Leadership in a climate emergency

Edinburgh’s Green councillor group has elected two new co-convenors for the year ahead: Melanie Main and Alex Staniforth reflect on what matters in political leadership.

Leadership is much in the headlines at the moment with the pantomime that is the selection of the UK’s next prime minister.

Whoever becomes the next Conservative Party leader, he will immediately take on the full powers of the role, including the power to hire and fire those who have pleased or irritated him in the past. It is an odd, old-fashioned, view of leadership in which the power of patronage is not questioned, no matter how poorly the leader-in-waiting has performed before taking on that mantle.

In the Greens, we do things differently. Leadership is just as important, but it comes without the power of patronage. Decisions are made collectively and the role of leadership is to make sure decisions are made at the right time and, once made, are followed up.

That is why our leadership selection processes happen annually without all the breathless fanfare of challenges and resignations which other parties are locked into. It is also why, here in Edinburgh, we have taken on the role of co-convenors of the eight-strong Edinburgh Green councillors group from Cllrs Mary Campbell and Chas Booth, with the unanimous agreement of the group.

So what do we see as priorities for the year ahead? It will hardly come as a surprise that the global climate emergency looms largest over our work, with scientists warning that massive change is needed before 2030. No politician who is serious about their responsibilities can fail to recognise this.

The good news is that the strategy our city adopts to tackle climate breakdown is also what makes Edinburgh a better place to live in.

So the city centre transformation project, linked to the city mobility plan and the introduction of a low emission zone is about rebalancing how city travel works: towards 21st century public transport and cycling and walking. All the evidence from other cities, some of which are years ahead of Edinburgh, is that getting the rebalancing right is a major bonus for the local economy, especially local high streets and small businesses and for the health and wellbeing of people who live here.

Tackling the massive rise in holiday lets is about making sure that, first and foremost, homes remain as homes for people who need somewhere to live year round. It also reflects the fact that as an international, outward-looking capital, Edinburgh welcomes visitors; but that the sheer scale of global tourism is quite literally unsustainable. An industry high on addiction to cheap flights, is in danger of destroying the unique things that make travel so enriching, so eye-opening.

Judging Edinburgh’s progress by what really matters is absolutely critical. Our colleague Claire Miller recently persuaded other councillors on the city’s housing and economy committee to investigate what are called “well-being measures”. Currently, the impact of the city’s economy strategy and big programmes like Edinburgh City Region Deal are judged against a yardstick as crude as the combined value of all that is bought and sold in the economy, taking little or no account of the workers’ conditions, or a massive increase in pollution for example. Well-being measures are being taken seriously by countries as far apart as Iceland and New Zealand, to look at what really matters: from clean water and air, and the quality of homes and our streets, to the level of equality in a society, or the way in which people can have a say over decisions which affect them.

So Edinburgh could be a pioneering well-being city. Would that be enough to ensure that the great coral reefs survive; that polar bears don’t go the way of the mammoth; or that Orkney’s great treasure Skara Brae is not washed into the sea? That is also in the hands of many more people in many more cities. But Edinburgh would be a happier, more civilised place in the meantime. And that is a decent test by which real leadership should be judged.

Cllrs Melanie Main and Alex Staniforth are co-convenors of the Edinburgh Green councillors group.  This blog was first published in the Edinburgh Evening News on 15 July 2019.