Greening the Edinburgh City Deal

Can Edinburgh’s “City Deal” be the UK’s greenest City Deal, asks STEVE BURGESS

The dust is settling on a fifth Holyrood election. In the end, what had been billed as the most predictable election ever, turned up some real surprises.

In Lothian, I am delighted that one-time councillor colleague Alison Johnstone has been re-elected as a Green MSP, along with land reform expert Andy Wightman.  Both bring real appetite for and insight to community-based politics which I believe will serve the capital well.  I look forward to working with them over the next five years.

And there is no time to lose.  One of the issues which bobbed up and down during the election, but never quite gained a hold, was what exactly we want of our local public services and how do we want them to be delivered.

With the next set of local council elections only a year away that question needs to come into sharper focus.

One of Andy Wightman’s striking insights is that Scotland’s councils are far bigger (and therefore less “local”) than anywhere else in Europe. But, at the same time, they have far fewer powers to act in the best interests of the area they are elected to cover.  In Norway, tiny municipalities have more levers to pull than has Scotland’s capital city.

Greens believe that a forty-year trend of centralising power has to end. From Police Scotland to council funding, more decisions need to be made at a local level.

The first big test coming up will be a possible City Deal for the Edinburgh City Region.  Over the next 4 months the council will be working along with 5 neighbouring councils and other players like businesses, the universities and social enterprises to make a City Deal bid to both Scottish and UK Governments. If successful it could releases billions of pounds of funding to improve local infrastructure and economic performance, in return for higher tax receipts that this generates.

In terms of greater local decision making it is essential that as well as funding for infrastructure local Councils get more power over local taxes and public land, for example to tackle the housing crisis by building more affordable housing.

We also know that the city region economy must transform swiftly into the low carbon, sustainable economy which is the only credible future and the source of our future jobs and prospective social wealth.

So the prospectus which the City Deal comes up with can signal the way ahead to an exciting socially and environmentally sustainable economic future or it can lock us in for decades to patterns of development that become like shipwrecks after the economic tide has gone out.

On connecting the region better through transport; is it to be bicycle superhighways, extending the local rail network and enhancing the bus/tram system; or is to be a “roads ‘n’ roundabouts” mix beloved of 1960s planners?  Are we going to see intercity rail become as prestigious as yet more airport expansion?

On workplaces, are we going to see opportunities for people to work much closer to where they live – in Lothian and the Borders and in Fife – and can we finally accept affordable childcare as being as important a part of economic infrastructure as new bridges?

On place-making, can we create the kind of compact, well-serviced neighbourhoods which work as communities and borrow from the best European examples in managing energy, water and waste? And can these place-making principles apply across a range of housing types and income circumstances, so that well-designed places are the norm for everyone?

The Edinburgh City Deal has the potential to lead the UK as being the greenest city deal so far.  Whether that potential is realised will be clearer over the next 4 months – will Edinburgh and its regional partners remain stuck in the past or start reaching for the future?

This blog was first published in the Edinburgh Evening News on 16 May 2016