Participatory Budgeting at Priesthill URC

In Priesthill United Reformed Church there have been some democratic stirrings of late…

It is early morning…hands are clasped, and some even starting to clap, as fresh bacon butties emerge from the kitchen. I am here from the Church of Scotland to “observe” proceedings (no clipboard) First conclusion…any truly successful participatory budgeting event requires bacon butties at its very core…

The room is laid out along familiar geo-political fault-lines…with the “Brady Bunch” in absentee, the “Bingo Ladies” are very much in the ascendancy… Community Councillors sit in more hushed tones at an adjacent table, whilst various local community and Third Sector representatives flit between tables, contributing to the general hubbub. It is a happy, cosy scene.

And yet something is different from usual, firstly who is that CoS guy eyeing up the bacon rolls? … And secondly, a steady, quizzical stream of people are making their way to an unfamiliar display in the room… not quite the moon landing but … what exactly is it??

“You know how in supermarkets you get a wee token and have to vote for the charity you want?? Aye? … well it’s a bit like that…”

It is in fact a display stand for the Participatory Budgeting project that Priesthill URC have undertaken this year, in partnership with the Health Improvement Team and Sanctuary Housing Association. The local community is being asked to decide their own spending priorities for their own area, rather than having Local Authorities decide it for them. The good citizens of Priesthill and Househillwood are invited to choose between a range of projects, from theatre workshops to disabled access schemes to school holiday clubs…and with a total funding pot of £24,000, there are some decisions to be made.

A Penny for your Thoughts 

Following a lunchtime lull, by mid-afternoon the heavy door of the main entrance begins to reverberate throughout the building with increasing frequency…schools out and The Jeely Piece Club are on their way!

The Jeely Piece club have additional concerns today… they too are taking part in the PB project, which in this instance has been designed with no age restrictions for aspiring voters.

Each democratic participant is instead invited to place their jeely pieces temporarily on a paper plate with due diligence to crumbs, and pick up three pieces of copper instead (street value £0.03p sterling).

First vote? Easy. The Jeely Piece Club is bidding for funding, and even five year olds seem to know instinctively which side their jeely piece is buttered on.

But what of the other two pennies? Less clear-cut…Young faces look pensive and reflective as they decide how to cast their remaining votes. The Girl Guides perhaps? Or a project to improve their playground? But if they vote for these two and The Jeely Piece Club then there is no vote left over for the School Holiday Club!

In my own experience this is the youngest age of voting in a PB process I have witnessed, and it is wonderful to see! The calculation and thought-process going on is easily discernible in the kid’s faces, with some standing for 5-10 minutes deliberating over their choices. Studies have consistently shown the benefits of introducing ideas and concepts to children at a young age, with  positive developmental effects later on in life. What effects will evaluating such decisions for their community have on the young minds of Priesthill?

Financial Irregularities 

Post-script – Not quite money in brown envelopes, and certainly not enough to fund a Church of Scotland trip to Antigua, but… a profit was made! From £5 in voting pennies at the start of the voting week, £5.48 was collected by the end! Thankfully the whole process wasn’t declared null and void, and it has instead been put down to the generosity of the Priesthill and Househillwood Community!

The real post-script is of course to see what comes out of the successful projects, as well as new community connections made throughout the week-long PB process. Anecdotally we already know people have been signposted to relevant community organisations of whom they were previously unaware. This clearly demonstrates benefits of PB that lie beyond a more basic narrative of simply “winners” and “losers” in terms of funding. 

Here’s to all the people and projects that participated in the Priesthill and Househillwood PB scheme this year. We look forward to hearing more about the 9 successful projects as they develop, with hopefully many more positive stories to come!

Written by Rory McLeod. Rory is currently working as a PB officer with SCPO and the Church of Scotland.