Positioning Green councillors in Edinburgh

It is 100 days since the SNP and Labour groups formally formed a Capital Coalition in Edinburgh: Melanie Main and Steve Burgess give a Green perspective on what it means for how the council works.

Within hours of the council elections on 5 May, a renewal of the SNP-Labour coalition in the city chambers always seemed the most likely outcome, albeit with a role reversal in the relative size of the parties. It may have taken a while, thanks mainly to the unexpected general election of 7 June, but on 15 June, the two parties signed an agreement and that was formally cemented by the council on 29 June.

The Tories have been fond of saying that they achieved the most first-preference votes back in May (although one less seat than the SNP) as if that lends their words more weight than would otherwise be the case. But since that vote share was won on the back of a wholly cynical campaign seeking to turn the council elections into a contest about Scottish independence, they can hardly be surprised that their influence has diminished even though their numbers have risen.

Here in the Green group we signalled not long after the election that we did not envisage ourselves as part of any formal coalition but were prepared to offer support on a policy by policy basis to those ideas which advanced Edinburgh in greener and fairer directions.

So, consistent with that, over the last few months, we have secured overall council support for key Green manifesto commitments such as:

  • Pioneering a low emission zone in Edinburgh to tackle the deadly scourge of air pollution.
  • Taking part, with three other councils, in a pilot of Citizen’s Income in Scotland, also now supported by the Scottish Government.
  • Putting Edinburgh in the vanguard of introducing a rent pressure zone, to deal with the high cost of renting in the city.

We have had fruitful discussions with other parties on topics as varied as transparency of voting, pay rates for care staff and reducing plastic bottle waste. Our influence has been important in giving pause for thought on one of the landmark transport design issues facing the city, at Picardy Place, although it remains to be seen what the final outcome will be.

But at the same time we have also been true to our word and made common cause with other opposition parties where that was merited, best illustrated by 3 examples:

Firstly, Greens have played a lead role in scrutinising arrangements for more decisions to be made in Edinburgh’s 4 localities. It is precisely because we are instinctively drawn to decentralisation, that we thought it wrong that a council committee was being asked to sign off Locality Improvement Plans before proper decisions were made about how localities would work or what powers they would have. By engaging Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors, we ensured those plans were sent back for further work.

Secondly, back in August, we sided with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in highlighting what we thought to be quite reasonable criticism of weak council performance in some service areas. Only the absence of one of the Lib Dem councillors prevented that observation winning the day; instead, the Lord Provost’s casting vote determining the decision.

Finally, by way of example, we supported Liberal Democrat councillor Kevin Lang to be a council representative on the Edinburgh Airport Consultative Committee, ahead of a Capital Coalition nominee, because we listened carefully to the case he made and were persuaded that, of the nominees, he was best-placed to offer robust scrutiny of the airport.

In many instances, particularly at full meetings of all councillors, where there has been a need to vote, Greens have voted along with the Capital Coalition. That should come as no surprise to anyone who listened to our intentions after 5 May. Faced with a choice between an SNP-Labour coalition and opposition groupings in which Conservatives have the largest number, Greens will, more often than not, find ourselves with the former. However, we have also, on a number of occasions, forged our own singular path in expressing a view – debates on non-domestic rates and on City Region Deal are two recent examples.

And so it will continue. It is a five year term and we are sure that there will be a few more twists and turns on the road. The looming budget decision in February 2018 will undoubtedly throw up a few more challenges. Meantime, however, we are confident that we are doing what our supporters want us to be doing for the good of the city: engaging constructively and securing support for positive Green ideas; while also signalling that we will call out decisions that need to be called out.

Cllr Melanie Main and Cllr Steve Burgess are co-convenors of the Green Group of councillors