Well, Does Leith Really Decide?

Posted by in November's Magazine

In 1833, when Leith finally became a Municipal Burgh, sixteen people were nominated to govern the town. There were also parish boards with members drawn from local churches and representatives of local ratepayers. The parish boards helped skint locals – or at least the god fearing ones who had fallen on hard times – running the poor houses and dispensing aid, if they had the cash. And there was a school board run by local people too. Responsible, by 1920, for managing no less than 20 schools including one in Fife for children with special needs. And more local folk were involved in running local services like dispensing justice, and managing public works. All this largely paid for from local taxes.

Even after that unfortunate referendum when Leithers voted five to one against merging with Edinburgh, only to have the result ignored, there were seven Leithers on the Edinburgh wide school board that subsequently emerged, eight Leithers on the amalgamated parish board and twelve councillors drawn from Leith on the new city council.


Whilst it would be wrong to suggest that this period was some sort of democratic utopia (the number of people allowed to vote was tiny) it seems remarkable now to think just how many decisions about the running of the town were made by local folk, using money raised locally, to respond to local concerns.

Fast forward nearly a hundred years and Leith sends just three councillors to a city chambers, which is itself hugely, restricted in what it can and can’t do by Holyrood. Indeed these days research from the Jimmy Reid Foundation suggests that Scotland is one of the least democratic places at a local level in all of Europe. We have the least competitive elections, elect fewer people per person, and fewer of us vote than anywhere else in Europe. So what? You might say. If no one votes, it’s because no one cares. But to see the effect of this, all you need do is watch the first ever full council meeting broadcast online from the city chambers, or if you have a life, just the bit where councillors debated the closure of Leith Waterworld.

There, councillor after councillor – some even supposedly representing Leith – lined up to tell volunteers from the Save Leith Waterworld campaign that their offer to take over the management of the pool at a reduced subsidy wasn’t good enough for them to think about re-opening it. Despite the fact that the volunteer bid for the pool had the backing of a huge petition, and support from civic bodies representing every part of Leith.

In addition to running the pool on the cheap, councillors seemed to suggest that they would only consider re-opening the pool if local volunteers can come back with an additional £1.5million in the next few months. To buy a pool that was already paid for by public taxes! All because the council needs money to pay off some of the debt they built up rebuilding an elite swimming pool in the leafy suburbs of the south of Edinburgh. But hey that’s (what’s left) of local democracy for you.

Leith Decides
In the Spring of 2013 Leithers are to be given the chance to decide directly on how £20,000 of council cash should be allocated to local projects as part of the third annual Leith Decides event. The 2012 event saw hundreds of folk turn out to find out more about local projects and vote for the ones they thought were the most deserving of the cash. Local councillors and the officers who’ve worked on the process do deserve credit for upping the total amount of money that’s going to be allocated by public vote – and increasing the size of the grants available to £1200.

The success of Leith Decides proves that if people feel they really can influence a decision they will turn out in droves to shape their neighbourhood. Maybe people do want to get involved after all? And of course there is a flipside. It also highlights the lack of real local democracy throughout the rest of the year. The Leith Neighbourhood partnership officials control far more cash than £20,000, although it’s almost impossible to find out exactly how much…
imagine if Leithers could vote on a far larger pot?

City councillors recently spent tens of thousands of pounds on new ideas for rebranding Edinburgh. When the award winning marketing firm they hired – ironically from Leith – came up with Incredinburgh, they ditched it in the face of a bit of Twitter mocking. If Leithers were asked to decide on whether their council tax money should be spent on rebranding the city, or on keeping a local pool open – I wonder what they’d vote for?

Info: Alastair Tibbitt is a trustee of Greener Leith writing here in a personal capacity.

Find out more about Greener Leith at greenerleith.org.

Find out more about the Leith Decides project at http://bit.ly/LeithDecides

Twitter: @allytibbitt

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