City’s youngest ever council chief landed role by ‘accident’

New city council Leader
 Adam McVey says he only ended up in the job by accident. Picture: Ian Georgeson
New city council Leader Adam McVey says he only ended up in the job by accident. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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Adam McVey, who is today due to become Edinburgh’s youngest ever council leader, says he only ended up at the City Chambers by accident.

He agreed to stand as the SNP’s second candidate in Leith ward in the 2012 council elections, not expecting to win a seat.

But the vagaries of the Single Transferable Vote system saw him elected while his party colleague, the then Deputy Lord Provost Rob Munn, lost out.

“We had run a strategy that protected my running mate, but it didn’t work so I accidentally got elected and he didn’t.”

He quickly took to the role, however, and spent three years as vice-convener of transport and environment. After the local elections last month he was elected leader of the SNP group, now the biggest on the council.

Does he think it’s significant that he is now taking the helm of the Capital’s administration, aged just 30?

“It goes against the grain of what some people imagine Edinburgh to be.

“Sometimes we don’t have a reputation as a city of being a young vibrant place where a lot is happening – and the truth is we are. We probably have more cultural events, more art emerging in Leith and other parts of the city than any other city in Scotland and probably most of the UK as well.

“So hopefully it makes some kind of statement about what kind of city we are – we’re not old stuffy Edinburgh, we’re a young city, we’ve got a lot of young professional people, a lot of young people who are going out, having a great time and making our city the vibrant place that it is.”

Cllr McVey was born in Paisley and grew up in Renfrew, part of a “very normal working class family”.

His mother was a barmaid, then worked for and eventually ran a debt charity. His father was and is a maintenance engineer. They still live in Renfrew.

He says it was not a particularly political household, but by his mid-teens Adam was taking an interest in politics.

He joined the SNP when he was 16. “It was the Iraq war that motivated me more than anything,” he says.

“There was a Labour government which was at the time the best we could have hoped for in terms of my political persuasion, being working-class, left-wing, social democratic, liberal, and I saw them doing horrendous things. And I thought it’s not the political party that’s in power that I have a problem with, it’s the system much more fundamentally so that led me to support independence and the SNP.”

He went to a branch meeting but found it uninspiring and did not become active in the party until he moved to Edinburgh in 2010. “We spend our time now thinking why do we have all these members who aren’t involved – and that was me for seven years.”

He came to the Capital to do a Masters in law, having studied economics in Dundee. But his experience of education at school had not been good.

“That’s what gives me a lot of motivation in politics,” he says. “I had hugely supportive parents who drove me forward, but the education setting was not as productive, as sharp, as effective as it could have been.

“I just remember me and one of my friends laughing through everything at school – which is not a good memory to have in educational attainment terms.

“Unless every layer of government pulls together and improves education you are going to have people in the same situation as me. I ended up like a lot of people at 17 having failed all my Highers and having to reassess how I would move forward.”

He went into further education and got the qualifications to get to university. But he says his school days leave him determined to make things better for young people today.

Cllr McVey now leads an SNP-Labour coalition which does not have an overall majority, but which he hopes will build on the work of the Labour-SNP partnership which ran the city for the previous five years.

“It’s almost ironic that with the huge majority which the previous coalition had, sometimes we didn’t quite go bold enough on some things.”

He mentions action on air quality, which is a key issue for the SNP, Labour, Greens and Lib Dems. “Not having just a two-party consensus to get things through may push us to be bolder on some of the solutions we need on issues like that.”

Tackling homelessness is another urgent priority, he says. “We see huge pressures on temporary accommodation. I don’t think we’ve quite grasped that nettle yet in the last administration. There are families in B&Bs that are totally unacceptable and there’s people not even getting that. We need a fundamental rethink of how that’s done. It’s going to take a lot of ambition and quite a lot of funding but I think we’re all committed.”

And he hopes there will be cross-party co-operation on key issues. “We have 63 councillors who were elected not just to manage the status quo but to try to improve things, whatever party people are in.”