Andrew Burns: The culture of politics has changed a lot in five years

I THINK you'd need to be inhabiting a wholly different world from the one I live in, not to be aware that trust between the electorate and those of us either elected or employed to serve that electorate, has broken down badly in recent years.

By The Newsroom
Monday, 20th February 2017, 9:00 am
Updated Wednesday, 1st March 2017, 8:05 am
The City Chambers. Picture: Scott Taylor
The City Chambers. Picture: Scott Taylor

And it was clear when we formed our local Labour/SNP coalition administration in Edinburgh, following the last 2012 Scottish council elections, that business as usual wasn’t an option; we had to change the way we did things.

As an incoming council leader, I knew there was no time to waste in ensuring that we had a clear, unambiguous programme for governance.

And not just as a council leader, but also as a ward councillor and a member of my local community, I understand the scale of the challenges that we are all facing locally.

Council leader Andrew Burns. Picture: Scott Taylor

Many communities are disengaged from local democracy; councils can seem like distant bureaucracies and as organisations, we constantly struggle to manage significant funding reductions just as local people are putting more and more demand on local services. If councils are going to survive in this context and if communities are going to thrive, then we all need to start doing things differently.

We need to work together in genuine and equal partnership with local people to make the most of the strengths that lie in our communities. Most importantly we must drive real innovation, with local people at its core, if we are to face the challenges ahead of us.

So, back in 2012, we agreed a clear set of some 53 commitments, in a new ‘Contract with the Capital”’. That contract was openly published and within weeks the ‘monitoring against delivery’ of our promises was live and very visible via the main council website and continues to be so, with six-monthly reports going to full council meetings.

Yes, Scottish local government had already changed substantially back in 2007, with the introduction of a proportional voting-system: STV-PR with multi-member wards. But that change was mostly in terms of political make-up (structural change) and deeper cultural change in the way politics was conducted was clearly going to take a little longer and much more effort to instigate.

Council leader Andrew Burns. Picture: Scott Taylor

So, we also committed to becoming a ‘Co-operative council’ – we wanted to encourage not just local communities, but our many partners and those using our services to become more involved in how those services are planned, managed and delivered.

That meant looking at new ways of delivering services but it also meant co-operating with other agencies, other cities and crucially, the people of Edinburgh - doing things with them and not doing things to them.

And by way of example, that new approach to the way we worked and the way we engaged with others has included some significant actions in making the vision of a ‘Cooperative council’ a reality.

We established the first petitions committee at the council, chaired by a member of Edinburgh’s opposition, Green group. This has helped enable local residents to have an additional channel to raise issues of concern with their elected representatives and directly with the council.

We completely overhauled our scrutiny function and established a new governance, risk and best value committee, again chaired by a member of Edinburgh’s opposition, this time from the Conservative group.

We also completely revised our budgetary process, which led to the publication of draft budgets – for the first time in decades, in Edinburgh – and further allowed several months of public consultation each year, all prior to setting any final budgets.

And last but by no means least, we’re now webcasting both live and archived all of our full council meetings and an increasing number of our regular committee meetings. I’m now frequently challenged about previous comments and commitments and that has to be good for local democracy.

And I firmly believe that the co-operative principles of empowerment, equal partnership and collective action offer a positive route to not simply survive through tough times, but to enable local communities to thrive, supported by relevant and meaningful local public services.

The cumulative impact of all these considered changes has been fairly significant and, I would argue, we have re-gained a renewed sense of engagement with residents. And there is a new political narrative within the City Chambers here in Edinburgh; the political culture, not just the structures, has now most definitely changed – and changed for the better.

Councillor Andrew Burns is leader of Edinburgh City Council