Cost-cutting council chief Andrew Kerr ‘here to stay’

New council chief executive Andrew Kerr. Picture: Ian Georgeson
New council chief executive Andrew Kerr. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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HE has a reputation for ruthlessly slashing town hall budgets – then disappearing to take up lucrative leadership posts on the other side of the country.

But new city council chief executive Andrew Kerr insists he is here to stay and he has revealed an in-tray bulging with early priorities – including a future tram extension “from the airport to the sea”.

Officials working in departments such as health and safety inspection, IT consultancy, gardening and communications could also be instructed to bid for commercial contracts as part of a drive to plug a 
£107 million budget black hole.

A former 400-metre runner and extra in iconic Olympic Games film Chariots of Fire, Mr Kerr said the Capital would have to “think outside the box” if it wanted to achieve financial stability.

And the Falkirk-born supremo will push for a big increase in Edinburgh’s control over business and tourism revenue as he bids to ensure the city benefits directly from surging economic growth.

But the 56-year-old has taken on the £161,000-a-year chief executive role amid rumblings over his track record of overseeing savings programmes at local authorities across England.

He sparked controversy in May when he announced he would resign as chief executive of Cornwall Council, where he led a major cuts programme aimed at saving £196m.

Politicians there said the decision – which came only 18 months after he joined the authority – indicated a tendency to “flip from job to job”.

But the married father-of-three yesterday said he is in 
Edinburgh for the long haul.

He said: “I felt regret that I had to leave Cornwall at the time I did, but Edinburgh came up and it was just too much of an opportunity to say no to.

“You can read that it was lots of short tenures or just being sensible about choosing the right career path. I guess I’m hoping I’m going to be here for the rest of my career.

“This is me coming home in lots of ways and being able to use all the different experiences that I’ve got in those places to the benefit of my home capital.”

He admitted tough choices would have to be made if the city wanted to balance the books and maintain quality public services, adding that every means of achieving savings – including possible privatisation – would have to be considered.

Amid moves to position 
Edinburgh as the hub of a new south-east Scotland regional economy, Mr Kerr said extending the city’s tram line would be crucial to its future prospects.

“I think if we’re going to be a successful European city then a tram that goes from the airport to the sea is absolutely the right thing,” he said.

“Notwithstanding the history of it, it’s absolutely the right thing strategically to do. We’ve got to look forward to what the city needs in terms of transport infrastructure rather than say we had a bit of a problem putting it together in the first place.”

He would also be keen to see the line extended even more widely.

“If you look at any European city, their transport infrastructure works very well – there’s some kind of tram system, or a subway system. Something that works well for it.

“Given we don’t have a subway, we may as well have a tram that works. The first thing is, let’s extend it to the sea and get that sorted out and then we think about what the future is.”

He acknowledged that his track record of devolving services away from local government control would not sit easily with some members of the Capital’s ruling Labour-SNP coalition.

But he said staying with the status quo was not an option.

“It’s a big sum of money that needs to be brought in and whatever you do to get a sum of money that large, it can’t be the same as you’re doing now,” he said.

“Edinburgh has to look at different ways of finding very large sums of money.

“My really good example is Cornwall’s environmental health team, which actually runs Harrods’ food safety contract. They went out and won Harrods’ food safety contract.

“And that was on the back of us saying, ‘If you can make yourself more commercial, we won’t have to cut the service, we won’t have to reduce it’.

“There’s no reason why Edinburgh City Council couldn’t pitch for some commercial services. Sometimes local authorities are better than anyone else at doing things.”

He added: “I think the council should either make sure its services are delivered in absolutely the best way going forward – it might be private sector, it might be voluntary sector.

“It might be delivered [by] itself. It might be delivered by an arms-length company.”

Mr Kerr said resetting the council’s relationship with government institutions at the Scottish, UK and European levels would be key to achieving budget stability.

And he stressed the importance of boosting the Capital’s financial autonomy through measures such as a tax on hotel stays and securing an increased share of business rates.

“Whether it’s a hotel tax, business rates or some share of how we benefit the economy, it partly doesn’t matter what type of tax it is,” he said.

“What matters is that there’s a share coming back to Edinburgh for the benefit it gives to the whole of Scotland. Maybe if Edinburgh was given some of that back to keep enhancing it and keep it going, it would benefit the whole of Scotland going forward.

“It’s about [Edinburgh] being responsible for its own infrastructure – things like transport and its education system and how it works.

“That just means giving Edinburgh power so it can make decisions locally as opposed to being on a national basis. And it allows Edinburgh to make its relationships with surrounding areas in its region more positive.”

As well as overseeing far-reaching savings programmes at a number of UK councils, Mr Kerr is no stranger to adopting tough stances on sensitive and controversial issues.

He was embroiled in a row during his time in Cornwall after calling for the resignation of Lib Dem councillor Alex Folkes, who had been accused of having indecent images on his computer, even though a police investigation resulted in no charges being brought.

Mr Kerr also wrote to local schools and youth clubs saying that the politician presented a “serious and enduring” risk to children.

Critics said he had overstepped his authority as an unelected official and compared his actions to a civil servant demanding an MP should quit.

But Mr Kerr said his actions were taken in the interests of ensuring child protection.

He said: “I’m convinced we’ve done the right thing to protect children, which was my job. In fact, I think the vast majority of people think we did the right thing. I backed it all the way.

“And of course, it was a situation where Cllr Folkes was free to say what we wanted to say in public, but we’re not as public servants. That’s how it is. I know we did the right thing. I’m very happy with that.

“I will always do what’s right for protection of children first – and it has consequences and sometimes they’re difficult to deal with. That was clearly a child protection issue that we had to deal with.”

Mr Kerr said all of his ideas were aimed at securing a prosperous and stable future for the Capital.

Kerr on . . spending cuts

“Edinburgh has to look at different ways of finding very large sums of money. There are unlimited ways in which you can go about it.

“There’s no reason why Edinburgh City Council couldn’t pitch for some commercial services.”

Kerr on . . trams

“I think if we’re going to be a successful European city then a tram that goes from the airport to the sea is absolutely the right thing for the city.

“Notwithstanding the history of it, it’s absolutely the right thing strategically to do.”

Kerr on . . life in Edinburgh

“It’s the Capital, it’s my home, my family are here. To be the chief executive of my own [country’s] capital city, it’s an honour.

“I guess I’m hoping I’m going to be here for the rest of my career.”

Kerr on . . Chariots of Fire

“The highlight of my career, really, is that I’m on a Vangelis album . . . I’m only joking. I was the athlete who was asked to go and make sure he came second. It was good fun if nothing else. You got invited to the premiere. I was 18 - I was alright with that.”

Kerr on . . the bed tax

“It doesn’t matter what type of tax it is - whether it’s a bed tax or business rates or some share of how we benefit the economy. What matters is that there’s a share coming back to Edinburgh for the benefit it gives to the whole of Scotland.”