LGiU Scotland’s Kim Fellows speaks to Gavin Corbett, Green councillor for Fountainbridge/Craiglockhart in Edinburgh, about Covid-19, tourism, canals, and how we might be going from the ‘Covid-19 frying pan’ to the ‘climate change fire’. Read Cllr Gavin Corbett’s previous In Conversation With article here.
Kim: what has it been like trying to maintain an interest and focus on the green agenda during these strange times?
Gavin: it has been a unique time, of course and I suppose for most people the first few weeks were all about having to adjust rapidly. I think the priority for most councillors, but also for most people in neighbourhoods and communities was making sure that people who were round about them were supported and safe and were getting access to the daily essentials. A lot of focus, I think, for anyone irrespective of the kind of political backdrop or hinterland was about that. Then as time went on and we realised that this is a long haul, there’s been a lot of work to try and think about what a recovery process will look like, which doesn’t simply go from the Coronavirus frying pan into the climate change fire. I know that the phrase the ‘new normal’ has been used a lot so what does that look like? And how do we prepare for that more adequately than suddenly saying ‘let’s just get this over and done with’ because that’s going to be a long time, and then we’ll look at things like the climate crisis, things that we know are larger strategic issues anyway.
Kim: the next question is about the trade off, or the competition between climate change and environmental issues. There has been some debate about the economy and jobs trumping environmental issues and I just would like your views, especially when you come to the autumn budget pressures.
Gavin: That’s obviously a key thing and in Edinburgh, there is a big service-based sector, big reliance on tourism – an over reliance on tourism I believe. So many people would say, understandably, a lot of people have lost jobs some temporarily but in a lot of cases some of these jobs won’t be coming back, at least not anytime soon. So we need to make sure that the jobs are a top priority. Now I think there is potentially a way of dealing with both. There’s a 2019 report in relation to the climate crisis and how Edinburgh could respond to that crisis, which estimated that even as some of the very narrow definitions of what we may do there were 16,000 jobs could be created in the city from dealing with things like the energy crisis, doing transport differently, planning in a different way. So there is potentially a jobs-rich approach to recovery that is also about tackling the climate crisis, making sure that we create a city that’s fit to live in for the next few decades. The big challenge, of course, is turning that broad ambition into something that’s workable and in a way we’ve got an opportunity in Edinburgh. Edinburgh has the city region deal, which was signed off couple of years ago, it’s 1.3 billion pounds of public money and there is also a lot of private sector money. Then on top of that there are huge amounts of money that we could harness towards ensuring that we’re creating jobs and skills that will fit in for 2030, 40 and 50. At the moment the City Region Deal is very much of its time, now three years ago feels like a very different time from now. But we could go back to the partner organisations, to UK Government, to Scottish Government and say that we are in very different times now and we want the opportunity to use that investment, to get the green sustainable jobs that we need for the future and deal also with the fact that there has been a huge economic shock to the city and to the country as a whole.
Kim: there has been a lot of social media pressure from people really having a go at the cycle lanes and it’s interesting that the car lobby is so strong in Edinburgh.
Gavin: Edinburgh is a city where tradition and the way that we do things is very deeply embedded and I know, speaking recently to a transport engineer about what kind of projects across all of Scotland he’s involved in, Edinburgh does seem to be the city where it is hardest to get things to change, where an attachment to the status quo seems most, most embedded. And so some of that, I think, is just a sense of change. I’m not claiming that all of the projects that have been put forward very rapidly, to protect space for pedestrians and for cyclists, are perfect and in some ways, the council may have to trade that off against the speed at which we do things. What I do think is that, and this is a question for people who are opposed to stuff, do we imagine a city in the future where we give as much space to the most inefficient way of using that space which is private vehicle use, or do we do what virtually every other progressive city in Europe is doing, which is to start to think very radically about reallocating space towards public transport, towards people walking, towards people who are wheeling. If you look at the example of Paris where the mayor of Paris has said quite boldly, that we’re going to dramatically change the balance of transport away from car towards people based transport, and she’s been re-elected on a larger mandate. So there’s a big role for political leadership here and I get that change is difficult, but the worst thing we can do is say that we’re not going to do anything at all because that just leaves Edinburgh even further behind in a race that we are already lagging behind in.
Kim: following up on that point of putting infrastructure in quickly and where we might go next?
Gavin: I’m sure there are lessons to be learned from across local authorities and local authorities from across the UK have been doing this and some seem to have been able to do more successfully and more swiftly than others. I think some good examples in Edinburgh as well. But I do think we need to keep a hold of that idea of what kind of city we’re trying to create here and that does mean some hard choices about how we allocate space.
Kim: It would be helpful if you could speak a little about what you’re trying to achieve for the canal systems in Edinburgh and the Lothian’s in the next 12 months?
Gavin: one of my roles is city canal champion We’ve got an immediate issue that’s come up for the Union Canal in particular, which is the canal that runs between the Tollcross area of Edinburgh right through to Falkirk. Although it’s very remote from Edinburgh, it affects the whole canal system. There was a major breach of the canal near Polmont as a result of the very, very severe storm on the east side of Scotland over an evening and night in early August. As a result, the canal was breached and it has resulted in flooding on the main railway line between Edinburgh and Glasgow as well, so a very significant event. With the Union Canal being a lock-less canal, Scotland’s only contour canal, it had an impact on the whole canal system.
Scottish canals have moved swiftly to stem the breach but it does mean that the canal isn’t navigable between Falkirk and Edinburgh and ultimately between Glasgow and Edinburgh. So that’s a major blow but it also poses a question about the condition of the canal, which is 200 years old. Generally the canals in Scotland are very old pieces of infrastructure that until relatively recently were not well maintained and it’s posed a big question for Scottish Canals and I guess the nine local authorities who have canals running through them, as to how much goes into basic asset maintenance. For a while Scottish Canals quite rightly has looked at the major structures like bridges, aqueducts, access like steps and so on, but it’s now going to have to look very carefully at the canal as a whole and it’s a long and hard to maintain piece of infrastructure. So that’s going to be a big feature I think of the next few months in a way that probably wasn’t anticipated even a few weeks ago.
Here in Edinburgh, the main ambition for the canal is to try and see how we can use the natural attractiveness of being close to water as a focus for regeneration, so we’ve got a good example of that in progress at Fountainbridge right at the eastern end of the canal, which is part of my patch. Although the work is still in progress, the extent to which the canal has generated excitement among community members, planners and developers as to what kind of neighbourhoods you can create has been really striking. The big challenge now I think is to ensure that the neighbourhoods further along the canal, towards the edge of the city. Areas like Sighthill, Calders, Broomhouse, Wester Hailes, equally benefit from the fact that the canal is on their doorstep. There’s a long way to go still to ensure that the canal is seen as part of the neighbourhood in those areas. One of the great examples of that, we’ve got a sports hub called Bridge 8 right at the edge of the city in the Calders area of the city and that’s been a real magnet for water sports in an area that traditionally wouldn’t have seen that as an obvious location. So there are lots of kind of a green shoots there that we can build on to make sure that and regeneration, linked to the canal equally benefits all parts of the city. So that would be probably two of the bigger themes, and aside from the sheer volume of users of the canal towpath which is a sign of great success, I mean, 20-30 years ago, the canal was something that was shunned by people who were told not to go near it. Its now so popular that the most common complaint I get is just conflict with the number of users on the towpath but in a way that’s the problem of success, which is always better to deal with than the problem of neglect.
Kim: looking back over the last 15 months or so, since we spoke, what are you most proud of?
Gavin: I think for most councillors the job obviously entails specifically area-based work, things that are right on your own doorstep along with bigger and more strategic work and over the last two years I’ve been involved with councillors in three other Councils in Scotland looking at how universal basic income may work in Scotland and that’s a really big picture-type project I mean, potentially universal basic income where the idea has been around for over a century, perhaps longer, is a change in the way we think about social support, social assistance, as significant as the changes in 1940s brought about by the Beveridge report. So it’s a really big picture piece of work and it’s been really interesting for me as somebody who’s been interested in Universal Basic Income for over 30 years to see people coming onboard and looking at the pros and cons, who weren’t coming in as evangelists for it, who are coming with an objective and potentially sometimes sceptical eye, and I’ve never seen a time where interest in Universal Basic Income was as strong. Obviously that’s been amplified by the pandemic, where we have seen large numbers of people lose incomes and jobs really suddenly and we’ve seen government having to intervene in a way that probably would have been seen as inconceivable even a year ago. So it certainly opened up people’s eyes as to what might be different about how we do social support in the 21st century. So that for example has been a really exciting and really worthwhile project that I’ve been involved in right from the start.
At a kind of ward level, one of the interesting things about last three or four months in particular has been discovering just how much resilience there is within our neighbourhoods. That’s sometimes an intimate level, from people helping their neighbours out, and that’s been street by street, community by community. In my patch, we’ve seen that happen but there have also been some really interesting projects springing out of that. We’ve got a group in the Hutchison (area of my ward) which is a kind of traditional council estate where for the first time lots of people have been really interested in helping each other to grow their own vegetables and I’m not going to pretend that that has somehow led them to be self-sufficient or anything like that, but it’s just that act of engagement with growing food across a whole range of ages from toddlers to people in their 80s, which has been really exciting to see and I think will bear good fruit, if you don’t mind the pun, in future years once we are able to go out and about and do community activity again. So that’s just two examples I think of where, even though it’s been a very difficult time and I’m sure most people will happily say a fond farewell to 2020, there have been interesting things going on as well.