As we contemplate the start of another challenging year, many of us will be preoccupied with budgets. Whether we are looking at our household finances and worrying about what another cold snap might mean for our energy bills, or – for councillors – trying to reconcile ever tighter council funding with growing need for local services.
Of course, comparing household finances to national or local budgets is misleading – households can’t introduce a tax on pocket money, for example. But in one respect they are the same: failure to invest in the right things now can end up costing us more in the future.
There’s a reason that Terry Pratchett’s principle of Vine’s boots captured so many people’s imagination. The notion that rich people can afford solidly made, good quality boots that will last them for years, while poor people actually end up spending more by having to buy a cheap pair every winter is such a clear case of economic injustice, and one that we can all see played out every day.
We know that we need massive investment in Edinburgh over the next few years. Investment in new energy systems to save people money and reduce emissions; protection for our public spaces from flooding and worsening climate change impacts; building more new homes to prevent homelessness in the first place, rather than spending millions on expensive emergency accommodation after the fact.
But we have to take these decisions while we are also facing the urgency of a cost-of-living crisis which is seeing services on their knees, local business forced to shut, and communities opening their doors to people just to help them stay warm. And that takes bold leadership, willing to be unpopular with some vocal groups in order to do the right thing for the city as a whole.
This year’s Scottish Budget has been the greenest ever with the scrapping of peak rail fares, and investment in nature-based solutions to climate change showing the impact of having Scottish Greens in Government at Holyrood. But the greenest measure in there? The increase in income tax.
Tax is a beautiful thing – if it didn’t exist already, we might just have to invent it. Taxing those who can afford it is right not just because it can help the poorest in society. It also recognises that wealth cannot be accumulated without the work of others and the infrastructure of the state. And acknowledges that having a city with strong public services, where people are happier and healthier, and where we work to prevent and adapt to climate change, is a better city for us all.
I share the frustration people feel at the constant passing the buck we can see in Scottish politics. Local communities say councils should do more. Councils say the Scottish Government must step up. The Scottish Government pins the blame on Westminster. And the truth is, we are all right. Westminster ultimately holds the purse strings, but how we prioritise spending at national and local level is a choice – and we need to be honest about this.
So until local councils have greater powers over their finances, we need to be bold with the powers we do have. Exploring changes in council tax and what this means for different households in Edinburgh. Increasing the revenue we raise from environmentally damaging practices and investing that money in the long-term climate solutions we need. Looking at who is impacted by our spending decisions and – crucially – of the cuts too. And throughout this all, keeping in mind the future generations who will inherit the repercussions of the budget decisions we make in February.
Setting a budget should be about more than what spending will happen over the next year, or even the next political term: the decisions we make now will echo for decades to come. Young people are already facing the disastrous consequences of past decisions which have prioritised greed and growth at the expense of everything else, and we cannot squander the opportunities we have now to invest in the wellbeing of future generations.
As city councillors argue about the budget over coming months, Greens will be keeping this at the forefront of our minds. We’ll be pushing for spending decisions which prioritise the most disadvantaged in society, investing in wellbeing measures, climate change adaptation, and poverty reduction. Nobody is pretending that these decisions will be easy, or cheap. But they are vital if we want to invest in an Edinburgh for the future, which works for us all.