Ian Swanson: End of an era as familiar faces head for exit

Lesley Hinds and Andrew Burns are both standing down. Picture: Greg Macvean
Lesley Hinds and Andrew Burns are both standing down. Picture: Greg Macvean
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IT looks like there’s an exodus under way at the City Chambers, with some of the Capital’s best-known councillors announcing they won’t be standing for re-election next May.

Former Lord Provosts Eric Milligan and Lesley Hinds will be stepping down, as will council leader Andrew Burns.

Former Liberal Democrat group leader Paul Edie is also among those who have said they will be going and there could well be more departures to come.

The electorate might also decide it’s time to say goodbye to some others – even if they had not planned on going themselves.

Councillor Burns observes there has been a large turnover at both the council elections held since the Single Transferable Vote system was brought in. “In 2007, 29 out of the 58 councillors were new and last time, in 2012, 25 out of the 58 were new,” he says.

But it still seems a significant moment when Eric Milligan, who was the public face of Edinburgh for 13 years as Lothian Convener and then Lord Provost, decides to call it a day.

And once Lesley Hinds leaves, there will be no-one left from the Labour group which stormed to power in 1984 to end decades of Tory rule in the Capital.

She has recalled the gap sites and poor housing which were a fixture of Edinburgh life at that time and how dramatically the city has changed over the years. It is striking to remember that there was nothing like the Hogmanay festival back then – and that tourism used to be looked after by just a council sub-committee.

The transformation of the Capital in the past 30 years is testament to the importance of good local government with power to make a difference.

There are plenty examples of the council getting it wrong and handling things badly, from trams to property repairs. But councillors also deserve credit for changing the city for the better.

Yet, along with her comments about having reached her 60th birthday and the need for a new generation to take over, Lesley Hinds made the point that local government is probably weaker now than at any time during her 33 years on the council.

“I feel that now what we’re doing is carrying out cuts on behalf of the Scottish Government,” she said.

It is a stark statement from someone who served as council leader and now transport convener and has been faced with the unenviable task of trying to implement political priorities for the city while balancing the books with less cash.

It is one of the ironies of the SNP’s record at Holyrood that despite its core belief in independence it has been responsible for a massive centralisation of power.

Scotland’s local authorities have had little choice but to freeze council tax for the past nine years and Edinburgh’s calls for the right to introduce a tourist tax have been rebuffed by central government.

The creation of Police Scotland and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service mean councils now have a much more limited role in these areas.

And there is speculation that local control of education is also set to be reduced or removed.

Andrew Burns has never shown any interest in trying to get elected to Holyrood or Westminster, partly because in many ways councils can have more direct impact on people’s day-to-day lives than either the Scottish or UK parliament.

But centralisation may mean those days are numbered. Who knows how local government will look in another 33 years?