TWO-WAY dialogue helps to heal, says Andrew Burns
I think you’d need to be inhabiting a wholly different world from the one I live in not to be aware that trust between the electorate and those of us either elected, or employed, to serve that electorate, has broken down badly in recent years.
And you don’t have to look far to find yet another expenses scandal playing out in the media. Of course, this malaise doesn’t simply affect government or councils, but it has to be openly acknowledged before we can successfully re-invigorate our democracy.
It was clear when we formed a Labour-SNP coalition in May 2012 that business as usual wasn’t an option; we had to change the way we do things. That’s why we committed to becoming a “Co-operative Capital”.
If this is to work, it can’t be a one-way street: two-way dialogue is a must. We want to encourage communities, partners and those using our services to become more involved in how these are planned, managed and delivered.
The co-operative council philosophy underpins the coalition’s approach to work on many levels. It means looking at new ways of delivering services but it also means co-operating with other agencies, other cities and, crucially the people of Edinburgh: doing things with them and not doing things to them.
Administratively, we have sought to make the way the Council does business more accessible to people through webcasting meetings and developing the policy review and development sub-committees to give stakeholders more of a role in how we develop policy.
We established the first petitions committee in Edinburgh to enable local residents to have an additional channel to raise issues of concern, with their elected representatives, and directly with the council.
We also completely revised the budgetary process to allow months of debate and discussion before any final decisions are made, this year publishing a draft budget in October – five months before the budget was set. Hundreds of business and residents responded to our consultation and I’m grateful to them for taking the time to let us know their thoughts.
In September 2012, we took on board voters’ priorities and focused our efforts on promoting and establishing cooperatives in four key areas: housing, childcare, energy and social care. In the year-and-a-half since, I’m pleased to report that we’re beginning to make tangible progress in all four.
The power of working with other sectors was recently demonstrated when Edinburgh was named as the site for Scotland’s National Performance Centre for Sport following a campaign led by Heriot Watt University and supported by the Council, Edinburgh Airport, and nearly 5,000 individual supporters – a real victory for Team Edinburgh.
If I appear too Edinburgh-centred in my focus, the impact of a successful Edinburgh isn’t simply felt in the city itself. The “case for the cities” is well rehearsed: successful cities have a huge impact on their surrounding areas and are the driving force behind the national economy.
The establishment of the Scottish Cities Alliance, the collaboration of Scotland’s seven cities, the Scottish Government and the SCDI, has been a welcome step and we are fully committed to achieving its collective aims of attracting external investment, stimulating economic activity and most importantly creating new jobs and business opportunities.
Closer to home, we’ve joined forces with our neighbouring local authorities so that we can work co-operatively on issues of mutual interest such as skills and training, investment and tourism, energy and renewables.
We also became the first Scottish Council, closely followed by Glasgow, to join the Co-operative Council Innovation Network. Despite its origins, the CCIN is detached from any party political structures and is registered with the Local Government Association as an independent network. It aims to enable councils to improve collaboration with citizens and communities, and strengthen co-operative practice.
Together with Glasgow, we are planning a number of seminars and a conference later on this year and I am very keen that we continue to work with them, and hopefully other local authorities, to develop more co-operative practice and to create a Scottish network.
Now more than ever, I see co-operative councils being at the forefront of innovative partnership working across sectors, tackling the serious challenges that lie ahead together and rebuilding voters’ trust in local democracy.
• Cllr Andrew Burns is leader of City of Edinburgh Council