It’s eight months since the SNP’s Ian Campbell resigned as one of the councillors for the Craigentinny-Duddingston area, and the Returning Officer for Edinburgh has now earmarked a by-election on 12th November. In the normal run of things the vacancy would have been filled long since then but – as we are all well aware – these are not normal times. In fact, this by-election will be fought in probably the toughest set of circumstances that anyone can remember.
That’s what makes it so important. The filling of one vacancy out of 63 won’t change the balance of power in the city council. But it is an opportunity for voters to make clear what direction they want the city to go in as we recover from the shockwaves of the pandemic. Election of another SNP or indeed Labour councillor simply adds to the ranks of the sitting administration, endorsing more of the same from a group which, frankly speaking, is limping towards the end of its term. For the exceptional times that we find ourselves in then, it’s clear that the status quo won’t do. These are times for bold action to meet the great challenges our city faces – challenges of fairness and inequality, now made worse by the pandemic.
On a whole slate of measures, Edinburgh is a capital scarred by inequality. From the divide between the wealthiest and poorest children at school, to the access people have to clean, green and safe neighbourhoods, the contrast in the city is stark. Take housing. In no other place in Scotland is poverty and inequality so driven by housing failures: absurdly bloated rents, long queues for scarce social housing, endless waits in high cost, low quality temporary accommodation, reckless landlords and letting agents, and a runaway short-term let market. As the recent Poverty Commission report made clear, we can’t make Edinburgh fairer without tackling those failings: bringing down rents, regulating landlords and holiday lets, investing in low cost housing and creating jobs through improving dry warm homes.
But we also can’t make Edinburgh fairer without tackling the other great challenge of our time too: the climate emergency. Edinburgh has a target to be zero carbon by 2030. To fall short of that would be to duck our responsibility as Scotland’s capital city and to further entrench the inequalities which already exist in our society. But to meet that target means making choices now to do things differently – an unprecedented transition towards walking and cycling; prioritising major investment in public transport; protecting more of our green spaces and natural word; rethinking how we heat our homes and how we grow our food. The list of changes we need to see goes on.
Of course, the present is the coronavirus crisis and the inequalities it has laid bare. But the future doesn’t have to be that way. We shouldn’t settle for more of the same, and we must be brave enough to choose to do things differently. Let’s start in Craigentinny-Duddingston on November 12th.