A new political force for Edinburgh?

IT’S that time of year when at least one or two of us begin to entertain thoughts of becoming a local councillor, although if you haven’t already presented yourself for selection by a political party – to contest the upcoming local authority elections on May 5 – you’re probably too late.

In Edinburgh, it’s likely to be SNP versus Scottish Labour, who are currently in coalition with each other.

With manifestos being drawn up and soon popping through people’s letterboxes, it’s also probably too late to be suggesting ideas for possible inclusion.

But one can only dream.

It’s Edinburgh that is the focus of this writer’s day-dreaming, as it’s both where I was born and where I currently call home.

Having just spied a news item, reporting a woman and her partner promising to leave the city, because of the amount of litter in her local area of Leith, I have a certain amount of sympathy. For all its inherent beauty, Edinburgh presents as a city which is not being properly cared for.

Which is the basis of Manifesto Item One, namely to set up a network of area-based ‘city carers’, whose task is to facilitate improvements to their local urban fabric: either by themselves or by enabling others. Together, the network would operate as a gathering place of ideas, contacts and answers to questions. These ‘city carers’ would be each highly visible, to potentially inspire residents to take up tools themselves.

There was talk recently of tourists to the city having to pay a modest levy. Assuming the collecting mechanism has been thought about, the revenue generated from such a move could potentially pay for a ‘city carers’ initiative.

Another assumption applies to Manifesto Item Two: to set up tolls on the outer ring of the city. Edinburgh is uniquely placed to charge vehicular traffic coming in from outside the city, not least from areas where the Council Tax is lower than in the capital. The assumption is that some thought has been given, as to the required technology. Why? Because, in 2005, the city held a referendum on congestion charging – which was roundly defeated, not least because of the potential ‘mixed messages’ that emanated from suggested ‘outer’ and ‘inner’ rings. It doesn’t have to be an expensive toll, to quickly accumulate a substantial revenue source, and, of course, dispensation can be applied to ‘key workers’, in addition to other, specific types of vehicles.

It might be that the total amount of revenue accrued from a tourist levy plus a congestion charge more than pays for ‘city carers’, even dozens of them. In which case, any surplus requires to be subject to democratic and transparently-exercised oversight.

Talking of democracy, a ‘good ideas’ city office can easily harness the potential of properly-policed online voting, which forms the basis of Manifesto Item Three. Online voting could provide, at the very least, an advisory note for local councillors, ahead of them making key decisions, many of them concerning planning applications. It is difficult to escape the argument that key decisions should never be left to a small group of people.

When it comes to planning, there is another compelling argument (there are a few) – Manifesto Item Four – to recast the planning department as being much more than adjudicators of planning applications and operators of a planning applications (online) portal that arguably requires root-and-branch improvement. Developers might even welcome the prospect of increased certainty that would stem from a department that is pro-active, including by insisting on design competitions for key projects.

Manifesto Item Five is simply about reaching out. Every local area faces its own, urban design challenges, whether it’s about road traffic, fly tipping, the provision of urban biodiversity and bench seating or the now-fashionable ’20-minute neighbourhood’ concept. A series of locally-based ‘provocations’ could begin to spark conversations among residents to re-design their own streets. Yes, we’re back to trusting the people, via the operation of a ‘good ideas’ office. A culture of reaching out would extend to revamping the local authority website, to encourage greater interaction and to harvest reasoned and reasonable proposals. It would be interesting to know the visitor numbers to the current incarnation.

In that regard – Manifesto Item Six – the recent pop-up urban design and architecture centre, which was hosted in the former Lauriston Place fire station, should become a permanent fixture.

Almost finally, Manifesto Item Seven would be to locate litter bins in heavily-used thoroughfares every 40m or so, and to have daily collecting (and cleaning – not sullen-can’t-be-bothered uplifting).

Subsequent manifesto items would support many of the city’s already-operating programmes, not least those in pursuit of making Edinburgh carbon-neutral and providing thousands of ‘affordable’ houses.

That’s not to treat them, lightly; it’s just that this concentration of manifesto items makes no apology for being about urban design. Simply, urban design impinges on each and every one of us. And they represent as much a communications and democratic challenge as anything else.

And to finish off: litter bins located every 50m or so on the city’s most littered streets, and cleared and cleaned every day, plus bus shelters at every bus stop, each fitted with electronic data announcing arrival times.

It would be lovely to see the manifesto suggestions being adopted, fully, by a political party with a decent chance of being able to exercise power.

Otherwise, they might require their own, dedicated political party. Hold on to your hats, everyone!

Mike Wilson is a member of the Place Design Scotland team

Picture credit: Place Design Scotland