Participatory budgeting – next steps

Let’s not lose sight of people power over public budgets, says Chas Booth

‘Participatory budgeting’ is a clumsy name for a simple idea. The more decisions over spending money are made directly by people affected by those decisions the better.

It’s over 20 years now since participatory budgeting (PB) was first used in Brazil, by giving citizens the decision over the use of some public funds through a vote. Since then, it has spread to all corners of the globe, in some cases backed by very big budgets. In Lisbon, for example a budget of 5 million Euros has been allocated through public vote for projects to tackle the climate emergency: planting trees, building cycle lanes, dealing with surface water, and so on.

As a Leith councillor I am naturally very proud that £eith Decides was the first such project here in Scotland, set up by Maggie Chapman, then a Green councillor for Leith Walk (now Green MSP for North East Scotland) back in 2011; and it is still going strong, now as Leith Chooses. The last round of funding, for projects of up to £5,000 each, sees council budgets supplemented by money from Port of Leith Housing Association and the tram project to make up a £56,000 pot. Applications are due by 30 November with an online public vote in January.

And for a while it seemed the idea was really taking off in Edinburgh. Other localities in Edinburgh, from Portobello to the Calders, got on board, with neighbourhood funds put to the public vote. Tynecastle High School became the first school in Scotland to allocate some of its pupil equity funding through this method. Edinburgh University Students Association got in on the act too.

In 2017 the Scottish Government and local authority umbrella body COSLA agreed to a target that 1% of council budgets should be allocated through participatory budgeting. Modest though it sounds, that amounts to £8m in Edinburgh alone, 160 times the size of the current Leith Chooses budget.

But it has felt lonelier the last couple of years. The pandemic, understandably, has re-directed attention to core council services. Leith Chooses has continued and evolved but is the only surviving PB project in Edinburgh. Two weeks ago, at the council’s Finance Committee, councillors agreed to a revised framework to meet the 1% target. In a nutshell, PB will no longer be centred around a public vote but will be broadened to cover projects in which there is greater public engagement over spending decisions. It’s PB but not as we know it.

Now, more public say over budgets is a good thing in itself. And, of course, there are many public budgets which are not suitable for direct public votes: decisions over child protection as one of many examples. However, at the heart of PB is a decision. Who decides is what defines PB.

So, in moving forward in this new form of PB, it will be important to draw a clear line between budgets that are decided by the public, and those which are merely influenced by it. There is so much creativity out there – for projects to improve greenspace and the natural environment, sporting facilities, community assets and all the rest – which Edinburgh needs to be open to and harness. And the public should be central to that journey.