A sustainable economy strategy

Green councillor Claire Miller wants to see a new Edinburgh economy strategy which takes a long term view.

The City Council is consulting on a new economy strategy. The existing one, “A Strategy for Jobs, 2012-2017”, bears all the hallmarks of its time, designed as it was to pilot the city out of a UK-wide recession, following the banking collapse. So its three themes of jobs growth, attracting investment and employability, while all still entirely relevant, need to evolve into something more forward-looking. Given the agreement of a City Region Deal and the development of a City Vision for 2050, the economy strategy for the next five years needs to match up.

So what should inform the economy strategy? The council is setting up a number of different events to gather people’s views. A couple of weeks ago, I attended one such event, drawing together people from business, social enterprise and universities. The discussion was fairly broad although one thing struck me: just how consistently the themes of sustainability and low carbon future were echoed. There is often a gap between rhetoric and reality, of course, but I don’t think there would have been the same discussion 10 years ago.

So the expectation that the city region economy of the future is a low carbon, much more resilient, one is almost a given and it is up to the council, both in its strategy and in the City Deal prospectus to catch up. That has potentially transformative impacts on transport, energy planning and production of food and other primary products. Failure to grab hold of those changes will see Edinburgh lose ground in an international competition for jobs and investment.

In other words, the sustainable economy needs to be the underpinning of the city’s future economic strategy.

There are two other themes that strike me as needing real emphasis.

The first is how the economy works to share its benefits to all of the population. The phrase often used is “inclusive growth” although that can often imply having an economy which maximises growth and then, via taxes, redistributes some of the leftovers to people who get left behind. That is the kind of economy we have in Edinburgh – relatively successfully in traditional terms but overseeing a widening gap between rich and poor.

So what if, instead, the kind of economy we had in the city was better at sharing its fruits as part of the way it worked? What might that look like? It would have affordable child-care as a bedrock, of course – just as important a component of economic infrastructure as transport, or land or broadband. It would have universal adoption of a real Living Wage, supported by a Citizens Basic Income scheme in the longer term. It would up our game on training and employment opportunities for young people, building on the successful Edinburgh Guarantee. And it would make sure that people working in the city could also afford the housing costs in the city.

The second is entrepreneurship. Asked to name an “entrepreneur” chances are the most common reply will be Richard Branson, demonstrating the success of relentless brand association, in defiance of reallity. And so, entrepreneurship can become a negative word. However, here in the city, we have some inspiring examples, over the last 10 years, of a diverse group of people who have started and grown businesses and social enterprises: in tech, care, active travel and creative industries. It has helped broaden the city’s base away from financial services – one of the reasons why Edinburgh was able to come through the banking crisis better than otherwise might have been the case.

To take just one example from that list: if the council can address the obvious market failure in offering affordable space for creative enterprises, they in turn cement the city’s reputation as an exciting place to be and to invest in.

And finally, something to reflect on further. As a City Centre councillor I appreciate above all just how stunning our city is. I recognise that people will want to come to visit us from all over the world. We are a city with global reputation and the demands that come with it. So let’s welcome visitors from around the world but let’s share the load of accommodation a bit more widely, let’s encourage more sustainable travel options and let’s talk up the merits of longer stays with a better change to relish all that Edinburgh has to offer.

An economy strategy which embraces some of these themes would be a good start.