Council budget day 2013: facts, fiction and frivolity

Today was Budget Day in the City of Edinburgh Council, and this year was different to the last five council budget days.  For starters, there were no deputations to be heard before we started the debate (more on this later).  And secondly, I was not leading the Green Group as the finance spokesperson, having passed on this joy to my colleague Gavin Corbett who was at the helm – and what a fine job he has done!

We have been clear about our priorities for budget discussions over the last few months: firstly, we have to mitigate the impact of the odious welfare reforms being foisted upon us by a distant and disconnected set of self-interested politicians south of the border.  We need to invest in warmer homes and better schools.  At a time when nearly one in four households suffers from fuel poverty, we cannot afford to ignore this.  And we have to enhance public services and build bridges with an Edinburgh public that has come to see the council as high-handed and autocratic.  Details of exactly how we would have done these things can be found on the Council’s website.

The Labour/SNP Coalition accepted two of our proposals: to invest £100,000 in income maximisation services for people on benefits and to reinstate £50,000 towards adaptations that allow disabled and older people to stay in their own homes.  Sadly, they did not accept our argument for additional resources for employability services, focussing on affordable child-care for lower income families who are accessing training or education.  Nor did they welcome our planned investment of £10million over 3 years for accelerated fuel poverty projects or our £389,ooo Town Centre fund, to create more accessible and pleasant environments for residents, workers and shoppers.  And several councillors scoffed at our desire to transform, quite radically, the ways in which the Council does its business.

An us and them culture still exists, with residents and community groups not having sufficient opportunities to participate in the way their council functions.  There have been some improvements on this front, but we have a long way to go to reinvigorate local democracy.  So we want to invest in making council processes and communications more open and we want to support more people to engage with decision making structures, either through devolving budget processes or through direct contributions to policy planning and strategy development.  We have to engage with our communities in how Edinburgh is run if we expect them to truly participate in the full round of the life of this city.

We want to ensure that we make the best use of the skills and expertise of our own employees, and we want to improve the detailed scrutiny of council processes.  All this will lead to increased trust, and therefore increased engagement in our council from all stakeholders; residents, community groups, voluntary organisations, local businesses, and, perhaps even opposition councillors!

There was much ado about our proposals to increase parking charges for the city centre – several councillors were spreading misinformation (surely not?!) saying we wanted to charge £5 an hour.  This is NOT true.  Our proposal was to charge £3.50 an hour – 50pence more than the Coalition’s own proposed increase.  This figure, costed by the officials, and taking into account projected reduction in demand, would achieve several things: firstly, it will increase turnover on spaces, which is good for retailers; it would allow for more disabled bays, which community groups and equalities campaigners want; and the reduced number of vehicles in the city centre will reduce congestion and air pollution – good for the health of all of us.

There were some entertaining moments too; Eric Milligan is always good value, and today he was spot on – it is a travesty that local authorities do not control their own tax raising powers (thanks to the straight-jacket imposed by the Scottish Government) – and Eric gave us an eloquent history lesson about his nearly 40 years in local government.  The LibDems tried to convince us that they were good at keeping their promises (er, tuition fees, anyone?); but it is no surprise that the three of them are still somewhat sore about their current position in the Chamber (14 seats down from the last election).  And the Tories don’t seem to recognise a balanced budget when they see one – I don’t think they’ve realised there are calculators on modern mobile phones!  There are also several councillors whose memories appear to be failing them; the green group has engaged with the budget process in the past, but we think the process leaves a lot to be desired.

So, an interesting day.  The absence of deputations is not, I don’t think, because Labour is no longer in opposition and therefore encouraging the Unions to complain about conditions.  It does, I believe, reflect the more open and conciliatory approach to this year’s budget process.  Yes, there is a long way to go yet, and I look forward to participating in next year’s financial planning, which I believe must start tomorrow.

Edinburgh Council takes principled stance against Workfare

I am delighted that today, Edinburgh Council supported my call to reject the Westminster government’s Workfare (Mandatory Work Activity) schemes as unjust, immoral and counterproductive.

I put forward a motion arguing that the Council should have no part in forced labour schemes, and, after an amendment from the Labour/SNP coalition administration requiring a Council discussion about any proposed involvement in such a scheme, this was passed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, neither the Conservatives nor the Lib Dems could bring themselves to rebel against their Westminster henchmen.

Workfare profits the rich. Wealthy companies benefit from free labour. They do not have to pay wages or staff benefits. (Didn’t we used to have another name for such ‘work’?).

Workfare threatens the poor and vulnerable. Rather than supporting them into employment, it threatens them with the loss of benefits if they refuse to work without pay.

Sanctions against poor and unemployed people will only exacerbate poverty, leaving these vulnerable people with little option other than to beg for money and handouts, or resort to crime to feed and clothe themselves and their families. It is small wonder that, with such draconian measures being meted out, we are seeing a rise in the use of food banks across the country.

Workfare undermines paid labour, something which we as a council should be encouraging. Edinburgh is doing some very good work improving employability opportunities and supporting skills training for our citizens. We should not, at the same time, be supporting any mandatory scheme that, according to the DWP’s own research, does not actually improve employment prospects.

Workfare undermines real volunteering. Forced labour is never voluntary. Real voluntary work should be supported and encouraged as an important part of building community and social capital. But the threat of loss of benefits that are a part of the Workfare schemes mean that this work can never be seen as voluntary.

Workfare is demeaning and punitive. It puts participants at risk of bullying (as they are labelled scroungers, benefit cheats, and worse). It treats the unemployed as if they were criminals, forcing them to do unpaid work akin to Community Service Orders given out by the Criminal Justice System.

Despite all of this, many companies and charities are involved in Workfare schemes, and Local Authorities are eligible to participate too. I am glad that most councillors in Edinburgh agree that we shouldn’t have anything to do with such schemes.

Boycott Workfare, a UK-wide campaign to end forced unpaid work for people who receive benefits, deserves all the support it can get!

New Leith Time Bank is an exciting development

I’m very excited by the new Leith Time Bank. Time banking is a way to exchange your time and skills for those of others. I’m hoping that it will help to build community in our area. Funding has been made available for the Leith Time Bank, and they’re looking for members. Have a read and see if you’d be able to contribute some time:

“Leith Time Bank is an exciting new idea that gives people like you the opportunity to share time and skills and develop your community.

Not so long ago, we all knew our neighbors and knew which ones we could ask for a favor—and our neighbors knew we would be happy to do them a favor in return. Life has changed and our friends and family do not always live nearby and it is not easy to ask neighbors for help these days, particularly if we do not know if we can ever pay them back.  Leith Time Bank can facilitate these exchanges.

Leith Time Bank is about neighbours being neighbours.

We know everyone has skills, knowledge and experience to offer, which could be beneficial to someone, such as gardening, sewing, listening, simple repairs and running errands. Time Banking is a way for people to exchange their stills and time.

For every hour members “deposit” in a time bank, perhaps by giving practical help and support to others, they are able to “withdraw” equivalent support in time when they themselves are in need. Everyone’s time is valued equally whatever is being offered.

1 hour of time = 1 Time Credit

For example: Jenny, Bob and Patricia are Time Bank members. Jenny has hurt her back and needs someone to weed her garden. Bob loves being outdoors and helps Jenny, earning 2 time credits. Bob need some advice to cook nutritious meals and gets help from Patricia, whose passion is food. Patricia needs someone to teach her simple computer skills so she can stay in touch with her friend who has moved abroad. Jenny teaches computer in university and helps Patricia.

We are now looking for members to join LEITH TIME BANK

(Please find the membership form here)

Anyone can join a Time Bank—everyone is equal—all are welcome.

Everyone has something to offer and everyone can take part.

For more information:     

Senga Armstrong – Leith Time Bank Development Worker

Mary O’ Connell – Leith Time Bank Administrator

Pilmeny Development Project,  19-21 Buchanan St, Leith, EH6 8SQ

Telephone: (0131) 553 2559

Email: sengatimebank (at) btconnect.com

marytimebank (at) btconnect.com”

Support for kinship carers

Caring for others is one of the most overlooked and unvalued roles in our society.  It forms an integral part of the core economy (read more about this from New Economics Foundation here), and yet seldom gets the notice or treatment from political structures that it requires and deserves.

Children 1st have helped produce the manifesto for Kinship care in Scotland, which you can read here: Kinshipcare manifesto 2012.

They have asked all candidates to pledge to support kinship carers.  I think this is very important, and if re-elected, will certainly do what I can to ensure kinship carers get the support from Edinburgh Council that they need.

My response to Broughton Spurtle Hustings questions

At the Broughton Spurtle Hustings on Thursday 19th April, after introductory comments from each of the candidates/representatives, there were questions from the audience.  This is a review of my responses to these questions.

Question 1: Will you represent Leith as well as Edinburgh?  What is your position on the trams?

I will absolutely represent Leith Walk.  It is shocking that Leith Walk has had to endure so much disruption and hassle as a result of the tram project, and we must ensure that we don’t repeat the mismanagement of the tram project.  I do support trams as part of a modern, multi-modal public transport system, that Edinburgh, as a European city, deserves.  Trams encourage people out of their cars, they reduce congestion, and they reduce pollution that negatively affects all our lives.  But, clearly, what has happened in Leith Walk is not just.  All 58 councillors share responsibility for the problem, and we must make sure that we do not let arms-length companies get away with hiding things from the Council or the public again.  That’s why Greens are demanding that the Council does not set up any more arms-length companies like tie ltd, the company that mismanaged the tram project and was dissolved because of this.

Question 2: The ‘Da Vinci Rapist’ has been housed nearby and has had the 24-hour supervision reduced, possibly in response to budget cuts.  What action would you take?

It is clear that there needs to be greater community involvement in decisions such as these, to ensure the consequences are properly thought through.  I will work with Lothian and Borders Police to find alternative ways of addressing this particular issue, and will certainly try to address the concerns that you and others have raised.

Question 3: Where do you stand on the privatisation of public services?

I am opposed to the privatisation of public services.  The Alternative Business Model (ABM) process was an absolute outrage.  Greens opposed this right from the very beginning.  The process cost the Council well over £3 million, and this was a complete waste of money.  The administration never took the in-house provision option seriously – the Public Sector Comparator did not get the funding or support necessary at the time to ensure a proper analysis of what could be achieved in-house.  The Council should focus on delivering core services, not on innovative ways of privatising things.  I was responsible for initiating the process that ended up in halting the tendering process for social care provision for vulnerable adults.  Public services must remain in public hands.

Question 4: What is your position on the future of Leith Waterworld, and what would you do to support the Splashback campaign?

Leith Waterworld is not just a swimming pool – it is a very important community resource and we must do whatever we can to keep it open.  It gives parents and children the opportunity to get to know others, and get support from the wider community.  It provides important social interaction opportunities for people who might have few other such avenues.  There is no legal reason why the Council could not sell the facility to a community enterprise at less than the market rate, or why we would not subsidise a community group to run the facility paying a peppercorn rent.  There are other examples of community-run swimming pools elsewhere in the UK, and I will do what I can to support the Splashback campaign.  Greens opposed the closure of Leith Waterworld and we initiated the delay in the sale of the facility to enable the community to organise an alternative approach to keeping it open.

Question 5: The elderly, vulnerable and disabled need support.  Will you stand up against the neo-liberal cuts?

Absolutely.  There is a reason that for-profit companies win contracts to provide services at lower prices, and that’s because they treat their staff appallingly, often not paying decent wages or pension contributions.  It is no wonder then, that care quality is poor.  We must not let such companies get a strangle-hold on providing council services – this will destroy the third sector in the city, and this is not good for anyone.  For sustainable local economies, we must ensure that we protect jobs that contribute directly to local communities.  We need to see the ageing population as a strength for communities rather than an economic burden, and support their care appropriately.  At the heart of the Green manifesto for Edinburgh is ‘no more privatisation’.

Question 6: How would you restore trust in the statutory notice system?

I am very sorry that so many people have had such a bad experience with this service, seeing price hikes for work, as well as unacceptable delays in getting problems sorted out.  Transparency of how this system functions is important, but as here is an ongoing police investigation, we need to ensure that we don’t do anything to jeopardise potential criminal prosecutions.  However, the Council can do several things to ensure that work that needs to be done is not delayed, and that problems between neighbours are properly resolved.  For example, the Council should set up a bond system to step in and pay for repairs to ensure properties are maintained properly and in good time, rather than incurring expensive delays.  The money could be recouped at a later date (when properties are sold, for example).  The Services for Communities department also should support tenant/owner/neighbour negotiations to try and get any disputes about payments sorted out very quickly.

Question 7: What is your position on the recently approved Ferris Wheel for West Princes Street Gardens?

I understand that this proposal is controversial, and would certainly not support it if it were permanent.  However, for six months, it is probably alright.  I would argue that any rental from the Ferris Wheel must go into the Common Good Fund as the Gardens are Common Good Land, and we should ensure this fund is genuinely used for the common good.  [Added later: I would certainly support the Ferris wheel coming to Leith – in the right place the views of Leith/the Forth would be stunning!]

Question 8: Leith Walk is one of the top 10 most dangerous streets to cycle in the UK.  What would you do to improve it?

I am a cyclist myself, and it is clear that Leith Walk has been neglected.  We must ensure that the cycle facilities are appropriately maintained, that potholes are repaired.  I am a bolshie cyclist, so it is often not traffic that concerns me (although the Greens 20mph policy would be good), but, I recognise that not all cyclists are like me, so we must ensure that the police take their enforcement of aggressive and dangerous driving seriously.  The condition of the roads and cycle paths are my main bugbear, and they must be better maintained.  We must also do more to improve the public realm around Leith Walk.  Many trees have disappeared from Leith Walk, and we should ensure that trees are replanted and flower boxes installed.  The Council must also do more to ensure sites and buildings do not remain empty and boarded up, as this doesn’t do anyone any good.  The Town Centre team must work with local businesses to support the improvement of shop frontages and public spaces immediately outside them.

Question 9: What will you do to stop supermarket chains ruining local shops?

Greens recently started the campaign to change the legislation to enable Councils to distinguish between local shops and national or international supermarket chains.  This will not be without its problems, but it would mean we could better support local businesses against multinational corporations.  Additionally, we need to ensure that out-of-town shopping centres no longer continue to benefit from what is essentially a parking subsidy – they do not pay retail tax on the massive car-parks they have, and this encourages people to go away from local town centres to shop.

I hope these answers bear some resemblance to what I said on the night, and I apologise for my ‘creepy’ habit of referring to members of the audience by name.  (See the Spurtle’s summary of the night for an explanation of this 🙂 )

My Broughton Spurtle Hustings speech

On Thursday 19th April I attended the Leith Walk Hustings at St Mary’s Parish Church, Bellevue Crescent, organised by that most special of local community newspapers, the Broughton Spurtle.  The evening was expertly chaired by Harald Toberman, who gave each candidate 3 minutes to introduce themselves, and then 90 seconds to answer each question.  The Spurtle’s summary of the evening can be found here, and this is what I said in my introductory remarks.  I’ll post my responses to the questions from members of the audience a little later.

My introduction (more-or-less what I said on the night)

Thank you to the Spurtle team for organising these hustings and thank you all for coming.  I am Maggie Chapman, and am honoured to have been the Green councillor for Leith Walk for the last 5 years.  I am very pleased to be here, representing the Scottish Green Party, and seeking re-election on 3rd May.  As a little bit of background to me, when I am not being a councillor, I teach geography and environmental philosophy at Edinburgh Napier University.  I am an active member of the EIS union.  I am standing for re-election with three main priorities for Leith Walk, and for Edinburgh as a whole.

Firstly, I want to put your concerns and interests first, and ensure the Council can harness the creativity and imagination of the people and communities who live and work in the city.  Greens want to give you back your Council and your city, involving you in the decision making processes of the Council, and ensuring that your views are listened to properly.

Secondly, I want to ensure that the Council is instrumental in creating worthwhile and meaningful jobs.  Edinburgh is a fantastic city to live and work in, and we must ensure that the Council supports jobs that are good for communities, jobs that pay the Living Wage, and green jobs like those in insulation and renewable energy.

Thirdly, I want to make sure the Council invests properly in preventative services now, to ensure that we can cope with future pressures.  We are going through a very difficult time, but we cannot afford to jeopardise the wellbeing of future generations by irresponsible behaviour now.

These come together in what Greens call the triple bottom line – ensuring economic, social and environmental justice – to create a better future for us all.

The Edinburgh Greens local manifesto is available online – do have a read if you’re interested in our other priorities and plans for Edinburgh for the next 5 years.