While Alex Salmond received a hero’s welcome at the SNP conference in Inverness last weekend, controversy has been brewing back in Edinburgh. On Thursday, the City of Edinburgh Council – led by a coalition of the Liberal Democrats and SNP – will be taking the first of a series of votes on whether council services should be privatised. This week the contract for waste and recycling, street cleansing and parks maintenance is up for grabs, and council officials have produced a report recommending that the work goes to a private company called Enterprise, who entered a low bid in the tendering process, but are now in financial difficulty. Over the next two months, further decisions will be taken on whether to privatise other services, including council tax collection, benefit payments, building maintenance, cleaning, and school catering, with the successful bidders winning contracts for seven to twelve years.

The Conservative and Liberal Democrat groups, who have 27 councillors between them, are expected to vote for privatisation, while the 18 Labour and Green councillors will vote against. This means that the 13 SNP councillors collectively hold the casting vote, and rumours abound about their voting intentions, but nothing has yet been confirmed. A debate was organised on Monday evening to give members of the public the opportunity to ask councillors questions about the proposals, but neither the SNP nor the Lib Dems sent anyone to represent them. The audience were angry, particularly because there has been no meaningful public consultation on the issue, and this was one of the few opportunities they would have to express their views to councillors.

The token attempt at consultation was a focus group exercise carried out by IPSOS MORI, which the was hastily arranged in August after campaign groups were set up to oppose privatisation. Few details are available from the six-page report that was generated, because it is kept in a locked “data room”, accessible to councillors only after they have signed a secrecy agreement, for fear that its release would “prejudice [the council’s] interests”. Despite this, a few copies of the report have been leaked, and extracts were read out during the debate on Monday. The few Edinburgh residents lucky enough to have been asked were suspicious about the use of private contractors; they were worried about spiralling costs, reduced service quality, or job losses, and objected to the idea that public money would end up in the pockets of shareholders. Instead of taking these views into consideration, the report calls them “outdated” and “dogmatic”, seeing them as obstacles to be overcome. As privatisation wasn’t mentioned in either the Lib Dem or SNP manifesto, and the council’s own consultation found that residents want to keep services in the public sector, there’s absolutely no mandate for signing contracts with the private sector.

If the SNP ignore their constituents, they do so at their peril. This isn’t just a minor local stushie with the council: it’s a serious challenge to the SNP’s popularity playing out just a few hundred metres from the Scottish Parliament, where the party won a convincing majority earlier this year. Scotsman writer Martin Hannan voiced the thoughts of many SNP voters in his recent column by stating that he would be “utterly appalled if any councillor from [his] party was to vote for privatisation” – the public don’t expect this kind of decision from a party who many people are putting their faith in to protect Scotland from Westminster’s attacks on public services. The next Scottish local elections are due to be held in May 2012, and with the collapse of the Lib Dem vote (they’re down to only 5 seats in Holyrood, from 17 after the 2007 election), the capital city’s council is certain to be a target for the SNP next year. Tactically speaking, it’s a bad time to take an unpopular decision which could result in private sector contracts that would outlast the next council administration. And as these could potentially be the last elections to take place before the independence referendum, it’s no wonder that there are rumours of more senior party members putting pressure on the councillors to vote against privatisation.