Edinburgh City Council is currently consulting on its budget. When this concludes in future months much play will be made of how many will have responded, though when we analyse it we will no doubt see that most will have done so by tweets.
It seems absurd to me to debate prioritisation £1.5 billion of the most complex of budgets in a maximum of 140 characters. Personally I feel that we should have deeper discussion of such complex issues rather than the slam dunk of tweets.
More discussion is certainly what has taken place over the years when large numbers of residents gather in Leith for the annual Leith Decides event.
Each of our 12 Neighbour Partnerships is allocated funds for spending on local grants. The amount varies depending the on size of the partnership.
My own in Western Edinburgh has set aside annually an amount to be bid for by projects aimed at children and young people. These are ranked by a panel of young people who take their responsibility very seriously. This has seen very good projects getting funding according to the wishes of the people they are aimed at.
Leith Decides takes this “participatory budgeting” a stage further with a larger budget, around £44,000 this year; local groups apply for grants and then residents vote on them. This has worked well on a number of levels; local people have got more influence over this spend in their communities, they end up funding the local groups that clearly most matter to them and remarkably large numbers of people have become involved.
In the past my one gripe would be that they were then discussing very small amounts of funding for the hassle of organising such an event but this year the pot was almost doubled, making it a much more cost-effective event.
That being said, I do think this can be built on to take it a stage further with amazing potential.
Each of the Neighbourhood Partnerships works with, at present, one of our six neighbourhood teams. These teams manage decentralised council services such as council housing, community safety, local environmental services and have budgets often of several million pounds. If several hundred people are going to give up a Saturday to help decide what priorities their community has why not take the opportunity to let them influence, within constraints, the priorities of these mainstream local services. Giving locals more say on how the council responds to issues in their areas would unlock massive potential.
When I have raised this point in the past some councillors have balked at the idea. They don’t want to give hard-won power away. I would argue theses are budgets run by local officers with little or no input from councillors who are focused on looking after the strategic side of spending – the other £1.4 billion or so. They would be limiting the power of the officers rather than cutting the power of councillors. They would also be handing more power to their communities.
By deepening local engagement I firmly believe we can positively shape our communities and the way that residents have conducted themselves in the Leith Decides event shows what might be possible.
Paul Edie is a Lib Dem councillor in Corstorphine/Murrayfield ward