In Conversation With… Cllr Gavin Corbett

LGiU Scotland’s Kim Fellows is talking with Gavin Corbett, a Green councillor at the City of Edinburgh Council, about canals, the climate emergency and community clean-ups.

Just to kick us off, it would be useful if you shared your thoughts about your work as canal champion and especially any learning that could be applied to other local government work.

I’ve been Edinburgh’s canal champion for about 18 months now. I’ve lived for a long time close to the Union Canal in Edinburgh so it’s part of my daily life, and I think the council have recognised that is useful in appointing a canal champion for this year, and then beyond. The main purpose is to ensure that the canal strategy, which was set in 2011 in Edinburgh, is actually delivered, and also that it’s adjusted as we go along. In terms of learning, I suppose having a champion role in general gives useful focus. Edinburgh’s got a number of champion roles for groups including for carers, or for veterans, so the topic varies quite widely. Having a strategy that underpins any work that champion takes forward is really important, so that there’s actually grounding for what’s going on and there is something you can communicate and share with other people. Also, I know this is a very predictable thing to say, but having a dialogue with partner organisations, in my case Scottish Canals, but also the communities or businesses along the canal – that’s vital. In a way my job is about making sure that the canal isn’t just a historical artefact left over from 200 years ago, but that it’s actually very much part of community life in the very different communities it passes through in Edinburgh and all the way out to the border with West Lothian.

Do you think there’s learning that could be applied to other local government work?

Yes, I would commend the idea of a champion role. I’m not a member of the administration here, and I do think it’s a way of trying to ensure that people, who want to take responsibility for an area, but without executive responsibility, can get their teeth into something. So the canal champion is something where I’m involved with engagement across partner organisations, with developers who are interested in using the canals as an asset for their development, but also, most importantly for me, the communities that live there and making sure that they’re not just living beside the canal but actually living with the canal as part of their neighbourhood.

Readers would be interested in your work around community growing, litter, green space, and especially how you involve the communities that are traditionally “hard to hear”?

That’s a big theme, and I think most councillors who are reading this will have a similar theme around litter, and street cleanliness. It is a common bread-and-butter issue to deal with so trying to turn that negative into something positive, and also connecting to other ways in which a neighbourhood might be improved is key. In my case, the best example of doing things throughout the area is an area called Hutchison in my ward in Edinburgh. It’s a traditional council estate built in the 1920s and 1930s and there’s quite a lot of green space in that area as is often the case, particularly with interwar developments. But those spaces are not always as much loved as they could be, so we’ve talked to the community over the last 2-3 years about how we can better use those spaces. For example, community gardening, which has had a real upsurge in interest over recent years. Really this is about the community side of it, and we know that through time there’s been huge benefits for people connecting with each other, for mental health, for reducing social isolation through activities like community gardening, and that’s something I want to bring into Hutchison. But equally with a group of people who are interested in this, a real appetite to get involved in taking initiative themselves to make the area tidier. Like most areas, we have our problems with occasional fly tipping and street litter and we’ve had real success over the last year and a half in getting the community involved in making that better. An important thing about that is, it says to everybody in the neighbourhood, whether they’re involved in litter picks or not, that this is our area, it’s partly our responsibility to keep that clean. Of course the council, as a service provider, has a critical role in providing services like bins, like street cleaning, but I think emphasising to the people in the area that the more we take control of that, the better that area will be, is a real success. It has worked really well in that neighbourhood; in a way that I think it might not have in another neighbourhoods. Again, I’m sure lots of councillors already do stuff like that and mine’s just one example among many, but I would like see more of them.

Turning onto a slightly more difficult issue to look at local government finance, and the potential to reform the way the finance settlement is calculated.

And of course there is a connection because the ability to provide services and to support community action is also dependent on budgets being available. I was really struck by and really impressed by the COSLA-led commission on strengthening local democracy, which was what, four years ago now? The Commission made a very compelling case that Scotland’s an outlier in European terms about how little control councils have over their finances. As we know about 80% of what council spends is determined in one way or another by central government. And that feels like a really unhealthy thing to me. So the first step surely must be to give councils greater control over their finances – whether that’s on specific things like tourist tax, a topical issue here in Edinburgh, and workplace parking levy which may be controversial to some people but to me it seems pretty sensible. Other powers that are quite commonplace elsewhere in Europe, I think we should get control over the council tax, or whatever council tax subsequently becomes, and also over non-domestic rates. So there’s a whole range of ways in which, if councils had greater power, we’d have the choices. Now I would also say that we should be ensuring that services are properly funded, so that’s about the total tax take as well and I’d have no qualms about saying that if we want better services then we will have to pay for them. And interestingly, in Edinburgh when we’ve asked the question as part of the annual budget consultation, people been quite happy to say we accept higher tax, council tax in this case, if we see services improving. So people are mature about this issue and I would like us to see us testing that appetite a bit more in the future.

What do you think is your number one priority for this year?

The big priority for all of us, and actually it shouldn’t just be for individual councillors or individual councils or even individual organisations – it has to be the climate emergency. It’s obviously high profile just now. I guess if I was thinking about a specific thing I can do, as the finance lead for the Green group here in Edinburgh, would be to seek to ensure that our next budget, which is February 2020, is a climate emergency budget. We should be ensuring that we use our billion pounds of revenue spending and similar amounts of time and capital to future-proof the city and future-proof our citizens against the impact of climate change. So that’s certainly something I would seek to do over the next 9 months

Is there anything else you want to say?

Certainly, the impact of two movements – the climate strikes by young people and also by Extinction Rebellion. And maybe hardly surprising that a Green councillor would say this but I’m very supportive of these things. Without these actions, we wouldn’t be talking about the climate breakdown in the same way that we are now, and I think Greens as councillors, all of us still have that sense that we’ve got one foot in an activist camp, and one foot within the City Chambers or in town halls. So I think the way in which these direct action movements have forced a conversation about climate breakdown has been incredibly important. I know some of my more cautious colleagues can tut-tut about some of the disruption that causes, but it’s nothing like the disruption that is going to come our way if we don’t get on top of climate change pretty rapidly.