Edinburgh council chief exec Sue Bruce to retire

Edinburgh City Council chief executive Sue Bruce is to retire. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Edinburgh City Council chief executive Sue Bruce is to retire. Picture: Ian Rutherford

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FULSOME tributes have been paid to Dame Sue Bruce – the woman credited with sorting out Edinburgh’s tram project – after she announced her retirement as city council chief executive.

Rival politicians united in praising her for leading the authority in difficult times and standing up for the Capital.

Serving as chief executive of the City of Edinburgh Council, particularly during such a challenging and exciting time for the Capital, has undoubtedly been the pinnacle of my career.”

Sue Bruce

She will retire in October when she turns 60, after nearly five years in the post.

As well as the trams, she was instrumental in setting up the Edinburgh Guarantee, which promises every school leaver the chance of a job, training or further education, and had to deal with the Mortonhall baby ashes scandal and the tragic death of Keane Wallis-Bennett, the pupil who died when a wall collapsed on her at Liberton High School.

Dame Sue won a string of awards, including Chief Executive of the Year in 2013 and UK City Leader of the Year in 2014.

One source described how she had taken on senior Scottish Government civil servants over their reluctance to agree a funding deal for developing the new St James Quarter and told them: “If we don’t get this, there will a campaign every day right up to your ****** referendum.”

The source said: “She was magnificent. We got the money – which was by no means certain because the project was not well received at the start.

“Sue was prepared to stand up to the government and

fight Edinburgh’s corner tenaciously.”

Dame Sue, who has worked in local government for 39 years, was chief executive of East Dunbartonshire and Aberdeen councils before taking the helm in Edinburgh in January 2011.

She said it had been a “tremendous privilege” to serve as chief executive in the Capital.

“It’s been quite hard to make the decision about retiring,” she said.

“This job has been the absolute pinnacle of my career. It is the most superb city to work in, a great council to work with and the city has a real resonance being the Capital, the seat of the parliament and home to 500,000 people whom we serve daily.”

She said the trams had been a crucial issue to sort out because it was affecting the reputation of the city.

“That was a difficulty we had which was attracting global notice, and was not good for business or the quality of life of people who were upset by it.”

But she continued: “If I had to alight on one thing which I think will make a substantial difference to people’s lives, it has to be the focus on getting young people into work.

“We now have about 150 businesses who are partners in the Edinburgh Guarantee. We have got about 1000 young people into jobs, training or apprenticeships who wouldn’t otherwise have been.”

Noting that the city had moved from 32nd in the league table for helping young people into work up to 17th, she said: “We are one of the UK’s fastest improving councils in that respect.”

Dame Sue explained her passion for the issue by recounting her own experience.

“I graduated in the mid-70s, there was a recession going on and I was unemployed for three months and it was horrendous,” she said. “My first break was in a job creation scheme in Strathclyde Regional Council.

“I’ve never been unemployed since and I have never forgotten the people who took the policy decision to create jobs for young people at that time.

“I think some of the youngsters who are coming through the Edinburgh Guarantee, either with the council or with other employers, will reflect back on that when they are in positions of authority or decision-making and they will be able to help other young people through. It can have a life-changing effect for people to get their first step in a job.”

Dame Sue said her time in charge of the Capital had seen a mixture of highs and lows.

“Overwhelmingly it has been highs, but there have been some really difficult issues we have had to deal with.

“Two of the most difficult things I have ever had to deal with in my working life were the issues arising from Mortonhall and the effect that had on people’s lives and obviously the death of the pupil, Keane Wallace Bennett, at Liberton last year. That stopped us all dead in our tracks.”

Council leader Andrew Burns led tributes to the departing chief executive. He said: “Sue has successfully tackled some key challenges during her time as chief executive and has achieved real progress for the council.

“From the outset, she has worked tirelessly and well beyond the normal expectations of the role.”

Deputy council leader Steve Cardownie said: “Our attention now turns to finding a high calibre replacement; an individual capable of building upon the platform laid by Sue during her years in post while taking on the undoubted challenges we face as a council in the years ahead.”

Tory group leader Cameron Rose said: “She knocked heads together successfully on the trams issue and that will be her greatest legacy.”

But he added: “It’s unfortunate we are losing a chief executive at the same time as we’re embarking on a restructuring of senior management and the way we deliver some of our services.”

Green convener Steve Burgess said: “Sue Bruce took over when the tram project was partially built and in deep crisis. She was hugely effective in getting all the parties around the table and then to agree terms to complete the project.”

The Lib Dems’ Paul Edie said: “She has been a strong chief executive and has really shaken things up.

“We were fortunate to get her as chief executive. She will be a tough person to replace.”

ANALYSIS

By Ian Swanson

SHE may be an official rather than an elected representative, but during her time as chief executive, Sue Bruce has become the public face of the city council.

Whether it was the Mortonhall ashes scandal, the death of Keane Wallis-Bennett or the trams debacle, it was often Dame Sue rather than the politicians who took the lead and went on TV to speak for the council.

She has taken a much higher profile than her predecessor, Tom Aitchison.

Observers believe that has worked “exceptionally well” and has avoided the risk of unhelpful spats between the two sides of the Labour-SNP coalition at crucial moments.

One source describes the current regime at the City Chambers as a “triumvirate” in which Dame Sue and the political leaders, Labour’s Andrew Burns and the SNP’s Steve Cardownie, all have distinct but complementary roles.

It may come down to different personalities as much as any deliberate sharing-out of responsibilities.

But now that the search is on for a replacement, the council will have to decide what it is looking for in a new chief executive.

Is it someone to be the council’s front-person when tragedy or controversy comes along? Or will the new chief be expected to take more of a back-seat role?

Some might argue politicians ought to be the ones answering questions, but the high profile handed to Dame Sue shows other ways can work.

Timeline

August 2011: Launch of the Edinburgh Guarantee, promising school-leavers the chance of a job, training or further education.

December 2012: Evening News reveals Mortonhall baby ashes scandal – parents were routinely told there would be no remains after the cremation of babies when in fact they were later buried in cardboard boxes in the crematorium grounds.

July 2013: Controversy after Sue Bruce reveals she is taking on a £50,000 a year non-executive director post with energy supplier SSE. She insists the role, carried out in her own time, will benefit the city and she will give the money to city charities.

April 2014: Tragedy as 12-year-old Keane Wallis-Bennett dies after a wall falls on her at Liberton High.

May 2014: First passenger-carrying tram starts running, marking the delivery of the much-delayed and over-budget project.

June 2014: News breaks that Castlebrae “super-head” Derek Curran has been suspended and now faces court action over domestic abuse charges.

July 2014: Senior official Mark Turley, pictured, quits over the Mortonhall ashes scandal, eight weeks after being suspended. He was also ultimately accountable for statutory repairs and school buildings maintenance.

January 2015: Sue Bruce is made Dame Commander of the order of the British Empire in the New Year’s Honours list.

January 2015: Council announces it plans to axe 1200 posts in a bid to meet tough savings targets.

Names in the frame to take over top job

THE search for a new chief executive starts now, and an appointment to the £160,000-a-year post is expected by June. It’s seen as one of the UK’s plum local government jobs and will attract huge interest.

The council will work with an executive search company, and council leader Andrew Burns will chair an all-party panel to make the choice.

Internal candidates could include Alastair Maclean, pictured, director of corporate governance, who is highly regarded by senior figures in the administration.

Peter Gabbitas, director of health and social care, is said to have come close to being appointed to the top job last time but is thought unlikely to bid for it now because he is leading the integration of council and NHS services in the city.

A source said a number of top council officials in other parts of Scotland who might have been in the running had just recently moved jobs, such as former Renfrewshire chief executive David Martin, now in Dundee.

But potential candidates include Mary Pitcaithly, pictured, chief executive of Falkirk Council since 1998 and chief counting officer at last year’s referendum, and Bernadette Malone, chief executive of Perth & Kinross since 2003.

Also mentioned are Glasgow finance director Lynn Brown, who once had a senior post in Edinburgh and was tipped for the top job in Glasgow last year, and Angela Leitch, chief executive at East Lothian Council, who has also held a senior role in the Capital.

SEE ALSO:

Sue Bruce under fire over council deal with firm she’s on the board for

• Sue Bruce made a Dame in New Year’s Honours list

• Sue Bruce on how she became council chief executive