Donald Anderson discusses highs and lows of leading City council

Donald Anderson at the site of Holyrood
Donald Anderson at the site of Holyrood
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BOB Geldof, MTV, Harvey Nicks, trams and school uniforms – Donald Anderson’s time as city council leader saw big events and big changes in the Capital.

Looking back a decade after he stepped down, he recalls the city’s successful handling of events around the G8 summit in 2005 as one of the high points – but also his biggest challenge.

The Friends of Burdiehouse Burn Valley Park. Picture, Andrew O'Brien:

The Friends of Burdiehouse Burn Valley Park. Picture, Andrew O'Brien:

The meeting of international leaders took place at Gleneagles, but many of the protests surrounding the event were here in Edinburgh.

Mr Anderson’s headache came when Bob Geldof – who was organising a series of Live 8 concerts around the country – made a surprise call for a million people to descend on the Capital.

“I’m the guy who said No to Bob Geldof,” he says. “I’m a huge fan – I think he’s fantastic – but we couldn’t possibly have allowed a million people to come to Edinburgh. It was way beyond what the city could have coped with safely. Thankfully, we managed to make him see the sense of that.”

It was not a direct dialogue though – Midge Ure was middle man and Mr Anderson also used the media, coming up with what he says was his best-ever soundbite. “I said we all wanted to save lives in Africa, but we didn’t want to put any lives at risk here.”

He says he was acutely aware that people had died at G8 summits elsewhere and was determined to avoid that. In the end, it was all relatively peaceful.

“A few police were injured, a few park benches were damaged in Princes Street Gardens, a couple of hundred geraniums were lost and a couple of bricks were taken out of Rose Street but other than that we got through.”

The massive Make Poverty History march saw 225,000 on the city streets – the biggest demonstration ever seen in Scotland. “It had a huge impact on the G8 and in turn had huge impact on the money given to help solve problems of poverty and deprivation around the world – and Edinburgh was a part of that.”

Mr Anderson took over as council leader in 1999 after Keith Geddes quit to bid to become an MSP. He defeated Lesley Hinds for the job by just 16 votes to 15.

He recalls litter was one of the big issues he had to address. “We had a huge problem in terms of the state of the city at that time and managed to make a really big improvement within a few years.

“We started going in for Scotland in Bloom again and looking at the environment to make it more attractive and less likely to be littered. We had what was at the time Scotland’s largest anti-litter campaign Keep Edinburgh Clean.

“By the time we left the council we were the cleanest city in Scotland.”

His time in office saw Harvey Nichols arrive in town and Mr Anderson says that transformed the Capital as a shopping destination. “The Edinburgh area was losing 18 per cent of retail spend to the Glasgow area and that fell to just three per cent.”

Major events were also attracted to Edinburgh like the MTV Awards which were held in Leith in 2003.

“Beyonce brought the city to a standstill just getting out of her car at the Balmoral Hotel,” he recalls.

“It was great for the city and it would be nice if the city could try and bring that back. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t.”

Mr Anderson says the period had also seen record investment in state education through the schools building programme and large-scale regeneration schemes in run-down areas.

But there were disappointments as well.

Tenants voted against a proposal to transfer the city’s stock of council houses to a new housing association. The move would have led to the Treasury writing off millions of pounds of housing debt. “It was a huge disappointment because of the loss of the investment,” says Mr Anderson. “For the opponents it was all about keeping council housing. I grew up in a council house – I don’t get dewy eyed about them I don’t think it’s particularly important what the name of the organisation is that runs the service, it’s about what the service is like.”

And he says the city lost out as a result. “You just have to look at areas at Sighthill, where there are regeneration projects still moving forward, but that would have happened a lot more quickly and with a lot more money and muscle behind them.”

There was also the rejection of congestion charging in a referendum in 2005. The money raised from the proposed charge would have been used for transport projects, including an extra tramline.

“I thought it was the best idea for the city – I still think it’s something that could make a huge difference in terms of the transport infrastructure for Edinburgh – but people rejected it and you have to accept that.”

Ken Livingstone had already introduced a congestion charge in London – without a referendum. “I wish we had that option, just to go ahead and do it,” says Mr Anderson.

“Congestion charging in London has been accepted and no-one has proposed to take it away. We didn’t have that choice because the Scottish Executive said we had to demonstrate public support for it.”

He had more success with changing policy on school uniforms.

After seeing the success of uniforms at Gracemount High, he pressed education director Roy Jobson and his officials to make them the norm across the city, but became frustrated by slow progress.

“I got so fed up with the education department dragging its feet that I just announced it in the leader’s report at a council meeting.

“Roy went nuts, but he and the department implemented it. Sometimes you just have to get on with it.”

One of his biggest regrets in all his seven years at the helm was not being able to persuade colleagues that it was a good idea to sell Edinburgh Park, the office park developed by the council’s arms-length company EDI.

“I wanted to sell Edinburgh Park, but I was the only one in the council who did,” he says.

“Other people, including [Tory group leader] Daphne Sleigh described Edinburgh Park as a dripping roast and said the council would make much more money hanging on to it than by selling.

“Actually we would probably have got over £100 million for Edinburgh Park if we’d sold it at that time.

“It ended up going bust and had to be sold for much less in the recent past.

“If the council had an extra £100m in its coffers there’s a lot of extra things that could have been delivered for that.”

But he is not downcast about what might have been and looks back with some pride at his time in charge.

“Edinburgh is a fantastic city – it’s the best job I’ll ever have. We delivered lots of things – in terms of jobs and investment it was unprecedented compared with what had happened previously.

“But if you try lots of things, you fail in some of them. That shouldn’t stop you being ambitious about either the city or the council. The more you try to do the more you achieve.”

Leading a big city is not an easy job, he says. “It’s like football management – people watch the telly and think they can put a better team on the park but actually running a modern city is an enormously challenging thing.

“I loved every minute of it but it’s a real combination of torture and bliss. You had moments of extreme exhilaration when you achieved a lot and then times of real disappointment.”

He quit the council to stand as Labour’s candidate in Edinburgh South in the 2007 Holyrood elections. He failed to win the seat, but insists he is “not disappointed at all”.

That was the election when Labour lost power to the SNP. “Ironically if I had got elected it would have been a tougher time for me,” he said.

Now firmly ensconced at public affairs company PPS, he has no plans to return to politics.

He is restrained in his comments on his successors at the City Chambers and their handling of current problems.

“It’s always easy to throw stones but they have had a lot of difficult things to deal with. If you look at the satisfaction rating among people who live in Edinburgh now, that’s higher than when I left the council.”

And he is upbeat about the Capital’s prospects.

“I’m tremendously optimistic,” he said. “Obviously we had a lot of challenges and difficulties through the economic downturn, but there are huge opportunities there as well.

“It’s arguably a more exciting time to be involved in Edinburgh than it was even when I was leader.”

ian.swanson@edinburghnews.com