THE new leader of the Capital’s SNP group has promised to make his party a far more assertive partner within the council’s ruling coalition as he bids to put the “independence question” at the heart of City Chambers business.
Speaking the day after he was voted leader of the SNP’s 17 elected members in Edinburgh, Councillor Sandy Howat said his party had been guilty of allowing itself to play a junior role to the larger Labour grouping because of a fear of “upsetting the apple-cart” in the run-up to last year’s referendum.
In comments which have perplexed and riled coalition partners, he said it would be important for the SNP to “highlight differences” with Labour in the run-up to the next local government elections in 2017.
Cllr Howat will replace Cllr Steve Cardownie after beating Cllr Gavin Barrie by nine votes to eight during a vote on Tuesday. The Evening News understands Cllr Cardownie has been left furious by the development, which came despite plans for a “job swap” between himself and Cllr Barrie.
Cllr Howat will take the helm at the SNP as the city battles to slice £67 million from its budget by 2017-18.
He has outlined a series of priorities he said would be key to driving forward the Capital’s development – from extending the trams to Leith and introducing a tourist tax to ensuring Edinburgh keeps as much business rates revenue as possible and making far more extensive use of buildings such as schools.
And he will seek a ten-fold increase in funds paid to Edinburgh’s network of neighbourhood partnerships as part of moves to give residents and community leaders more control over key services.
But he stressed boosting the Capital’s economic growth, wealth distribution and quality of life would not be possible without a step-change in ambition.
He said: “We didn’t join the coalition so the Labour Party could run the city. We’re in the coalition so that we, in partnership with Labour, can run the city, and that needs to be reinforced again.
“We’ve been on the back foot in not pushing that forward a little bit, but Labour has also been a bit complacent in accepting, or feeling, that they’re the senior party.
“I think in terms of Steve’s comments about working hard to keep the coalition together through the referendum, that there’s been a fear almost of upsetting the apple-cart because we’re different on so many things – that is, unionist and nationalist.
“But we should remember that where we are the same, we should be really courageous and shouting it. We’ve almost been too concentrated on not highlighting our differences and I think we should be highlighting both.”
After a long period in which a “lid” was put on the question of Scotland’s constitutional future at the City Chambers, Cllr Howat said putting the issue back at the centre of city council affairs would be crucial.
“It’s about what our economy looks like, what our social mix looks like, what our wealth distribution looks like,” he said.
“I think independence will bring more wealth and power to our city, and I’ll be stating that whenever it’s necessary to state it. Up until now, that’s been absent.
“To try and say we shouldn’t be having a constitutional debate in the City Chambers, which was pretty much kept out during the referendum campaign, I would have taken a different view. Because very much part of what the SNP has been about in running Edinburgh is making it a truly independent capital city, which is at the top of the world – not sitting as the best small regional capital, but being a recognised, equal, independent capital city.”
Echoing city leader Cllr Andrew Burns, Cllr Howat said securing control of major revenue levers would be essential to delivering new infrastructure and ensuring high-quality services are provided in the face of growing demand.
“There needs to be a change of taxation representation and how much revenue we control – I think 50 per cent minimum should be controlled by local authorities,” he said.
“In terms of the council tax freeze, we’ve got to a point now where we need to have an argument about raising taxation to a level where we can deliver services.
“So a tax freeze, in two years’ time, might not be on the agenda, but I’m hoping the agenda in two years’ time will be about a different type of tax.
“In terms of the transient visitor levy, we have to have it. If you think about the special pressures that Edinburgh has from tourism alone, no-one would complain about a visitor paying an extra couple of pounds so they themselves can see the benefits.”
Expressing concern that a radical council restructure aimed at saving tens of millions of pounds and devolving significant decision-making responsibility to local communities was not moving forward quickly enough, he said: “We have half-a-million people in this city – one size does not fit all.
“We need to recognise there are different pressures and demands in different parts of the city and the best way of doing that is having more local control.”