Edinburgh Council one year on: How did they do?

The  Edinburgh Labour-SNP coalition councillors. Picture: Dan Phillips
The Edinburgh Labour-SNP coalition councillors. Picture: Dan Phillips
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IT’S the time that every school pupil dreads – the end of year bringing the report card. Edinburgh’s council coalition has been at work for almost 12 months so has it passed with flying colours or is it a case of “must try harder”?

Has the Labour/SNP administration proved to be a model pupil or a disruptive influence?

In an attempt to find out we have gathered the opinions of all the main parties – who, predictably, disagree on whether the administration should be wearing the dunce hat or the prefect badge.

Certainly city leader Andrew Burns believes it has been a year of positives.

When Labour and the SNP agreed to sink their differences and form a coalition, they insisted it would provide “the stability and certainty” needed to move Edinburgh forward.

Councillor Burns says that’s what they’re doing and lists successes including progress on the trams and helping young people to get into work.

SNP deputy council leader Steve Cardownie describes the Labour-SNP partnership as “very successful” and says the two parties are working together well.

But opposition leaders claim the administration’s record is one of a lack of action and indecisiveness on controversial issues, not least the U-turns on plans to close Castlebrae High School and sell off Leith 
Waterworld.

Liberal Democrat group leader Paul Edie, who was a senior member of the previous Lib Dem-SNP coalition, is highly critical of the successor regime.

He says: “A year on, I don’t see much happening. I don’t see any pace for change, I do see a lot of smoke and mirrors and flannel about a co-operative council. It’s difficult to oppose because there’s nothing to oppose.”

Conservative group leader Cameron Rose says the creation of new committees, the expansion of others and an increase in the number of meetings has made the council’s decision-making process less decisive and less efficient.

“It stretches both the administration and the opposition beyond what is reasonable,” he says. “It’s all more bureaucratic and less able to make decisions. We also have evidence of some pretty back-of-the envelope decisions, for example on Leith Waterworld and Castlebrae school, where a clear and sensible course has been set by the administration and then overturned by indecisiveness and a lack of agreement within the different parties in the coalition.”

Green group convener Steve Burgess offers a more sympathetic assessment.

“Most of us would acknowledge that the Capital coalition has been a step up from the deeply discredited Lib Dem-SNP administration that preceded it. Andrew Burns has brought his personal commitment to a less confrontational style of politics and I have certainly welcomed the coalition’s willingness to listen to Green priorities like bedroom tax, retaining a high school for Craigmillar and backing a community bid for Leith Waterworld.”

But Cllr Burgess says the really big challenges are still ahead on issues like pollution and fuel poverty. “Above all, perhaps, there’s still a long way to go to reverse years of the ‘we know best’ culture’,” he says.

The administration “inherited” two large-scale headaches in the shape of the trams project and the statutory repairs scandal and was confronted with a third – the Mortonhall ashes scandal.

But perhaps the issue which attracted the most criticism was the move to fortnightly bin collections, which saw hundreds of households across the city left without their rubbish being lifted and bin men refusing to take bins if their lids were even slightly ajar.

Cllr Burns acknowledges “teething problems” but says the city is now on the cusp of recycling 40 per cent of its household waste for the first time, saving a fortune in landfill tax.

Councillors put a stop to the much-ridiculed “Incredinburgh” campaign dreamed up by Marketing Edinburgh, but the episode showed there had been a breakdown in communication over who was in charge and it led to a very public spat over something which could have been sorted out in-house.

Cllr Burns rejects the opposition complaints over the Castlebrae and Leith Waterworld U-turns. “We promised public consultation, we listened to what people said and adjusted our position accordingly.

“It’s a case of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’. If we had not listened, we would 
have been labelled pig-headed.”

Cllr Cardownie says the record of the past 12 months shows the two parties have forged a good working relationship built around the 53 pledges in the coalition agreement.

“We make compromises, they make compromises,” he says. He cites the policy of no evictions over the bedroom tax as an SNP success: “That would probably not have happened if the SNP had not been in the coalition.”

A year on, the coalition – which holds 38 of 58 council seats – seems secure, but the next 12 months will bring its own problems. One council insider says that while Andrew Burns and Steve Cardownie get on, the tensions in a Labour-SNP coalition are clear: “They portray it as a positive partnership, but it’s not a happy ship. They are tribal enemies, competing with each other – and next year’s independence referendum will only make that worse.”