Edinburgh Council elections 2022: As a councillor, I met Nelson Mandela and Queen Elizabeth, but the real work was helping people in tough times – Susan Dalgety

This morning 63 Edinburgh residents will have woken up ready, I hope, to start their five-year contract with their city and its people as councillors.

Monday, 9th May 2022, 12:30 pm
Susan Dalgety met both Queen Elizabeth and Nelson Mandela during her time as an Edinburgh councillor (Picture: Kirsty Wigglesworth/PA)

Some of them are old hands, with decades of experience behind them. Others are relatively new to the job, with only one term under their belt, and quite a few are absolute beginners.

The initial excitement of winning a coveted place in their chosen ward will have started to wear off, and I am sure most of them are nervous about starting their new role.

At least, I hope they are, because they are now among the most important people in the Capital, with responsibility for shaping its future over the next few years.

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I still remember the morning I entered the City Chambers for the first time as a young councillor. “Good morning ma’am,” said the uniformed city officer at the main entrance. I giggled out of sheer embarrassment.

I was a 34-year-old single parent from Wester Hailes. No-one had ever called me ma’am before (and only very rarely since, and then only in jest). “My name is Susan,” I stammered, before climbing the imposing staircase to the councillors’ lounge where I was due to meet the rest of my comrades.

I mostly enjoyed the seven years I served as a councillor, first on the old Edinburgh District Council, then from 1995 on the new City of Edinburgh administration. I rose to the dizzy heights of deputy leader and chair of the Urban Regeneration Committee, and was proud to play a small role in the development of our city’s infrastructure, including the conference centre.

I also met some amazing people through the job, including Nelson Mandela. And I had coffee with the Queen. Her visit to the City Chambers in 1998 was one of the highlights of my civic career.

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Midlothian Council election results 2022

A few councillors, including me, gathered in the Lord Provost’s sitting room to welcome her. She was delightful. Very engaged and engaging. I am no monarchist, but the memory of sharing a joke with Her Majesty will remain with me.

But the glamourous moments were rare, and that is how it should be. I quickly learned that my job was not to further my own political career, but to represent the people of my ward to the best of my ability. All of them, not just those who had voted for me.

Weekly surgeries were tough, as young and old came to me with sometimes insurmountable problems, from being homeless to deep in debt. Sometimes I couldn’t help, beyond offering a sympathetic ear and sometimes a hug. Other times, I did make a difference. And the memory of those successes, like coffee with the Queen, stays with me to this day.

I asked an old friend, Frank Russell, who was councillor for Broomhouse for 19 years, what advice he would give any new councillor starting out this morning. “Be honest with people. Do what you can to help, but if you can’t do any more, tell them.”

And he added: “Always remember that being elected is an honour, so act appropriately.” Sage advice that I hope our city’s new and returning councillors will heed.