What does participating in local democracy mean to you? Turning up at the polling station every five years to do your civic duty and elect your councillors? Responding to public consultations? Attending community council meetings?
What if it could be more exciting than that? What if it could involve…money?
The term ‘participatory budgeting’ might be a bit of a mouthful, but the recent Edinburgh Community Climate Fund shows that giving people a real say over how council money is spent is proving extremely popular. The council initiative, which ran between January and March, invited applications from local projects that would help Edinburgh meet our 2030 net zero climate target, with residents voting how the £100,000 fund should be allocated. The council was inundated with an incredible 56 applications from across the city. Having to select only five projects from this treasure trove of great ideas seemed almost impossible, and I’m glad Edinburgh Council allocated an additional £40,000 to allow at least eight projects to be funded.
It’s clear the city is ready for more participatory budgeting (PB). While Leith Chooses remains the longest-running participatory budgeting scheme in Scotland, for a long time it was the only such initiative in the capital. That now seems to be changing, and the popularity of PB is unsurprising – compared to more advisory forms of public engagement like consultations, it puts real power in the hands of local people. Whether residents get to decide on grants for community projects or how the city should spend a slice of its transport budget, PB recognises that we can make better decisions if we bring together the technical expertise of the council with the people who are experts in their lived experience of this city – the residents. The Community Climate Fund wasn’t perfect – there is work to be done to get more people to participate, to make the process fairer and more inclusive. But the initiative has shown us what is possible if we make decisions with our communities rather than for them.
More than just improving our decision-making, involving the whole city in allocating public budgets can renew a local democracy that, if not completely broken, is showing significant signs of strain. Nothing exemplifies this better than the most recent council budget setting process. With its lack of consultation and with private deals cooked up behind closed doors by the “not-a-coalition” of Labour, Lib Dems and Tories, it was the very opposite of an open and transparent process. Only if we give people a meaningful say about local priorities and how the services they use should be delivered can we restore a healthy democracy and empower those who have long felt excluded and neglected by those in power.
Nationally, the winds blow favourably for more community empowerment. The Scottish Government has set a target that a minimum of 1% of local authority budgets should be decided through this process. To date, Edinburgh Council has seemed hesitant to meet this target. Relinquishing power can be scary for councillors and council officers, and the challenge of designing democratic processes that promote fairness and inclusivity is significant. But I hope that the success of the Edinburgh Community Climate Fund shows that the time is right for more radical, participatory democracy. We just need to be brave.
Jule Bandel is the Edinburgh Greens councillor for Inverleith ward