It was with great sadness I read the proposals for City of Edinburgh Council’s Budget – not least of which those around the Education budget for which I had responsibility in the early 2000’s. Suggestions like removing nursery school teachers and ending free music tuition break my heart because they show signs of the real desperation amongst our decision makers as the suggestions are the epitome of short-termism. When we consider the power of creativity and the importance of early years, the cost of the impact on future generations of Edinburgh’s young people will far outweigh the money ‘saved’. And when we combine this with the real struggles in support for children with additional needs, things are very much nearly at breaking point.
Just to be clear: some of these decision makers are not just former colleagues but good friends. And in truth, it’s not them I am challenging (though I am deeply concerned about their proposals). Their task is just impossible. Where do we find £35m this year, and more next year? I am deliberate about using ‘we’ rather than ‘they’. This is about our city and our nation, and we need to collectively find solutions. All the evidence would suggest local government has been harder hit than most public services. The amounts announced in the recent Scottish Budget, itself a heavily caveated set of numbers because the Westminster budget is not yet agreed and may even be delayed further, are at least a 6% cut overall.
We need a very different conversation about how we spend our money. It’s money we all contribute to fund the public services we all rely on. And if the pot isn’t big enough, we need to ask why, can we make it bigger and how can we change the conversation about how we use what we have.
A few years ago I was a member of the Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy. It was deliberately entitled as such so it was about local democracy rather than local Government. It was a conversation not about structures but about culture. One of the key recommendations was the introduction of what’s called Participatory Budgeting. This is the practice of devolving sums of money to local communities, who then make decisions as to how it is spent. At least in part because of the commission, though not only because of it, there is something of a movement building up in Scotland and a commitment for 1% of money in Local Government to be spent this way – 1% is £100m so it’s a not inconsiderable sum
The roots of participatory budgeting are in Porto Alegre in Brazil where up to 10% of the City’s budget was spent this way. What was interesting for me was how the initial conversations were not on what the money should be spent on but on the values which should underpin any decisions. Politicians who were then elected to the City Council were held to account based on those values being evident in the decisions they took about the spending of the other 90%
In Cyrenians we know the power of values based decisions and how, even when faced with the toughest of decisions, knowing our values is the best place to start. Perhaps its time we pushed a bit harder for similar values-based conversations among and with our elected members. If these budgets are so tough they cause us real worry and concern, let’s together have a conversation first about what values we want to see when those budgets are proposed. Then maybe we might see a different approach and some different conclusions to what are undoubtedly very difficult decisions. And our relationship with those to whom we entrust those decisions might feel a bit different too.