Why Edinburgh shouldn’t get an elected mayor like Sadiq Khan or Andy Street – John McLellan

The solution to Edinburgh’s problems does not lie in more politicians, writes John McLellan.
As Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan chairs a Greater London authority covering 32 councils. Picture: PAAs Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan chairs a Greater London authority covering 32 councils. Picture: PA
As Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan chairs a Greater London authority covering 32 councils. Picture: PA

A stinging critique of the way Edinburgh is being run was published this week, and more than a few readers might agree that the City Council is responsible for “stuttering tram projects, endless visions for Princes Street that never materialise” and “schools built short of spaces before they even open”.

It’s some charge sheet, to which the author added “development plans that get overruled by government” and residents feeling “squeezed out in favour of tourists”.

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Ouch. But what’s more extraordinary is that this attack comes from a prominent member of the party which, bar one brief interregnum, has been running the City for 35 years. The critic is none other than Labour MSP Daniel Johnson who is well aware that apart from five years licking its wounds in 2007-12, his colleagues have been in administration since the City Council was created in 1995 and for over ten years at the District Council before that. And having just quit as justice spokesman in disgust at his leadership’s position going into the disastrous European elections, Mr Johnson is even less happy with his party’s performance nationally than he is locally. Labour’s Edinburgh Southern constituency meetings must be fun.

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Mr Johnson’s magic wand for transforming the city’s fortunes is an elected mayor like London’s Sadiq Khan, Manchester’s Andy Burnham or Birmingham’s Andy Street, although still clinging on to his Labour credentials he doesn’t actually mention Street presumably because, horror of horrors, he’s a Tory.

Perhaps Mr Johnson likes the sound of Mayor Johnson, but the obvious question is what difference would it make? For a start, those English mayors don’t run a single council but chair an overall administration for key infrastructure like transport across a number of different authorities; Mr Khan is not Lord Mayor of London but chair of a Greater London authority covering 32 councils, and similarly Mr Street covers the West Midlands which includes Coventry and Wolverhampton and Mr Burnham’s writ extends as far as Wigan and Stockport.

Simply sticking an elected mayor, Lord Provost or whatever, on top of the existing city council would only cause confusion, given we already have a Lord Provost who chairs council meetings and is the ceremonial face of the City, a political leader and a chief executive to boot.

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It only makes sense if the surrounding authorities agree to come under one umbrella for better coordination, but Edinburgh would still be by far the biggest authority, with a population of 500,000 out of 1.3m. Even though Birmingham is twice the size of Edinburgh, it only makes up a fifth of the regional population and Manchester’s 530,000 sits in an area of just under 3m. London’s boroughs average 250,000 people.

There isn’t much of clamour for an elected regional mayor in East and West Lothian, which tick along nicely building houses and shops without too much concern for what’s happening elsewhere, while taking a ladleful of the City Region Deal pot. They know only too well a regional mayor would mean ceding authority to the centre.

An elected mayor is only one person at the top of a layer of bureaucracy required to manage the system, so the question then is why another tier of government is needed in an area not that much bigger than the City of Birmingham.

The creation of the English mayoral system filled a gap left when the old metropolitan county councils were abolished in 1994 at the same time as the Scottish regions. But within five years Scotland had a parliament and Mr Johnson is one of 16 MSPs in the Lothian region, 18 if you include Iain Gray in East Lothian and Christine Grahame in South Midlothian.

We already have more politicians than you can shake a civic mace at and people don’t want more; locally or nationally, they just want the ones they have to do a better job.