Green councillor Gavin Corbett sets out the party’s “Ambitious for Edinburgh” budget plans for next year.
This is my sixth council budget as lead councillor for the Greens on finance. In the context of £240m worth of reductions since 2012-13, each year the council has had to face difficult choices over where savings need to be made or cuts imposed.
While I strongly support my Green MSP colleagues’ painstaking work over many months to secure the best-ever set of budget concessions since devolution – concessions which have resulted in £12.4 million extra for Edinburgh – I also entirely agree with those Green MSPs that this is a necessary sticking plaster on a funding system that is fundamentally broken. Almost 20 years since that first Scottish Parliament election and that nettle has never been grasped, that need to reform the way that councils are financed.
But over those 6 years I and other Green councillors have sought to do what we can to show that budgets are the product of choices. We have challenged prevailing assumptions over council tax levels, tourist taxes, parking levies and spending priorities, among others, because people who elect us expect us to be more than budget administrators. They expect us to carry the fight to government.
That is why we have labelled our budget proposals this year “Ambitious for Edinburgh”. Our proposals provide a balanced budget for 2018-19, as all parties must do. But our headline ask is unashamedly ambitious: faced with the compelling case for the next big step to be taken in new school investment we don’t think it is enough to adopt a “wait and see” stance. We propose to carry the case to Scottish ministers for almost £200m in new school investment programme in Craigmillar, Trinity and Liberton and in the west and south west of the city.
To pay for that programme we propose that council tax is raised by an extra 0.5% each year from 2019-20 to 2022-23. For a band D property in 2019-20 that would be 12 pence extra a week. In the fourth and final year it would be an extra 53 pence a week. The money raised would then be matched with Scottish Government new schools funding, as in the past, and also added to £25m already earmarked for schools in council capital plans, to provide just under £200m in total.
Those are big numbers. Not all budgets need such big numbers. It is possible to make the same argument at the other end of the scale. For seven years Green councillors, and an increasing number of others, have argued for a Transient Visitor Levy or “tourist tax” as it is sometimes called. Common in other cities internationally, it could raise something between £10-£15 million a year, but has been blocked so far by Scottish Government refusal to grant councils the powers. This is not good enough. So in our budget we have set aside funding to commission a detailed design of just how a tourist levy could work in Edinburgh, taking the next step from it being a campaign slogan to it being a workable scheme.
And finally, on this theme: Green councillors had a clear manifesto commitment in 2017 to properly fund school uniforms for low income families in line with proposals by child poverty charities. The cost of that is an additional £443,000 a year which we have identified scope to fund within our core budget. However, the council receives over £7.4m a year in Pupil Equity Funding (PEF) over and above core funding, with a focus on reducing the attainment gap. Levelling the playing field on the cost of the school day is entirely consistent with that aim but currently PEF money all has to go straight to schools. The schools focus is absolutely right but there is also a case for securing Scottish Government agreement to earmark a small proportion of the PEF to council-wide programmes where that would be more efficient.
These are just three examples of where I believe the council should be getting on the front foot, carrying the fight to the Scottish Government, making clear Edinburgh’s demands. It is what residents, communities and campaigners expect us to do.
But, of course, much of what we do on the budget is also about the priorities that we choose within the budget context we have. Residents expect councillors to act in the best interests of the city and to work collectively where that is the right thing to do, putting aside wider political differences. Over the last three months I have had constructive discussions with SNP and Labour colleagues in the Council Administration and we have identified a number of shared priorities. More money to tackle homelessness; protecting library services; repairs to schools and other public buildings; dealing with high rents; energy efficient lighting and replacing lost city trees – all of these have come up as areas of agreement.
At the time, it is important that budgets present different choices. That is why the Green budget outlines a number of distinctive ideas, including:
- Free bus travel for 16-21 year old care leavers
- A dedicated empty homes service
- Reducing costs by investing in waste services and energy efficiency and renewables
- Play-scheme provision for disabled children
- A city centre transformation fund to accelerate progress towards a more people-friendly city centre.
This is my sixth budget. But it is the first in the new council formed after the 2017 elections; the first for a council which has no overall majority. That can go two ways. Either it will dissolve into party wrangling about who to blame. Or it will result in genuine creativity about ideas that can best serve the city. If we are all ambitious for Edinburgh, I’m convinced it needs to be the latter.
Gavin Corbett is Green councillor for Fountainbridge-Craiglockhart and lead spokesperson on Finance.