Participatory budgeting is coming of age in Edinburgh, according to Alison Johnstone.
Participatory budgeting is a clumsy title for something that is both simple and radical. It is simple because it says that people who are most directly affected by a decision about how to spend money are best-placed to make that decision. And it is radical because it involves council officers letting go of the decision.
It is the decision which matters. It is not merely consultation or feedback or research where citizen’s views are just “taken into account” but the decision itself remains with the council. In participatory budgeting the decision itself is handed over.
The city council has adopted a participatory budgeting action plan, designed to roll out the process in each of the 12 neighbourhoods in the city. And the Scottish Government has also shown special interest in what Edinburgh is doing as part of the context for its Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act.
Over the weekend just past the latest “£eith Decides” showcase event was attended by Green councillor Chas Booth, kicking off 2 weeks of voting with 36 local projects vying for £22,000 of local grant money. £eith Decides was the first of the participatory budgeting events in Edinburgh and was strongly promoted by former Green councillor Maggie Chapman
Meanwhile in South Central Neighbourhood Partnership, Green councillor Melanie Main, as chair, is presiding over the largest-ever participatory budgeting pot of over £200,000 in South Centra£ Decides – Voice Your Choice.. There are actually 3 pots: one for community grants and one for pavements, railings, footpaths etc. The third is for spending only on council housing areas. The main event is at Methodist Church Centre, Nicolson Square on 30th April 11-3pm, when local residents from age 12 upward can vote.
In the South West of the city, Green councillor Gavin Corbett has been championing participatory budgeting for 2 years, with the first version “Grant a Grand” focused on young people aged 10-19. Sixteen projects are competing for grant of £1,000 each from a total pot of £10,000. Voting is by 10-19 year-olds only and via local libraries and secondary schools, culminating in a community event on 26 February 2016.
Of course, these are very small acorns still. In New York, $32m is allocated via participatory budgeting while Paris aims to have 426m euros (5% of the city budget) allocated in this way by 2020.
The test will be how the city council can tend these small seeds and genuinely involve people much more in the decision-making in the next 5 years. And how the Scottish Government can encourage councils and other public bodies to go boldly where Paris and New York have gone.