Historic agreement welcome but won’t be plain-sailing

As Scotland gears up to host the UN’s climate summit, Steve Burgess welcomes the decision by Green members to back a co-operation agreement with the Scottish Government.

History was made at the weekend past. By an overwhelming majority, members of the Scottish Greens backed the negotiations by the party to enter into government. It is the first time anywhere in the UK that Greens have been in government and will see Greens take up ministerial responsibilities.

But the UK has always been out on a limb. For Greens to be in government is common throughout Europe and further afield. Indeed, it was the example of New Zealand where Green MPs have an agreement with Jacinda Ardern’s Labour-led government which was most commonly drawn on as an example. So, for the Scottish Greens, it’s a big step, but one which is well-trailed.

There are big landmarks in the co-operation agreement. £5 billion for railways, a new community bus fund, a massive leap in funding for walking, wheeling and cycling and a move away from building new roads to better maintenance of what we have. For private tenants – a huge issue here in Edinburgh – new rights and a commitment to lower rents through rent controls. Equally importantly, £1.8 billion for investing in warm, easy to heat homes. At least one new National Park and a raft of commitments on animal welfare and protection of our precious natural environment.

The list goes on. But it won’t be plain-sailing. The SNP has not yet shed itself of its addiction to oil exploration so that will inevitably be a battle to come. With COP26 coming to Glasgow in a matter of weeks the climate emergency lies at the core of Green priorities and, as a councillor, I know that councils will need enabling powers and support from the Scottish Government to turn climate strategies into realities. I expect Green ministers to push hard for councils to have those levers as well as highlighting the path for the country to sever its fossil-fuel dependence.

Beyond that, among Green councillors we had a spectrum of views on the impact of the agreement on councils and some vigorous debate. There are good moves on transport, housing and schools but definitely work to do to ensure that reform of care services keeps decision-making as local as possible. The centralisation of police services, for example, is a warning on the cost of making decisions too remotely. Equally, there is a lot of work to do to give councils the stable and fair funding they need. The obscurely-named ‘Fiscal Framework’ has a lot of good proposals emerging but there needs to be a commitment to actually delivering reform in an area where proposals seem to come and go like spring snow.

And, of course, there is the unexpected. In taking such a historical step Green members know full well that there will be moments where a deep breath will be required. With council elections only eight months away it’ll be an opportunity to show that Greens can make a difference, but equally to show that we can navigate through choppy seas. After 23 years of membership I am looking forward to that with refreshed appetite.

Steve Burgess has been Green Councillor for Southside-Newington since 2007 and is lead spokesperson on the Climate Emergency.