The election’s over. Britain’s leadership is in tatters. Nothing has been decided. It’s at times like this we should forget the “big picture” and look at the small picture. Because it’s the small things we decide to do for ourselves in our own communities that really matter. Right now I couldn’t care less what Westminster decides. I care what Leith decides.
In case you didn’t know, “Leith Decides” is an actual thing. It’s been going for eight years. It’s called “participatory budgeting” and it’s pretty damn amazing.
Once a year, there’s a proper social marketplace where Leith community groups literally set out their stalls in the Kirkgate Community Education Centre and pitch for funding of between £1000 to £3000.
Anyone over eight years old who lives, works, studies or volunteers in Leith can vote. The community groups who get the most votes from their friends and neighbours in Leith get the money.
When I say “pitch” I don’t mean it’s like The Apprentice, all suits and smartphones. Everything’s home-made and amateur in the best sense of the word, from the signs above people’s stalls to the scones they’ve baked to tempt folk over to talk to them.
My wife and I have been on both sides; pitching to get funding for Leithers Don’t Litter then walking round all the other stalls, finding out what they do and casting our own votes, with the Leith Community Concert Band blasting out tunes in the corner, brass instruments sparkling, uniforms pressed.
Leith Decides happens between October and March every year. So why am I talking about it now? Because a wee bird told me there are plans to scrap the marketplace community event and have an e-vote instead. And that would be tragic. You can’t stage a Leith community event online. Since last year, you’re allowed to vote online as well as in person but that’s quite different from losing the social event and shoving the whole deal online instead.
The council gets a lot of stick but it deserves massive credit for backing Leith Decides all those years ago. Community events like this don’t just suddenly pop up overnight like mushrooms. The council officers who’ve made it happen, good people like Loraine Duckworth, have had to keep it happening despite shrinking council budgets, with the help of volunteer community workers. But now Loraine’s retiring and unless we act now an event that brings the whole community of Leith together will be reduced to a mouse-clicking exercise.
I felt a bit short of inside information for this story so on Monday I paid a lunchtime visit to Gordon Munro, Leith’s Labour councillor up at the City Chambers. He was just coming down to earth after his narrow defeat standing for Labour in the election but he was kind enough to make time for me. I brought him a Caffe Nero pastry in case he hadn’t had any lunch and he looked at it then gave me pelters because it wasn’t a mince pie from Masons Bakery in Newhaven.
He ate it anyway then we got down to business. I asked him what he had to say about the situation: “I think it would be wrong to relegate Leith Decides to the internet. It diminishes the community. And it distances the community from the council. This was one of the places where the community and the council came together and helped each other. The value of the Leith Decides day isn’t in the amount of spending it dispenses, which is small – and should be larger in my view – the real value lies in bringing people together and working together, realising that there’s a strength in this community that doesn’t get shown except when people gather under one roof for Leith Decides.”
“But isn’t an online vote still a pretty level playing field?”
“I don’t think it is. An online vote is open to abuse in my view. It means a really worthwhile social project can get massively outvoted by a school that just wants some new playground equipment. The school doesn’t even have to turn up on the day and make its case. Small groups that get funding from Leith Decides deal with people who have really serious issues that need to be resolved. If they’re a small group helping out maybe 30 people, for them to be fighting for funding with a school that has 3OO children, who’s going to win that battle in an online vote? Then think of who’s going to lose. In Leith ward we have 25 per cent child poverty and in Leith Walk ward we have 26 per cent. One in every four kids in Leith is living in poverty. The Edinburgh average is roughly one in five. We’ve got child poverty rates that are above the Scottish and the city averages.
“There’s any amount of small local Leith organisations who could make a lot of money go a long way. For example, Leith Athletic Rugby Football Club are doing coaching with schoolkids on Friday afternoons. If families can’t afford rugby tops or boots they try and provide them.”
“So what do you think is driving the move towards an e-vote?”
“There’s two things: staff taking early retirement and not being replaced. That and the plan to create four ‘localities’ out of the 17 wards we have in Edinburgh. Leith would be in the North and East locality but we’d be bundled together with places like Craigmillar and Portobello. Economies of scale.”
“Do you think there’s still a chance to save Leith Decides day?”
“I do. I think we’ve got till August. Right now it’s something that’s unique to the Leith area and maybe it’s something the council doesn’t know enough about.
Perhaps they think it’s something they could quite easily discard because they don’t understand its true value to Leith. But I believe that within this new locality structure, you could still allocate budget evenly, in a way that allowed Leith Decides to continue as a participatory budgeting event, a social event where the whole community comes together.”
That’s the good news, folks. If community groups in Leith speak up now, Leith Decides stands a chance of remaining the vital, vibrant event it’s always been. Not some digital ghost of its former self.
I got a call from Gordon at teatime. I’d left my specs in his office and he met me down at the Kirkgate to hand them back.
After he’d gone I realised I was standing right outside Projekt 42, a pop-up “Test Zone” for a not-for- profit gym that offers counselling and life-coaching as well as exercise classes under the banner “Happy Bodies, Strong Minds”.
The real gym is being built in the old tram depot on Halmyre Street and it’s going to be a tremendous asset to Leith. The founder, Sarah Hawkins, pitched the idea at Leith Decides and got a £1000 grant that set her on her journey.
If you want to save Leith Decides Day, write to Paul Lawrence, Edinburgh City Council’s Director of Place, and tell him what it means to you or your community group.