Ben Wray takes a look at participatory budgeting in Edinburgh, which has grown from Leith to other parts of the capital, and asks whether it could be the salvation for an unpopular and increasingly underfunded local government system.
DO you trust your local councillor? Joan McAlpine, SNP MSP, doesn’t think so. She wrote in her Daily Record column recently that Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy’s plans for ‘Devo-Max within Scotland’ – i.e. devolving Scottish Government powers to local councils – were handing power to the unaccountable and, therefore, power is better off residing at the Scottish Parliament.
Perhaps McAlpine has a point about councillors. The recent goings on at Argyll & Bute Council, where councillors face a vote of no confidence after incomprehensibly opposing a community buy-out, and long-standing claims of alleged corruption in Glasgow City Council, just one example being a £500,000 pay-off to a local regeneration chief, do not exactly paint the picture of local government being a bastion of democratic participation and accountability.
The appalling turnout in the 2012 local elections, where just over one in three adults voted, does nothing to strengthen the local councillors’ case.
How much attention is really paid in local communities to these people who meet up within the 32 council buildings in Scotland and make decisions on the public’s behalf over where their kids go to school and how many teachers they have?
How much awareness is there in local communities over who decides whether new socially rented housing is going to be available, whether there will be elderly care space for parents and grandparents, or how many times residents’ bins will be collected?
And if the balance of power has to shift, should even more be handed to local councils or should it be MSPs who play a bigger role?
Perhaps there’s a third option between more power to the local councillor and more power to the parliamentary politician: communities making decisions themselves, through meeting up, talking about what they want money spent on, and then agreeing to do it.
Sound far-fetched? In Edinburgh, there’s evidence that one form of participative governance, participatory budgeting, is being embraced to organise funding for community grant projects.