Running Edinburgh: one year on

It is a year since the council elections of May 2017: Green co-convenors Melanie Main and Steve Burgess give a Green perspective on where the SNP-Labour led council stands now.

Within hours of the council elections on 5 May 2017, a renewal of the SNP-Labour coalition in the city chambers always seemed the most likely outcome, albeit with a role reversal in the relative size of the parties. It may have taken a while, thanks mainly to the unexpected general election of 7 June, but later in June, the two parties signed an agreement.

The Tory claim

The Tories have been fond of saying that they achieved the most first-preference votes a year ago (although one less seat than the SNP) as if that lends their words more weight than would otherwise be the case. More recently, their claims have been amplified with the resignation in turn of two senior SNP councillors, Lewis Ritchie and Gavin Barrie, both now sitting as independents and making the Tories the largest single party, with 18 of the 63 seats. With less than 30% of the seats the Tories would need the support of a further 14 councillors to form even the most slender majority.

But since the Tory vote was won on the back of a wholly cynical campaign seeking to turn the council elections into a contest about Scottish independence, they can hardly be surprised that their influence has diminished even though their numbers have risen. The truth is that many Tory councillors owe their seats to a political gambit which, although electorally successful in the short term, gives them absolutely no mandate to govern. In the year since the election we have learnt plenty about what the Tories are against; very little about what they are for. A Tory-led council would be a shambles.

Green policy gains

Here in the Green group we signalled not long after May 2017 that we did not envisage ourselves as part of any formal coalition but were prepared to offer support on a policy by policy basis to those ideas which advanced Edinburgh in greener and fairer directions.
So, consistent with that, over the last year, we have secured overall council support for key Green manifesto commitments such as:

• Pioneering a low emission zone in Edinburgh to tackle the deadly scourge of air pollution.
• Taking part, with three other councils, in a pilot of Citizen’s Income in Scotland, also now supported by the Scottish Government.
• Putting Edinburgh in the vanguard of introducing a rent pressure zone, to deal with the high cost of renting in the city.
• Tackling the increasing problem of poorly-managed holiday lets in residential areas

In the budget of February 2018, while voting for our own budget amendment, we also secured shared priorities like more money for homelessness, disabled children’s play and action on energy efficient lighting and lost street trees.

And we have had fruitful discussions with other parties on topics as varied as transparency of voting, reducing plastic waste and protecting people accessing pregnancy services.

Holding the Coalition to account

But at the same time we have also been true to our word and made common cause with other opposition parties where that was merited. For example, we engaged with Liberal Democrat and Conservative councillors over the sign off of locality improvement plans and the right of locality committees to determine who the convenor should be. We supported Liberal Democrat councillor Kevin Lang to be a council representative on the Edinburgh Airport Consultative Committee, ahead of a Coalition nominee, because we listened carefully to the case he made and were persuaded that, of the nominees, he was best-placed to offer robust scrutiny of the airport. On the major review of schools in the west and south west of the city we have made clear to the Coalition that we are sceptical about the direction of travel initially set out.

Constructive politics

In many instances, particularly at full meetings of all councillors, where there has been a need to vote, Greens have voted along with the Coalition. That should come as no surprise to anyone who listened to our intentions after 5 May. Faced with a choice between an SNP-Labour coalition and opposition groupings in which Conservatives have the largest number, Greens will, more often than not, find ourselves with the former. We have supported the Coalition as well, when faced with grandstanding Tory motions presented with little real substance and even less dialogue. However, we have also, on a number of occasions, forged our own singular path in expressing a view – debates on non-domestic rates and on City Region Deal are two examples.

Looking ahead

The resignation of two SNP councillors shows that all is not well within the Coalition. Added to that, on the Labour benches, there are some self-styled mavericks with all the political judgement of toddlers who’ve eaten too much sugar. It is not a happy alliance and the administration shows little sign of clear direction and purpose. For the sake of the city, they need to stabilise, sort out their squabbles and competing egos and get a focus on improving services. A Tory council may well be a shambles but the current incumbents in SNP and Labour are doing their best to show that the Tories don’t have a monopoly on that.

Meantime, we are confident that we are doing what our supporters want us to be doing for the good of the city: engaging constructively and securing support for positive Green ideas; while also signalling that we will call out decisions that need to be called out.