Edinburgh Leisure wants to pay the real living wage and have previously done so however, we do not have the funds available to do so this year.”