Dame Sue Bruce: Being chief executive of Edinburgh was the pinnacle of my career

What next when you have run a capital city? For Dame Sue Bruce, retiring as chief executive of the city council, it has opened up a portfolio of opportunities across the arts, corporate and civic life.

Friday, 22nd July 2016, 1:32 pm
Updated Thursday, 25th August 2016, 6:52 pm
Sue Bruce acts as Returning Officer for Edinburgh at the 2015 general election. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

In her five years at Waverley Court, Dame Sue faced several high-profile challenges – the tram project, the Mortonhall baby ashes scandal, the death of Keane Wallis-Bennett at Liberton High, the statutory repairs scandal, not to mention being responsible for a £1 billion budget – and garnered admiration for her direct approach and problem solving. Her nearly four decades in civic life was recognised when she was made a Dame in the Queen’s 2015 New Year’s Honours List.

Walking away from the council at the age of 60 was not a decision taken lightly. “I loved working for Edinburgh council – it is absolutely fabulous – but it was a really hard shift. I’d also had quite a tough shift in Aberdeen before and I was actually quite tired,” says Bruce.

Clearly revived in the intervening six months, Bruce exudes energy and is full of enthusiasm for the projects she is now involved in.

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First, she is chair of Young Scot and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO), which is celebrating its 125th anniversary, having moved into its purpose-built centre in Glasgow late last year.

“It is absolutely superb, a world-class venue,” Bruce says of the new auditorium and rehearsal and recording space, which has bespoke rooms for instrument storage and maintenance, as well as office accommodation.

The RSNO, the UK’s third oldest continuously active professional orchestra, has impressive celebrations, with two seasons marking this anniversary year, as well as performances at the Edinburgh International Festival.

The Edinburgh Guarantee is a vision that all sectors in the city will work together to ensure that every young person will leave school with the choice of a job, training or further education opportunity.

It is clearly the legacy Dame Sue would want to be remembered for from her time at the council.

“The Edinburgh Guarantee is something that is really close to my heart.

“When I was a young graduate – I was 20 and it was the mid-1970s, there was a recession going on – I didn’t get a job immediately and it was utterly miserable.

“I was supported by my parents, but just that feeling of pointlessness and not knowing how to get a foothold.

“I can’t remember who pointed me to it, but the job creation scheme had been created and I actually got a job at Strathclyde Region and I’ve never been out of work since.

“I’ve never forgotten the fact somebody, somewhere, thought we needed to do something for these young people. Throughout my working life I have reflected upon that.”

Bruce’s early career had a focus on young people and saw her rise through Strathclyde’s education service, before becoming deputy director of education at East Ayrshire Council in 1995.

“When I came to Edinburgh, Edinburgh was delivering some of the worst performances in Scotland for positive destinations for school leavers and it was something I put out to discussion at a business breakfast in my first week.

“The business community were not sighted on the fact that Edinburgh was a poor performer. They were keen to help but didn’t know how. Young people were keen to get into work, but didn’t know how.

“We brought some people together – colleagues in the council, from business, colleges, charities and so on – and we hacked out an idea about how we might design something.

“We didn’t throw money at it because we felt this had to be something that was sustainable in its own right. We had a big debate actually about using the word ‘guarantee’ because if you say guarantee you need to mean it.”

Five years on and the Edinburgh Guarantee has more than 500 business partners who have created opportunities and placed more than 2650 young people.

“At the time I left the council, the apprentices were contributing something like a net GDP of £4.3 million to the city.

“Although it is costing people to employ apprentices they themselves are creating growth and so that has been a really strong theme for me.”

Dame Sue has a deep connection with the city itself and fondly recalls childhood visits.

“We’d been to Edinburgh a lot as children; in fact, my father worked in Edinburgh for a while and it was there in our consciousness,” she recalls

They came to the Commonwealth Games in 1970 at Meadowbank and her mother’s graduation at the McEwan Hall. “When I was a teenager I used to come to Edinburgh with my friend to go shopping. In Bread Street we got velvet jackets and flared trousers and this kind of gear,” she says.

“Over the years since, my husband and I came to Edinburgh a lot for weekends and then the opportunity to come and work in Edinburgh was just irresistible.

“From a career point of view being the chief executive of the capital city – of Edinburgh – was absolutely the pinnacle of my executive career.

“It’s a jewel of a city, its history, heritage, its cityscape.”

She adds: “I think Edinburgh has done exceptionally well over the years to embrace change and develop a thriving economy, and also respect the heritage it has.

“And I know that’s an area where there is constant discussion . . . but we don’t live in a museum, we live in a living city.

“If we can live with the 21st century, but respect the heritage and history we’ve got and look after it properly that is a difficult trick to pull off and Edinburgh does that well.”

When Dame Sue left the council last October, she was quoted as saying she would like to spend more time in her garden, so has she grown any vegetables yet?

“I haven’t actually, no: I’ve grown plenty of weeds. It is nice to spend more time at home.

“My husband and I get on famously well which is a good thing and it’s great to spend time with him and do things that we talked about doing.”