On a clear day you can see a long way from Lesley Hinds’ office window: across the city, down to Princes Street and over to Fife. We took a few minutes to enjoy the view as we gathered for our first meeting of the shadow scheme (Opening Doors to Democracy 2014). So much of what happens in the streets below is shaped by decisions taken in the City Chambers. Yet how many people know how those decisions are made or who makes them?
“That’s something we can take for granted,” said Lesley Hinds after everyone has explained what they want to learn from the shadow scheme. With 30 years experience as a councillor she admits it can be easy to forget that many (perhaps most) people know very little about what goes on inside the city council.
And that, of course, is why we are here. This year Leith Open Space is delighted to welcome Alice Musamba, Kelly Herkes, Tracy Griffen, Marion Donaldson and Filip Swiatczak, to a shadowing programme which will take them behind the scenes in the city council and Scottish Parliament and out into local community meetings.
There are different reasons for taking part – ‘testing the water’ before becoming involved in politics, perhaps, and gaining experience which could be useful at work – but it goes further than that. Everyone on this scheme expresses an interest in social justice and is already actively involved in community work, ranging from volunteering with the Big Issue, local food banks, or Edinburgh and Lothians Racial Equality Council. To quote just one shadow:
I believe firmly in getting out and helping your community and that change can only come about if people are active and organised.
In response, Lesley Hinds has offered a selection of activities to give the group an insight into her work at different levels: community consultation on improvements in Leith Walk, city-wide discussions at the Transport Forum and a meeting in the council to give first hand observation of decision making at work in the Transport and Environment committee.
With the independence referendum looming large on the horizon, there has probably never been a more important time to learn how democracy works at both local and national level. And how ordinary people can influence decision making. Thanks to Councillors Lesley Hinds and Nick Gardner and MSPs Malcolm Chisholm and Sarah Boyack for generously giving us a chance to claim a space in their busy diaries (and to Nick for discreetly taking our photograph). We are very much looking forward to working and learning with everyone involved. Next week we open a door or two at the Scottish Parliament.
Footnote: We should perhaps point out that as Convenor of the Transport and Environment Committee, Lesley Hinds has what the Scotsman described as the hardest job in politics: overseeing the delivery of Edinburgh’s tram on time and on budget…and at our meeting we had a fine view of the trams on their test runs along Princes Street.