Edinburgh council leader Adam McVey appears to think Tories are psychic – Iain Whyte

The refusal to answer questions over Edinburgh’s Christmas market speaks volumes about the lack of accountability at heart of the council administration, says Iain Whyte.

Monday, 25th November 2019, 6:00 am
Edinburgh’s Christmas market has taken over East Princes Street Gardens. Picture: Ian Georgeson

For many the debate over Edinburgh’s Christmas and its takeover of East Princes Street Gardens must be like the debate over Brexit – never-ending – so I don’t raise it again lightly. It remains important because it tells us everything we need to know about the lack of accountability at the heart of the council’s chaotic SNP-led minority administration.

At the council meeting last week, we Conservatives asked a series of questions of committee conveners culminating in a question from me to the SNP council leader. Why had a decision so obviously controversial as erecting a huge scaffolding in a Common Good public park in a World Heritage Site not been the subject of a report to committee? Especially given the background of a furious debate in the city on “over-tourism” and the use of said park led by many of the administration’s political friends.

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Cllr Iain Whyte is the Conservative group leader on Edinburgh City Council. Picture: Ian Georgeson

You might have thought he would acknowledge the controversy that had been caused. Or perhaps apologise for the lack of regulatory and planning processes around the Christmas market – ones which everyone else must obey.

Or maybe he could have admitted that there would have been far more demonstrable public consent had the changes to the scale and look of the market structure been discussed and scrutinised by a council committee.

Private briefings, confidential discussions

Instead, in an act of arrogance that exhibited a gross failure to understand the basics of the role he occupies, the council leader chose to blame us who questioned him for a “failure that the right questions weren’t asked at the right time”.

Apparently, my colleagues at committee were meant to know from a motion presented to them with little notice that a decision already taken by officers agreeing “extra costs” would result in a dramatic increase in the Christmas market footprint. They were also meant to deduce this from a later report that only mentioned visitor numbers and economic benefit.

Likewise, they were also to realise that the construction would be given the go-ahead without planning permission or the advance submission of a building warrant application – both legal requirements. I know my colleagues are good at what they do but they are not psychic.

Finally, local councillors were expected to know to ask how many shipping containers and diesel generators would clutter the World Heritage Site to make the appearance of Santa’s Sleigh at Light Night possible. The council leader hailed this as a magical event creating iconic images but what of the financial and environmental cost and the five nights of disruption to residents and loss of income to businesses?

Increasingly under this administration council matters are discussed in private briefings, “all-party oversight groups” where the public are excluded and the discussion is considered confidential, or a note is circulated to inform councillors of a decision already taken without scrutiny. All this in the name of making decisions more “efficiently”. But decisions must be useful and effective as well as efficient. And where something is costly or controversial this process should be in public with a proper opportunity for scrutiny.

Support or otherwise of the Christmas market is no longer the point. This whole episode, and the council leader’s dismissal of concerns show up the closed, defensive culture and lack of proper governance in the council. Those in power must take ownership of the decisions they make, including all the unintended consequences. How else will the public trust our politicians and the officers they are meant to oversee?

Cllr Iain Whyte is the Conservative group leader at Edinburgh City Council