Labour leader Andrew Burns backs spirit of co-operation for council

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ANTICIPATION. That’s what you feel from Andrew Burns.

An anticipation that his Labour group will be back in the hot seat come May 4, that it will form part of the administration running Edinburgh once again after five years in opposition and that its policies will be “moving Edinburgh forward” – which is obviously to be preferred, as independent candidate Gordon Murdie wittily put it, to “moving Edinburgh backwards”.

Not that there are any chickens being counted yet. No-one can think to presume what the electorate might do, says Burns, but right now Labour is “firing on all cylinders”.

“Our new candidates have been in place the longest so they’ve had a good while to get their faces known and be out and about meeting people and I’m fairly confident they will get in, even where we are standing two candidates such as Forth and Leith Walk, but it will be close.

“The Lib Dems are doing poorly nationally, but between Labour, the SNP and the Tories it will be a close race. Edinburgh is a ‘small c’ conservative city, and before 1984 the Tories ran Edinbugh, and where they are strong, they are strong so we are not under- estimating their vote.

“We are aiming for 23 councillors and I don’t think the SNP will win 26. Ultimately it’s impossible for any party to have 30 councillors – the magic number – so there will be some form of coalition or a minority administration.”

You might imagine the idea of coalition would be anathema to a party which single-handedly ran the city for 23 years paying little heed to opposition councillors, but Burns delights in the idea. He is a fervent supporter of proportional representation, even if it leads to strange bedfellows.

“In 2003 Labour had a majority of the seats and ran the city for four years on just 27 per cent of the vote. Being tribal for a moment, that was wonderful, but I have always found it difficult to defend democratically. No voting system is perfect but at least with this one [STV] you do get a degree of proportionality.

“Labour wouldn’t rule out any options when it comes to forming an administration. The decision is with the voters, but if we are the biggest group we will work with anyone who wants to work with us for the good of Edinburgh. It’s time to put tribalism and being partisan behind.

“What happened with the last coalition was two parties coming together to secure a majority and excluding everyone else, which is not what PR is about. I am not bitter or moaning, but we’ve been completely excluded from everything, and I know only too well that’s what we did when we were in power before, but I think that kind of politics has had its day. The change in the electoral system should lead to a change in culture.”

It’s this kind of change which forms the basis of Labour’s vision for a “co-operative capital”, which would, he says, bring on board the talents of people across the city – not just in the City Chambers. It’s an idea which the Edinburgh Labour group has picked up from other councils across the country, particularly Lambeth, to change the way services are delivered and budgets spent.

“We will not prevent parties which lose in the election from being able to help run Edinburgh if that’s what they want,” he says. “That would be a waste of talent. But there’s also all the talent in the interest groups, community groups and residents’ groups that isn’t being utilised.

“We want to listen to people, to work with them, to help facilitate what they want to do – but also providing clear vision. I’m confident we can do that if given the chance by the electorate.”

For one, he says, they would establish a cross-party budget committee to decide the council’s spending which would also be open to staff and the public to make representations. There would also be a petitions committee. But then there would be a co-operative development unit set up within the council of a half-dozen staff to help people get involved in service design.

“But if they’re the only people pushing the co-operative idea that would be a failure. It would be a temporary unit, to help kick things off, because this change needs to go right through the council from top to bottom. It does mean money and we’ve budgeted for it.”

Burns talks of energy co-ops, where groups of residents get together, install solar panels, and any money they make by selling electricity to the National Grid, would be spent in their communities. Then there are childcare co-ops, where he envisions parent volunteers running after-school clubs for clusters of primary schools, again using any monies made to spend in their communities.

It all sounds fine for the middle classes who might care enough about such things and have the time for them, but he denies the idea is elitist. “Look at Brixton, it has an energy co-op and that’s not the sort of place you might expect to find one,” he says. “We have met scepticism and cynicism about this, but also significant interest. It will be a huge challenge – particularly to council officers. It’s a complete change of mindset and way of working.”

What Labour has not changed it’s mind on, though, is the tram. It still believes it is necessary for the city, but has been badly handled because of a “divided coalition and weak leadership”, and is backing a public inquiry into what went wrong. In fact, Burns says, Labour will “petition the Scottish Government to carry out an inquiry as soon as possible because people have a right to know what mistakes were made”.

Burns also pledges that if there were to be any extensions, then there would need to be “some sort of plebiscite, but it’s so far in the future. The city centre needs breathing space to recover. Traders on Princes Street, around the West End and in Leith have had a really hard time and they need space to recover as well once the current work is done.

“We want a Transport Forum established so that all the stakeholders and many people interested in how the city’s transport should run will have a voice. There needs to be much more citizen involvement in these decisions.”

He also points to the council’s deficit of £1.5 billion – up, he says, by 66 per cent since 2007 and racked up because of the mismanagement of the tram project. “I sit in the Audit Committee and I’ve watched Audit Scotland representatives not quite say that this borrowing is getting close to a limit,” he says. “They have been pointing out that this council cannot afford to rack up any more debt.

“The deficit needs to be brought down as quickly as possible. You can’t wave a magic wand and write it off. There’s £110 million of the council’s revenue budget going on debt repayments – that’s 1p for every 10p spent. The council needs to stop borrowing huge sums of money.

“Next year will be bad, but the year after even worse. Which is why it’s time for a radical change in the delivery of services. With a budget of £1bn and £2bn in assets, there’s a lot of potential flexibility to do things differently to get the deficit down. Do we need these assets, are we spending money in the right places and as effectively as we can?”

In his spirit of consensuality, Burns is reluctant to kick the current administration too hard, as “everyone can make mistakes”, and admitting that some good things have been done, such as bringing the Green Investment Bank to Edinburgh.

“But too many projects have stalled,” he says. “There’s been too much navel-gazing. It’s time to bring confidence back to Edinburgh, and for the city to shout about how great it is again.”

Labour Manifesto

FINANCE

• Start talks with the Scottish Parliament to allow Edinburgh to raise funds to support heritage and festivals through a tourist tax.

• Press for business rates to come back to the council.

• Support charities and communities by transferring council assets into their ownership or management and agreeing five-year funding packages.

• Introduce a living wage for council staff of £7.20 an hour – and encourage firms which do business with the council to do the same.

• Work towards greater equality in council salaries, a ratio of 1:12 between lowest and highest paid.

• Set up a budget committee open to representations from the public.

ECONOMY

• Work with local firms to encourage them to offer real apprenticeships to young people and in return seek to reduce their business rates.

• Strive to support local businesses by tipping the balance against unfair competition from big outsiders.

• Put more money into the council’s Edinburgh Guarantee apprenticeship system.

• Help people find premises for business through unused council premises as short low-cost lets.

• Where legal make sure council buys from local suppliers.

Transport

• Set up a Transport Forum of experts and citizens to think through transport needs.

• Have a two-year hiatus on any major transport projects.

• Bring roads and pavements up to a good standard.

• Control the work standards of utilities companies.

• Try to get the tram back on track and support a public inquiry into the problems.

• Extend 20mph routes.

• Spend a minimum of five per cent of transport budget on cycling and walking.

• Pledge never to sell off Lothian Buses.

Culture/Leisure/Sport

• Transfer decisions about local pitches and pavilions to co-operative groups of the clubs which use them.

• Back the reintroduction of community newspapers to strengthen community voices.

• End a tick-box target culture within the council to focus on what Edinburgh needs.

Education/Children

• Set up a city-wide “childcare co-op” to provide affordable childcare for working parents.

• Give parent councils the right to share in decision- making on schools by nominating a member of the council’s education committee.

• Ensure teachers are given as much training and support as required to introduce Curriculum for Excellence.

• Widen access and minimise charges for the use of schools by the community.

• Draw up a long-term plan to tackle overcrowding and underuse in schools.

Environment

• Protect green spaces from development and place decisions about their care into hands of local people.

• Consult tenants about bulk buying gas and electricity for their homes through an energy co-op to save them money.

• Confront all that’s tacky in the city centre from pavements to shops.

• Use council property to generate green electricity and encourage the development organisations like the Edinburgh Community Energy Co-operative.

Health

• Bring council, care staff and users together in a co-operative to decide on and provide the means to make life better for users of social care.

• Never seek to privatise or sell these services to the lowest bidder.

Housing

• Set up a task force to find fair ways to bring empty homes into use and build useful developments on derelict land.

• Press the Scottish Government to release money for Edinburgh to build new high-quality affordable homes for rent.

• Work with landowners to free up urgently needed land.

Planning

• Seek to revoke planning permissions where builders are hoarding land and not developing it.

• Ensure new builds comply with top design and green standards.

Crime

• Working with the police, we will set up a special antisocial behaviour unit to target persistent offenders.

• Expand drug and alcohol control programmes and support voluntary groups who offer safety to vulnerable people at risk.

• Faster enforcement of council tenancy agreements over disruptive neighbours.

• Where the law allows, place restrictions on party flats.

• Ensure links to local police and fire services are not lost by the move to single Scottish forces.