THE times they are a-changin’ at the City Chambers. In the last week or so we’ve seen some of the city’s longest-standing, most experienced councillors declare that they will not be seeking re-election next year.
Among them are council leader Andrew Burns and transport convener and former Lord Provost Lesley Hinds, two of Labour’s “big beasts” as the political press like to call prominent politicians. As of next May their near 50 years of experience in the machinations of local politics and local government will be gone.
Of course some – especially those who like to cast Lesley Hinds as an evil mastermind whose plan is to create gridlock in the city centre and have all forms of transport, bar bikes, grind to a halt among the stench of overflowing wheelie bins – will be delighted at her departure. There may even be those who will cheer Burns’ leaving.
But they will be a loss to the city. They know how the system works. How to get things done – or not as the case may be. Hinds got the trams running, she deserves credit for that even if you’ve never agreed with the whole idea in the first place. And if the City Deal goes through, bringing £1bn and more of investment to Edinburgh and the south-east of Scotland, then Andrew Burns should be congratulated, even if his desire for a more “co-operative council” fell rather flat.
Another even longer-serving, possibly more controversial, councillor who’s handing back the office keys is former Lord Provost, Eric Milligan – and he seems determined to go out on a high. His statement this week that Nimbys are holding back Edinburgh’s development, particularly in terms of the city’s live music offering, will rankle with many who feel they’ve had to “put up with” the Festival and Fringe over the last month.
In fact those who already live among the city’s nightspots – such as the Grassmarket – will be furious that their understandable desire to have their night’s sleep uninterrupted by bands playing in nearby hostelries is so easily dismissed by the city’s licensing chief.
Milligan is right though. Not in the name-calling but in the fact that Edinburgh is a city of culture and that should include live music as much as it does grand, silent art galleries. The way the Fringe opens up spaces, be they as venues or pop-up bars, gives the city centre a buzz which disappears the moment the last firework explodes over the Castle.
If there was a way of harnessing that energy and putting it into year-round venues, then Edinbuirgh would be a more vibrant place altogether and not an also-ran to Glasgow when it comes to music. Of course there’s always a balance to be struck as we also want people to live in the centre of town, but the current rules around live music are far too obtuse.
Hinds too was right to push on with the tram project and put the Leith extension back on the table. Without it the business case will never succeed and we’ll have years of stories of how the tram line is sucking the life out of Lothian Buses. The tram inquiry will no doubt ensure she – and many, many others – have questions to answer over the debacle, but given the mess she inherited, full steam ahead was – and is – the only option.
And Burns also was right to bring together disparate bodies and apply for the City Deal which will attract investment and help to tackle Edinburgh’s long-standing inequalities. Inequalities made all the more obvious by the release of the Scottish Government’s Deprivation Index yesterday. Inequalities which the council has been unable to tackle given the cuts to its budget and the council tax freeze.
Of course there have been far too many problems for the council in recent years. But what we should always remember is that councillors are the people who put themselves out there; who step up to the mark and believe things can be done differently, that they can contribute to the place in which they live and make it better. They are the people who try, while the rest of us are the people who judge. And mostly judge them to be failing.
Perhaps it’s time that we all step up our game in Edinburgh. To stop the niggling criticism of those who are brave enough to stand for election, who want to do the best they can for the rest of us.
The council will lose many experienced hands next year – what will we expect of their, possibly naive, replacements? Will they be good enough? And if not are we prepared to give it a shot ourselves?
The elections are next year. Anyone can stand. Good luck.