AFTER weeks of delay Edinburgh now at last has a new council administration. The SNP and Labour are continuing the coalition which ran the Capital between 2012 and 2017, albeit with the SNP being the dominant partner this time.
Coalitions are now the order of the day, not just in Edinburgh but throughout Scotland. Long gone are the days when a single party could dominate council chambers. My purpose is not to suggest that Scotland should revert to the first-past-the -post system but to argue that the current system does not allow for clear and transparent leadership.
A feature of coalition government is that new leaders tend to emerge following party discussions post-election. In Edinburgh the SNP, Labour and Conservative groups all changed their leader post-election.
It goes without saying that leadership is important whether it be in the public, private or third sectors. And the leadership qualities of those who aspire to lead Scotland’s Capital city are crucial. These qualities should be tested; currently they are not.
Perhaps it is time to trial the direct election of a council leader in Edinburgh?
Introducing directly-elected leaders would have the essential advantage over the current system by creating a direct line of accountability between the citizen and the leader, allowing the electorate to give due consideration to the leadership qualities of candidates during the election campaign. At the end of a five-year term the electorate would be in a position to judge whether or not promises have been delivered.
Research into the elected mayor experience in England indicates that directly-elected mayors have been more successful than the leadership they replaced. Seen to be more visible, more likely to have a coherent vision for their area, better at forging relationships with their local community they also made decisions more speedily and were generally less partisan.
There can be no argument that the introduction of a directly-elected mayor for London has been a resounding success. There is no campaign to return the governance of London to the previous model. And early experience from the election of a mayor for greater Manchester also looks positive.
The London Mayor (now Labour’s Sadiq Khan) sets budgets for the GLA, Transport for London, the London Development Agency, the Metropolitan police, and London’s fire services. Of equal significance at a time when cities are becoming even more important as economic drivers the Mayor – as London’s ambassador – is able to sell London to potential overseas investors in a way that is more difficult to achieve with a system that diffuses leadership. In short the London Mayor has the power and status of a member of the UK Government and significantly more political clout and influence of any number of backbench MPs. And, in the Scottish context, local leadership is of growing importance. Government ministers continue to centralise education, local planning decisions are often overturned and there is no doubt that Scottish local government is now dancing to a centrally-driven tune. Indeed it is ironic that in some areas citizens are now further from important decision-making processes that affect their local communities than they were when Westminster was in charge.
Strong directly-elected leaders would help counteract that direction of travel. They would be able to speak clearly, coherently and with the backing of their local community and win new powers for Edinburgh as in London where the Mayor has gained new powers over housing and planning. Surely it’s now time to at least trial the concept of an elected mayor? Edinburgh would be the ideal testing ground.
Keith Geddes is Policy Director with Pagoda Porter Novelli and a former CoSLA President.