The council will set its budget on 22 February. It is the single biggest decision the council takes each year, affecting £1.52 billion of spending on day-to-day services and another £200 million of investment in the city fabric.
There is no doubt as to the headline need for the year ahead. After decades where day-to-day maintenance has been less sexy than opening new buildings, there is a gap of at least £153m to bring our schools, libraries, community centres and depots up to scratch. That is a priority that no party in the city chambers can ignore. Green councillors will certainly make it a central plank of our budget.
Of course, a general consensus on the pressing need for more money in repairs and upgrades means that there is a bit less wiggle room for other budget options. So, the good news is that, thanks to constructive negotiation by Green MSPs in Holyrood, Edinburgh is £27m better off than when the city’s budget consultation was issued in November. There is a lot still to do, both on the annual funding settlement, plus unlocking the powers councils need over council tax, business rates and new measures like tourist levies. But, for the time being, there is more breathing space to allow important choices to be made.
First of all in transforming council services. Areas like social care for older people and homelessness services are under constant pressure, partly because of rising demand, partly because harsh cuts by the UK Government to welfare budgets simply pass the bill to local councils to pick up. These areas need extra funding, now, but in a way that also tackles system reform: for example, putting older people and their families more in charge of their care or helping homeless people get into homes as quickly as possible without long stays in high-cost, low-quality, temporary housing. Secondly, given the scale and shifting patterns of demand for school places, the council needs to invest in more capacity to consult with and seek ideas from parents, pupils and communities about the future of schools and the areas they serve. 2018 is the Year of Young People. What better way to mark it meaningfully than having a school set-up that is fit for the 21st century, and one which the school communities themselves have shaped?
But my focus is also on those young people often left behind. That is why I will be exploring free bus travel for all young people looked after by the council. And it is why Green councillors are also determined to offer better play and recreation opportunities for those children and young people with disabilities. The third and final theme relates to the kind of city we want for the 21st century. In Edinburgh we are so lucky to be the inheritors of decisions made decades ago to green the capital. The city is currently blowing that inheritance, however, with the net loss of over 6,000 street trees since 2011. That is social and ecological vandalism and needs put right through a five-year planting programme, involving schools, nurseries and community groups. And it is not just the green “infrastructure” that needs attention. A programme of LED lighting in public places to accompany a recent council decision to turn 54,000 street lights to LED, and a drawing on national funding pots for electric vehicle charging should be priorities. So too should be a new fund to kick-start city centre transformation – designed around people not traffic volumes. These are just a flavour of Green budget priorities: changing the shape of services, socially just, and future-facing. Leading change for our capital city.