FORMER Lord Provost Lesley Hinds, one of Edinburgh’s longest-serving and most outspoken councillors, today announced she is to quit the City Chambers.
She said she would not be standing as a candidate in next year’s elections. “I will have been 33 years on the council by then, I have just celebrated my 60th birthday and I feel it is time for the younger generation to come forward.”
But she also hit out at Scottish Government centralisation of powers, saying councils were now weaker than at any time during her period as a councillor and had effectively been reduced to implementing Holyrood cuts.
Councillor Hinds – who is currently transport and environment convener – served as leader of the old Edinburgh District Council for three years until 1996, and as Lord Provost from 2003 until 2007.
She oversaw the building of the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, instigated Edinburgh’s Hogmanay festival and helped launch the Zero Tolerance campaign targeting violence against women.
And she was in charge of the controversial Edinburgh trams project when it was finally completed.
She said: “Edinburgh is the best city in the world – and I hope I have done my part to make it a better place.”
She was elected to the council in 1984 when Labour first won control of the Capital and is the last remaining member of the 34-strong Labour group of that time.
“That was a time of real change,” she said. “The Conservatives had ruled Edinburgh for decades and it is a very different city now.
“We had all these gap sites – that was one of the key issues at the election – we had damp housing and people would come along to the council with damp clothes and they weren’t even allowed a deputation. There was very little investment in sport and culture or community facilities and libraries.
“But over the last 33 years, the council has built sports centres, new libraries and community facilities, improved housing and refurbished schools and it’s a thriving capital city.”
Throughout the 33 years she has always represented Drylaw, where she lives and which is now part of the multi-member Inverleith ward.
Her first role at the council was as convener of the general purposes committee.
“One of the first things I did was opening up the City Chambers so it could be used by communities and organisations,” she said.
“And we created Edinburgh Marketing. At that time, tourism was very much July to August and there was just a council sub-committee where the private sector complained the council didn’t put enough money into tourism and the council complained the private sector didn’t put enough in.
“We set up Edinburgh Marketing as a partnership between the tourism industry in Edinburgh and the council, and if you look at how things have changed, tourism is now year-round, there are jobs all year round and hotel bed occupancy has soared.”
Cllr Hinds went on to become Edinburgh’s first woman council leader in 1993, when Labour fell short of an overall majority and reached a deal with the Nationalists which made the SNP’s Norman Irons Lord Provost.
She was one of the moving spirits behind the launch of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay festival in 1994, which has since evolved into a vital part of the city’s economy.
“That was controversial at the time as well,” she said. “I just knew it would work because I had been involved with the tourism industry. In those days people would turn up in Edinburgh, go to the Tron and that was it. Nothing was open on New Year’s Day and it was just like a damp squib.
“The Hogmanay Festival idea was about tourism all the year round, but also for local people because residents and particularly young people didn’t often get an opportunity to go to see bands. Hogmanay was an opportunity – and when it first started it was free.”
Later, she was convener of Lothian and Borders Police Board for four years, helping to introduce council-funded community police officers, before becoming Lord Provost – “a great privilege”.
Cllr Hinds made one bid to be an MP in 1997 and stood in the last two Scottish Parliament elections, but does not seem too disappointed she did not succeed.
“A lot of people say you can do more at local government level than as an MP or MSP because they are a bit more remote. Westminster was the opportunity at the time and I’m a great believer in the Scottish Parliament, but sometimes you’re in the right place at the right time and sometimes you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
She said she decided when she was selected in 2014 as candidate for Edinburgh Northern and Leith at this year’s Holyrood elections that she would not stand again for the council, whatever the result.
“When I was first elected I came in as a young mum with a son of three and a daughter six months old. Now it’s time for another generation, other young women.
“I also think local government is probably at its weakest point in the 30-plus years I’ve been in. I feel that now what we’re doing is carrying out cuts on behalf of the Scottish Government.
“And there has been a centralisation of service as well – police has gone, health and social care has gone to a joint board, now there’s talk of education.
“I came into politics to make a difference in the community and in the city. Our slogan in 1984 was ‘Improving Services, Creating Jobs’. I didn’t come in to cut services and cut jobs.
“I think most people in local government feel like that if you’ve been in it for a number of years.”
She said the expected City Deal, bringing investment funding from the UK and Scottish governments, might provide a serious opportunity.
But she added: “You used to say, ‘Can we improve this service and invest in it?’. But now all we do is make cuts and increase charges.
“We’ve not been able to increase the council tax for the last nine years, we can’t have a tourist tax, business rates have gone – you’ve got very little choice about what you can do for the city. I think all political parties in Scotland need to consider what is the role of local government and its responsibilities and that needs to be reflected on and changed.”
Cllr Hinds says she does not know what she will do after next May. “If an opportunity comes I will go for it, or I might decide to get involved more with community organisations as an individual.”
She says she will still be active in the Labour Party, but not stand for office again.
“I’m not giving up politics, because politics makes a difference in life and that’s what you want to do.
“When someone places a cross against your name in an election, it’s quite humbling because they’re putting their faith in you – and whether it’s helping an individual, a community or dealing with an issue city-wide I hope I have made a difference to people’s lives.”