Edinburgh council leader Andrew Burns says he did not know his own authority had a 12-year deal with SSE when he gave his blessing for the city’s chief executive to take a job with the power giant.
The admission comes after the Evening News revealed Sue Bruce had been allowed to take the non-executive board position despite SSE holding a preferred supplier deal with the council. The contract, under which the power company benefits from accounts with thousands of council tenants, is in the process of being reviewed. It is worth an estimated £11 million to the firm over the next five years.
Critics have argued the arrangement means there is a direct conflict of interest created by Ms Bruce accepting the £50,000-a-year board role.
Councillor Burns said the first he knew of the preferred supplier arrangement with SSE extending back to 2001 was when he read about it in last week’s News exclusive.
Cllr Burns took external legal advice on a potential conflict of interest after reading the News story.
He said he had not been briefed about the SSE arrangement despite asking director of corporate governance Alastair Maclean if a conflict of interest would exist if Ms Bruce took the new job.
Cllr Burns, who has repeatedly defended the chief executive’s decision, first discussed the offer with Ms Bruce in “mid to late June”. He then sought internal legal advice from Mr Maclean to help determine if there was anything wrong with giving his support.
“I asked the director to confirm if there was a conflict of interest and I was told no,” he said. “It was very, very carefully followed through.”
The SSE agreement was not raised at the time by Mr Maclean, he said.
The news has been labelled “astonishing” by John Stevenson, branch president for Edinburgh’s largest union, Unison. He said: “This is the very thing that politicians need to be briefed on. They can’t possibly know all the operational matters that are going on. That’s what they have got officials for.
“That’s really unprecedented, I would have thought, that such a significant issue would not be brought to his attention.”
He added: “Everyone I speak to doesn’t like this, thinks it stinks, thinks it’s just typical, that there’s one rule for them and another rule for us.”
Cllr Burns sought external legal advice from Brodies LLP on August 8 – a step he said he “didn’t need to do”. He said: “That legal opinion also confirmed there was no conflict of interest. We’ve gone beyond what we needed to.”