Could the increasing use of participatory budgeting in Edinburgh be just what local government needs?

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 PS500,000 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.

Participatory budgeting is a means of direct democracy, where local citizens get together in popular assemblies to deliberate on spending decisions which directly affect their communities.

Local government community planning in Edinburgh is run through 12 Neighbourhood Partnerships (NP), and since 2011 the Leith Neighbourhood Partnership has decided how to spend its community grants budget through a system of participatory budgeting called 'PSeith Decides'.

"One of the most surprising things about PSeith Decides is that every year there's been an increase in community engagement."

Maggie Chapman, Green councillor for the Leith Walk Ward who was involved in the initial launch of PSeith Decides, tells CommonSpace: "One of the most surprising things about PSeith Decides is that every year there's been an increase in community engagement. We thought we'd done well in the first year getting over 400 people involved, but year on year more people get involved.

"It points to the opportunity for much more community participation in decision making."

Chapman continues: "For too long we've thought that consultation was enough. It's not. We need to get communities into the heart of decision making. It is one of the best ways to rebuild faith in our political process."

This year, PSeith Decides is asking local constituents how to spend PS22,092 in community grant money, with grants of up to PS1,000 each.

The success of PSeith Decides has led to Portobello and Craigmillar NP agreeing to use a participatory budgeting approach to allocate all their Community Grants Funding in 2015/16.

Other forms of participatory budgeting have been embraced elsewhere in Edinburgh. Almond NP set up 'You(TH) Decides' in 2013 as a way of allowing young people to invite and then assess projects that meet the needs of young people in the area; in 2015, this is being extended to Western Edinburgh NP.

In South Central NP, the Edinburgh University Students Association (EUSA) has hosted the 'Students in the Community Event' for the last four years; through this, students and other members of the community work together to develop projects of benefit to the NP area. Ideas are developed at an annual event, at which participants vote, with the most popular projects securing funding from the Community Grants Fund budget.

Councillor Maureen Child, communities and neighbourhood convener for the City of Edinburgh Council, says: "Giving the community the power to decide how certain budgets are spent is highly valued, as it allows people to make decisions about the area in which they live.

"PSeith Decides is a great example of this - by engaging with local people, the council has been able to deliver targeted improvements and more effective local services, while building up a sense of community among residents of all ages and backgrounds."

The first large scale participatory budgeting process was in Porto Alegre, Brazil, beginning in 1989. It is widely seen as contributing to reforms in the city that have reduced inequality, improved efficiency of resource allocation and drastically increased community participation.

$200m is allocated to participatory budgeting each year, and the process begins at neighbourhood level, with delegates then being elected to represent the neighbourhood at regional and city-wide level.

There are now examples of participatory budgeting in almost every country in the world.

The process begins at neighbourhood level, with delegates then being elected to represent the neighbourhood at regional and city-wide level.

Professor Oliver Escobar, a specialist in participative democracy at the University of Edinburgh, tells CommonSpace: "Participatory budgeting is becoming popular because it can be an effective community engagement tool, but also because in some international experiences it has proven to have immense potential to tackle inequalities and improve people's lives."

Professor Escobar believes the community grant funding model "may be a good starting point" but the aim in the long term should be to "move towards mainstreaming" participatory budgeting in local government decision making.

"It is important to remember that there are several models of participatory budgeting, with the more minimalist being the community grant allocation scheme, and then at the other side of the spectrum the 'mainstreaming model' where a percentage of various public budgets gets allocated via participatory budgeting.

"Evidence from other countries suggests that it is the 'mainstreaming' model that has the biggest impact in tackling local problems and inequalities."

Professor Escobar gave evidence to the Reid Foundation commission on fair access to political influence in 2013, which produced a report advocating, among other proposals, the systematic use of participatory budgeting to allocate local resources.

The report criticised current practice in local resource allocation in Scotland, arguing that it "is done almost entirely on an exclusive basis with consultation amounting to little more than a battle between vested interests bidding for resources". The report advocated "a proper process of participatory budgeting" to enable "citizens to inform budgetary decisions on the basis of their own priorities".

Robin McAlpine, director of the Common Weal think-tank and advocacy group, says that the increasing use of participatory budgeting "may well turn out to be one of the most significant democratic innovations of recent times".

"It's not just that citizens get a chance to decide on priorities, it's that it draws them into an informed debate about strategies and priorities for their own communities," McAlpine adds.

"Back-room government by unelected administrators has alienated people from local democracy. We need new approaches."

The debate over local democracy cannot be disconnected from the question of funding; as local government budgets are increasingly reduced, power is sapped away with it, regardless of which democratic processes are used to make decisions. Community councils are democratic enough, but because they have a yearly budget of less than PS400, there understandably tends to be little interest. After all, people are working increasingly long hours and have to make a careful prioritisation of how they use their time.

However, perhaps a staunch defence of local government funding requires a transformatory approach to its democracy. Those in parliament would feel under much greater pressure to finance local government if they felt it would be a vote loser to do otherwise, and members of the public are more likely to care about something if they feel like they are invested in its future, i.e. they have some direct line to the spending decisions local councils make.

Participatory democracy could be local government's salvation.