Has Edinburgh Council now become the plaything of one unelected official? – John McLellan

How many readers think they live under a “benign dictatorship”? Some will argue that SNP domination of Holyrood is far from benign, but at least there are elections every five years.

Thursday, 4th August 2022, 4:55 am
Andrew Kerr was the presiding officer at the recent Edinburgh Council elections (Picture: Scott Louden)
Andrew Kerr was the presiding officer at the recent Edinburgh Council elections (Picture: Scott Louden)

And locally, elections and proportional representation means coalitions and deals are the only way the city council can function politically. But if decisions are made behind closed doors without political oversight, and those making them are beyond democratic accountability, that’s a problem.

If decisions are fair, no-one complains and it’s benign; if not, it’s more like a dictatorship, and a malign one at that.

So, is Edinburgh run by a benign dictatorship? The description is not mine, but of Edinburgh Council’s chief executive Andrew Kerr, speaking at a low-key Global Government Forum event in June, details of which are just emerging.

Perhaps he was joking, but in his presentation, Mr Kerr boasted of having taken 978 decisions during the pandemic which would normally have been referred to councillors, empowered by emergency rules introduced in the first lockdown.

“We have maybe a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reset how we go about work in the public sector,” he said. “We managed to use emergency powers which allowed us to go round the inherent bureaucracy in the system,” he explained.

Of course, the public was so grateful, according to Mr Kerr. “We managed to get trust with our communities, and community empowerment was at the heart of everything we did,” he claimed. The panel duly nodded at such munificence, but I’m not sure that’s how residents will remember it.

Wearing his charity on his sleeve, Mr Kerr cited helping food banks as evidence of the benevolent despotism of short-circuited decision-making, demonstrating the “flexibility we should have in public services” and the need to plan beyond “five-year political cycles”.

Read More

Read More
Edinburgh council: City leader claims £175,000-a-year chief executive Andrew Ker...

But trust and empowerment Kerr-style made no mention of Spaces for People, the intensely political and divisive roads programme his administration forced through despite widespread community opposition.

There was nothing about the desperate pleas from businesses facing bankruptcy, cut off from customers and suppliers, and nothing about the hundreds of people turning up at protest meetings against ill-conceived low-traffic neighbourhoods.

Nor was there anything about sending out hapless councillors to defend these decisions while those responsible were holed up in Waverley Court, far from public anger.

Drastic times did call for drastic action, but the emergency was and is not an excuse to circumvent legitimate concerns, and changes were only approved on the understanding that any suspension of democratic process was temporary.

Instead, emergency measures became “experimental”, virtual meetings were maintained long after they were necessary, and now Mr Kerr wants many such arrangements to be made permanent. “The first thing we’ve got to do is not replace the barriers that were there before,” he said.

He revealed that the city’s future is discussed every Friday afternoon by a cosy gathering of what sounded very like his public sector pals and, as if to let everyone know who’s boss, Mr Kerr is moving his office into the City Chambers, where he can keep a closer eye on the politicians.

Technically, Edinburgh is not a dictatorship, but with no formal appraisal of Mr Kerr’s performance, and no electoral process for the public to judge his record, the council has become his plaything.