Green councillors Claire Miller and Gavin Corbett explain why they have given priority to new schools, social care, homelessness and the climate emergency in a Green budget which is good for Edinburgh’s future.
This week the council sets its budget for the year ahead (2019-20) as well as making some commitments for the years after that. That involves about a billion pounds on day to day services for next year and £900m of capital investment through to 2024.
It is the biggest decision the council takes each year. With so much at stake, it is hardly surprising that much of the budget is tightly contained. Whichever version of a budget is passed, schools still have to run, child protection has to be provided, older people have to be cared for and roads, footways and cycleways have to be maintained.
And although the council is responsible for all that spending, it only has control over a small part of the income. It can raise council tax by just under 5%, and it can alter fees and charges. But the main sources of funding – government grant and non-domestic rates – are out of its control.
This year the straitjacket is tighter because the government grant is well short of what Edinburgh needs. The first offer of grant from the Scottish Government was a drop of £17.9m on the current year. That has since been improved by the national budget agreement with Green MSPs, to £10.9m. In addition, the national budget agreement gives greater flexibility over council tax and more leeway over teacher pensions and pay. Further, the agreement has set in train reforms for future years – 3 year funding, new powers and replacement of the council tax – which start to take council funding seriously for the first time in decades. That is why the umbrella body for councils, CoSLA, welcomed the way Green MSPs negotiated on the budget while other opposition parties sat on their hands.
However, here and now, that still leaves a difficult budget in the year ahead. So, Green councillors have looked very carefully at what we need for the city: a budget which secures Edinburgh’s future. We have identified 3 big themes to do so:
• Tackling the climate emergency
• Helping young people to thrive
• Caring and supporting the most vulnerable citizens
The climate emergency is the great challenge of our age. The IPCC has warned we have until 2030 to get our house in order. Parties which fail to recognise that or duck hard choices are taking a wrecking ball to the future. That is why we have allocated £2.875m to a new climate emergency fund over the next 4 years: a sum, while small in itself, which can be multiplied many times over by drawing in external funders and which can drive change across the council’s whole budget. As a blueprint we have Professor Andy Kerr’s report to the council on how we can seize the opportunity of the shift to a sustainable city. Our proposal is turning that blueprint into action: from transport to energy use and from local food to slashing waste.
One of the most immediate opportunities for step change is in the new schools programme. Across the city, from Craigmillar to Balerno and from Liberton to Trinity and with Wester Hailes and Currie in the picture too, school communities have waited too long for secondary schools fit for 21st century learning. So the headline of our capital programme is securing more of the money needed to drive forward that programme and to build schools which pioneer new sustainability standards as well as providing the kind of facilities that make them full community hubs.
Securing Edinburgh’s future must go hand in hand with meeting the urgent needs of Edinburgh’s present. We have set aside record amounts of money for social care for older people, with a grant offer to the Edinburgh Integrated Joint Board of over £215m next year (up 8.3% from £199m in the current year). Within that is £3.7m for a “change fund” to help the Board deliver new styles of care for the future. The Board may also be able use a strengthened funding position to help further with community groups affected by loss of health and social care grants from April onwards. We expect NHS Lothian to match fund that £3.7m commitment.
Equally pressing is the blight of homelessness. With the city currently spending almost £12m a year for bed and breakfast places for homeless people, it is clear that services for homeless people are not working. We have allocated new funding to invest in early action and prevention work, and to ensure people can move on from temporary accommodation as quickly as possible. Such is the scale of the homelessness crisis in the capital that we are calling on the Scottish Government to support our work with additional funding.
These are just the headlines of a detailed budget proposal. Our budget also gives priority to sport and sports clubs, to tackling empty homes, nurturing the city’s trees and supporting cycling, walking and public transport, among many others. We have also opted to keep nursery teachers where they belong: in nurseries.
How do we fund all of this? It remains a difficult budget. There are service cuts within our budget that, with properly empowered council funding, we would not choose to make. We have prioritised frontline services over marketing activity. We have chosen to reform council funding to Police Scotland so that it is more comparable to other councils. And we have chosen to use our new council tax flexibility to raise council tax above the 3% currently assumed in the budget. That is 0.5% more to fund borrowing for new schools. And 1% to raise £2.75m more for care for older people. That amounts to 36p a week extra for a band D house, rising to £1.60 by 2022-23. If that is what it takes to build schools for our young people and support for our older people then that is what it takes.
Within the tight constraints we face, the Green budget is good for Edinburgh and good for our future.
Claire Miller and Gavin Corbett are Green councillors on Edinburgh’s Finance and Resources Committee.