Greening Edinburgh’s budget

Edinburgh Greens’ Finance Spokesperson, Gavin Corbett, outlines Green hopes for next year’s City Council Budget.

It’s never going to command headlines, but there’s a new way of doing budgets in Edinburgh this year.  Gone are the days when Administration and Opposition groups worked away on alternative budgets in isolation, all to be unveiled, with a flourish, on budget-setting day.  This year the Capital Coalition produced a draft set of proposals (far from a full Budget, mind) last November, sought public views and then produced a revised set of proposals six days before budget day on 7 February.

There is still a lot to do to improve the process but it is a step in the right direction.  It has allowed a better exchange of ideas between Coalition and Opposition and marked out where there is common ground.  That process of consensus-building has been worthwhile and it has felt like the door has always been open.  So, the Greens have agreed with the Administation on many areas for additional investment – on Living Wage, for example, or on the need to invest better in early intervention for children and young people in troubled circumstances. Subsequent changes, to restore £1.2 million of planned cuts to the voluntary sector and to sustain investment in employment and training services also have our backing.

However, there are three themes that I want to see if we can press further this year.

Taking the edge off welfare cuts

We hear a lot about the fiscal cliff in the media.  But there is another one looming: the welfare cliff.

We think it is our duty to mitigate the effect of welfare cuts coming from the UK Government.  Every council in the land will have this high on the risk register.  Even the most hard-headed municipal bureaucrat will fear the displacement of greater pressure onto council services.  So taking mitigation action is pragmatic.  The Greens want to see £100,000 added to income maximisation services, to ensure that all of our lowest-income citizens are getting the best deal that they can. We want to restore a cut of £50,000 to the home adaptions service, knowing how cost-effective these services can be in keeping people safe at home.  We’d like to see a better transition plan for housing support services which hitherto have been free and now will attract a charge.  Most radically, we propose a £1 million top-up payment for a discretionary housing fund, to mitigate the effects of the appalling benefit bedroom tax which goes live on 1 April.  And we want to add up to £300,000 to employability money, specifically to address access to child-care for people on low incomes seeking to get into work, training or education.

Warmer homes, better schools

Turning to capital investment, the assault on the welfare system is as much in our thinking here too.  By investing £10 million in tackling fuel poverty over the next 3 years, we can create at least 160 jobs and 10 apprenticeships, while reducing the pressure on the lowest-paid families and older people, through reduced fuel bills.  We can do this by drawing on a largely untapped fund in council reserves, which comes from extra council tax income on empty and second homes.  We also want to use some of that money to fund an empty homes post within the council, a post which we can believe can become self-funded as homes come back into use; and to look a radical new forms of community land and housing ownership.

Up until now, long term investment in social housing has been funded through above-inflation rent-rises and this coming year is no different with council house rents going up by 5.9%.  The day of the £100 per week council house will soon be on us.  With the second-highest rents in Scotland, we recognise that this way of funding improvement leaves tenants and the council as a whole all the more exposed to welfare cuts.  Finding sources other than rents makes common sense.

Similarly, with schools, the Greens know that Edinburgh is about a decade behind some other councils in exploring energy efficiency and opportunities for renewable energy in our public buildings. We want to add £1.5 million to the school investment budget, improving comfort levels in schools, making “Eco-schools” come alive, and freeing up money for books, resources and the things that make a real difference at the chalkface.

And we understand that Curriculum for Excellence is about learning real and interactive.  That is why we pledge another £500,000 for a playground transformation fund, matching the superb fundraising efforts of parent groups but with special allowances for special schools and schools in disadvantaged areas where fundraising capacity may be lower.

To pay for that additional capital investment we will re-direct £3 million of the planned £12 million doubling of the roads budget, with £1 million  extra earmarked for cycling infrastructure, to raise the bar of expectations on what a cycling city can really look like.

Changing public services

I believe that a lot of what the Greens propose runs with the grain of what the Capital Coalition wants to do.  We were delighted last week when the Labour and SNP groups decided, at the eleventh hour, to back a community bid to re-open Leith Waterworld and put money in the budget to do so.  That synergy of public money and community energy surely points a way forward.  So, likewise, we want to explore options for the City Council to use its financial muscle to offer support for community renewables for the kinds of public liability risks which were responsible for killing off a community wind turbine at Seafield. We’ve made the case for greater access to information through an Open Edinburgh initiative and put aside funding for trialling new forms of participation in the way Edinburgh is run.  And we aim to save yet more off landfill tax costs by investing in winning over more hearts and minds for recycling.

Paying for it all

I’ve already set out how we have balanced our capital budget.  On the revenue side we have made the numbers stack up through a package of measures, from saving another £500,000 from consultants costs, £300,000 from communications and marketing related costs and £100,000 from better temperature control in council buildings.  We want to increase income from residential parking permits by making the cost of a second car permit significantly more than the first permit, to emphasise just how precious car-parking space is.  And we’ll scrap the ineffective free city centre parking during festivals.

In general, we aim to raise more income from parking charges right in the city centre. However, we will not proceed with Coalition plans to charge for city-centre public toilets.  And we will plough additional revenue back into town centre investment.  There is a vibrant future for our city centre and local centres but it does not lie in trying to compete with out-of-town centres or online retailers like Amazon.  For town centres to flourish they need superb public realm and exiciting environments and freeing up space from cars is needed to do that.

Funding and choices

The language of austerity is universal just now.  Councils are working within standstill grant-funding from Scottish Government, business rates determined centrally and a continuing council tax freeze which shows no sign of thawing. Here in Edinburgh, the Coalition was swift to dismiss proposals for a visitor levy put forward by the Greens.

So the budget is being set within very tight constraints.  Colleagues of all parties who truly value local government as a democratic institution in its own right share our regret at the emasculating effect the continuing council tax freeze has on accountability of councils.  All parties know that one day a thaw will have to come and the longer it is left the more difficult the thaw will be to manage.

Meantime, we still have choices. The Green Budget offers the Council enhanced ways of protecting the most vulnerable from welfare cuts.  It invests for future benefit.  And it seeks to build on the immense reservoir of talent and energy we have in our communities.