Steve Burgess interview: ‘This is a special city and you have to protect what’s special’

Steve Burgess
Steve Burgess
0
Have your say

In our second leaders interview, Steve Burgess reveals the big plans of the smallest group

THERE is something ironic about the situation Steve Burgess and his two fellow Green councillors find themselves in at the City Chambers. Geographically speaking at least.

Not for them a plush office with Chesterfield sofas, deep-pile carpets and a view of Princes Street Gardens, the city beyond and even, on a good day, the Firth of Forth and the rolling hills of Fife. No, after being elected five years ago for the first time ever, the greenest – and smallest – political group in town got a near-basement room from whose windows you can make out Waverley Station, Princes Mall and the tram works. Not a blade of grass or leaf of tree in sight for the environmentalists.

Burgess isn’t complaining though. He, and Maggie Chapman and Alison Johnstone, who’s not standing as she’s been elected an MSP, were delighted just to make it into the Chambers in the first place. Since then, he says, there’s been little time to spend gazing out of windows.

For a start there have been the 80 or so policies they’ve attempted to get the Lib Dem/SNP coalition to adopt. He smiles: “We’ve had a pretty good hit rate for just the three of us. In the last five years 29 of those proposals have been taken by the council administration to make Edinburgh a better place.

“Some have been small things like support for a small business, Remade, which repairs items and resells them, to larger ideas like Park Green, which has made Edinburgh the first council in Scotland to bring in lower parking permit charges for lower-polluting cars. That was a fairly major shift in direction.”

He adds: “We’ve also got a lot to do with how cycling has progressed to the top of other parties’ manifesto agendas, but under this administration progress has stalled.

“We want to invest £10 per head of population into cycling by 2017. The funding at the moment is £1.4 million that would increase it to £5m, about five per cent of the overall transport budget. And we want to see the pedestrianisation of Princes Street taken forward.”

When Burgess gets going there’s little to stop him. It’s unsurprising though that issues like cycling get a lot of support from the Greens, or the protection of green land – the new Portobello High is a sore point, on which more later. But what about the nuts and bolts of local government – finance?

Edinburgh is balancing its budgets presently, but with a council tax freeze and borrowing tripling in the last five years, can the Greens have a hard-edged economic policy to deal with that?

Burgess stresses that things have changed. “If people think they know the Green Party, I’d say look again and have a look at the manifesto and our record. We’re not just a party of the environment and nothing else. We do have proposals and ideas that cover the whole remit of council activity. We have a lot of ideas about the economy of the city, and city finance and creating jobs.”

Those include a hotel bed tax of £1 or £2 – “less than a cup of coffee” – and social impact bonds, which would see others, such as the health service, invest money with the council in, say, social care, to prevent the elderly ending up in hospital, which is ultimately more expensive in the long term. There’s also a desire to receive more business rates back from the government for green investment programmes.

The biggest idea, perhaps, is that the council should establish its own renewable energy development company. This would work, he says, by massive solar panel and wind turbine installation programmes on council properties. Then there would be a city-wide insulation programme, where the council’s investment would be repaid by the savings people made on their fuel bills. Such programmes, Burgess stresses, would also lead to major employment opportunities.

“There’s fantastic potential for Edinburgh to generate electricity, reduce pollution and make money,” he says. “It’s one of our ideas for increasing council revenue. The council has lots of property out there, lots of roofs to put solar panels and perhaps even wind turbines on.

“Insulating council properties is the other key part. There’s no point generating renewable energy if it goes out the window. The council alone spends £10m a year on fuel bills so there could be very big savings and a lot of job creation.”

He adds: “The council has set up a good apprenticeship scheme with the Edinburgh Guarantee so we would look to see that extended. We’re interested in creating sustainable jobs not ones that just come and go.

“Also the council should spend its money within the city as much as possible when it comes to procurement.”

Another hot topic for the Greens is that of planning. He defends his party vigorously against the suggestion that it’s anti-development, saying development should be appropriate and sustainable.

“Alison Johnstone managed to get the council to go to the Scottish Government to ask for changes in planning regulations so that supermarkets have to receive planning permission even if they’re opening in a retail space. At the moment they don’t because it’s not a change of use, but if they do then at least the need for that supermarket could be assessed.

“We feel local communities need to be given more say in planning. A balance needs to be struck, but sometimes we feel it weighs too much towards developers.”

Now we’re at the thorny question of Portobello High School. Burgess thinks the split in the community there over the building of a desperately needed new school on valuable green space has been the fault of the administration.

“We just don’t think we should have got to the point where a new school has left a community so divided,” he says. “The council did that. We don’t believe there wasn’t an alternative site for the school than the park.

“But parents were forced into supporting building on the park because it was the only way they would get a new school. And the council promised there would be green space to compensate elsewhere, but they’ve reneged on that so no wonder there are some people up in arms about the park disappearing. The better thing would have been to find a site that didn’t involve the park.”

He adds: “Possibly it’s both councillors’ and officials’ fault, but ultimately it stops at the politicians. Councillors are paid to take responsibility. A Green administration would have said, “no, go away and find an alternative” . You can’t keep on getting rid of such assets.

“Edinburgh is a special city and you have to protect what’s special, and green space is one of those things.”

Indeed Burgess accuses the administration of being “cavalier” with its assets and says he’s been surprised at the lack of transparency there’s been within the council, particularly at budget time. The Greens have a host of ways of changing that, from webcasting meetings, to mass budget consultations. So how does he feel that his group might be kingmakers come next week’s election results?

“Obviously we are asking people for their first vote in this election. We don’t see ourselves as second-vote party. But as no party is standing enough candidates to make an administration there will have to be some partnership formed.

“We are happy to talk to other parties about that should that happen. We are very open-minded but we have to see what the outcome of the election is. It would be premature to sit here are say we going to play a part in the make-up of an administration when people haven’t cast their votes.

“But we’re cautious too. The other parties are not green. They talk about green issues but when push comes to shove you find these things are quickly shelved. So it’s about who you can trust.”

He adds: “I just hope people vote on the things that affect them day to day and not who is the First Minister. Obviously the SNP did well at Holyrood but they would be taking the city for granted if they think it will automatically translate into votes here.

“Edinburgh is a great place but it’s been let down by poor decisions and lack of action. We want to change that.”

GREEN MANIFESTO

FINANCE

• Work with our Green MSP colleagues to introduce a fairer land value tax to replace council tax.

• Explore new forms of raising money for services such as Social Impact Bonds, a hotel visitor levy, extra council tax on empty homes.

• Devolve decisions and budgets to community councils and neighbourhood partnerships through “participatory budgeting”. We will commit at least one per cent of the council’s budget to this.

• Create a Voluntary Sector Endowment Fund, by creating income from truly non-essential council assets, to sustain community and voluntary organisations.

• Work to create a living wage.

ECONOMY

• Expand employment through jobs in renewable energy, insulation and recycling and re-fitting programmes.

• Increase the number of apprenticeships in Edinburgh, working with the Scottish Funding Council and local colleges. • Build on the Green Investment Bank to ensure that Edinburgh becomes a world capital for research in, and manufacture for, renewable energy.

• Boost employment through a council policy of buying local and re-focus business advice on local shops and businesses.

• Create a local currency for Edinburgh to increase local spending and investment.

TRANSPORT

• Oppose the development of Edinburgh Airport.

• Prioritise public transport to increase reliability and reduced journey times and maintain supported bus services.

• Reopen the South Suburban line.

• Make the existing network of walking and cycling routes comprehensive across the city, and invest £10 per head of population in cycling by 2017.

CULTURE/LEISURE/SPORT

• Protect community, leisure and sporting facilities from closure and invest in them to build the social fabric of our communities.

• Protect existing leisure facilities from closure and support the reopening of Leith Waterworld, either as a publicly-owned facility or as a community-owned social enterprise.

• Maintain support for Edinburgh’s festivals and community arts.

• Use local environment budgets to set up more community gardens on spare land and provide courses for growing fruit and vegetables.

EDUCATION/CHILDREN

• Ensure that families who need extra help can find it in local, friendly, welcoming family and children centres.

• Invest more in nursery schools and teachers and extend free nursery education for three and four-year-olds.

• Provide programmes in disadvantaged areas to help parents support their children’s education and provide a positive home learning environment.

• Decentralise more power and budgets to schools and give Parent Councils more influence.

ENVIRONMENT

• Encourage the installation of community-owned renewables and local heat and power schemes, funded through sources such as Green Deal and planning gain. We will work towards new developments using 100 per cent renewable energy, with 20 per cent generated on-site.

• Protect the green belt.

• Set a robust presumption against any further building on the city’s precious green spaces.

• Continue to oppose large-scale biomass incineration.

• Pilot a community rebate to neighbourhood groups which reduce their waste to landfill beyond set targets, paid directly to communities, thus incentivising an increase in recycling.

HEALTH

• Improve health and reduce pollution by investing in public transport, an accessible and safe cycling network, and measures to make walking easier and more enjoyable for all.

• Measure our progress using a comprehensive well-being indicator. This will assess the impact of our policies on quality of life for individuals, communities and the city.

• Support moves to help people personalise their care and so maximise their independence.

• Support local community health projects and community centres that promote healthy, active lifestyles, particularly in disadvantaged areas.

HOUSING

• Tackle fuel poverty through a comprehensive home insulation programme and exploit opportunities to introduce local and renewable energy provision in homes.

• Commit to implementing the national statutory target to house all homeless people by the end of this year.

• Introduce a consistent standard for all temporary accommodation owned or commissioned by the council.

• Enforce planning agreements so that housing developers actually deliver on commitments to provide affordable homes.

• Make cooperative stair partnerships more enforceable.

• Take firm action on private landlords and letting agents who flout the law.

PLANNING

• Establish a fund for communities to challenge developers who persistently seek to re-open Planning Committee decisions.

• Open up Planning Committee meetings to allow community representatives to express views on the decisions that affect their area.

• Integrate planning decisions with transport strategy.

• Encourage land owners to release land for community gardens and allotments.

CRIME

• Work with the courts and police to pursue restorative justice, to help victims recover from crime and rehabilitate offenders, but only with victims’ consent.

• Take a firm stance on organisations or individuals who indulge in homophobia, race hatred or any other form of discrimination.