Change has been the one constant in Tom Aitchison’s career – and he leaves local government on the cusp of another potential overhaul
When Tom Aitchison retired last month, Scottish local government lost its most experienced chief executive and one of its highly respected figures. Aitchison, who held the top job at City of Edinburgh Council from its inception and at Lothian Regional Council before that, had the distinction of being the only chief to have served prereorganisation.
That gives him a unique perspective into the current political momentum for reform of local government and the wider public sector under the newly established Christie Commission. “I came into local government one month after reorganisation in 1975, and I’m leaving it as just another potential reorganisation is about to start,” he says.
No one should attempt to redraw the council map, he warns, without proper consideration of the purpose of local government and how it should be funded. “The debate to date has been in part about [whether] we have too many councils in Scotland; people have been bandying numbers around that we could have roughly half the councils that we currently have,” he says.
For a country the size of Scotland, 32 councils does, on the face of it, seem a large number, he admits. “But I wouldn’t want to slash and burn just for the sake of it,” he says. “I sincerely hope we get into a debate about the importance first of all about local democracy…and secondly…the financial basis for local government before we get into what could be quite a difficult, perhaps acrimonious, debate about where boundaries are going to lie.” First-hand experience of reorganisation in the mid-nineties has made him wary of change for the sake of change, not least because of the financial implications of structural reform. “I remember vividly the difficult discussions in the mid-nineties- about the then reorganisation [when] a lot of financial consequences were, quite frankly, masked over,” he says.
When he was clearing out his office he came across, by coincidence, some submissions from Lothian Region expressing concern that the cost of reorganisation had been underestimated. “You need to have a very robust financial model so before we start… amalgamating councils or changing functions …we’re really very, very clear what the cost of that is going to be, because every penny counts at the present time,” he says.
In the meantime, there is a risk that talk of reorganisation diverts attention away from the real issues facing local government.
“The debate can almost become a bit of a distraction about how the council is going to be, rather than a genuine debate about how effective are the services being provided, are they fit for purpose, [and] what democratic structures and organisational models are best fitted to developing services for the future,” says Aitchison.
An evidence-based review of local government’s funding and functions is long overdue, he believes, especially given the hugely significant relationship that has developed between councils, the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament over the last decade. “The last really comprehensive review was the Wheatley Commission which predated the 1975 reorganisation,” he says. “It’s worth taking a bit of time to get the way of the future right. There’s a lot of quite fundamental questions about the governance of our country to be taken forward.” One of the most profound would be the strengthening of local democracy – potentially by bringing a greater range of services under council control – and giving individuals and communities more say over the services they receive.
As part of that review, Aitchison would like to see consideration given to the role played by cities in Scotland’s economic future. If the Government’s top priority is to promote economic growth that means a much greater focus is needed on Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen as the country’s engines of economic growth.
“With the best will in the world, growth is going to come from the cities, it’s not going to come from anywhere else in the Scottish economy,” he says. “Cities are the anchors for the future of our country and Edinburgh has a huge amount to offer in that regard.
“I would personally like to see a greater focus on cities in terms of government policy. That means understanding the investment needs of cities and how that can be accommodated over the next five to ten years to ensure sustained economic growth for the cities and city regions.” Edinburgh born and bred, Aitchison has witnessed the transformation of his native city from the “dour and quite traditional” place of his boyhood in the fifties to the vibrant, international city of today, confident of its place in the world.
Until the late eighties, development was stymied by tensions between the public and private sector, and the result was a series of “holes in the ground”, seized upon by the local press as symbols of the city’s stagnation.
When elected members and officials realised that partnership with the private sector was the way forward, the way was unlocked for major developments like the Gyle and the Edinburgh International Conference Centre.
“Now there’s no question about it, the city is international, cosmopolitan, it’s vibrant, dynamic, it feels very much like a European capital,” says Aitchison.
“Till the recession kicked in two years ago, after London, Edinburgh was the most prosperous city in the UK. While much of the credit for that is due to the private sector, which invested money and capital in these facilities, the leadership role played by the council did lead to remarkable transformation over that period.” He believes Edinburgh has the strength to emerge from the economic downturn with its head high and confidence intact. “The recession has affected business confidence, that’s for sure, but there is a lot of faith in Edinburgh as a place to be, faith in the foundations of the city, and a real sense we’ll get through the current difficulties and come out the other end and continue to be a vibrant, flourishing, prosperous city,” he says.
His position at the head of a world city has led to some memorable encounters.
One of the highlights was meeting Nelson Mandela at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in 1997. “An utterly charming man, he had that rare gift of making every individual feel special on the day,” he remembers.
He’s also unlikely to forget the time he took former US president Jimmy Carter to an Edinburgh bookshop to get a Scots poetry book for his wife. “So off we go, the two of us, the secret service guys behind, find the book and then he does this” – Aitchison pats his pockets extravagantly – “so I’m quite pleased to have gifted a book to a former president!” As a fervent Hearts fan, watching his beloved team twice parade the Scottish Cup through the streets of the city will always be hard to beat. But most of his memories will be of the people he had the privilege to work with in the course of his long career. “I’m not going to go away thinking about the wonderful management systems I put in place, what you remember is the people,” he says.
Aitchison’s stellar career grew from humble beginnings. “I was a born in a tenement in Leith, with three families sharing an outside toilet, until I was 12 and my father and mother got enough points to get a council house, and we moved to a high-rise flat,” he says.
“That’s always given me an appreciation of the difficult circumstances people in the city face. I’ve never forgotten that, the background I came from. And it’s always been part of my driving force to recognise the potential local government has to improve people’s lives.” Now that he has handed the reins to his successor, former Aberdeen City chief Sue Bruce, Aitchison’s immediate plan is to take a few months off just to take stock. “I want to spend more of my life outdoors if I can, hill walking and cycling,” he says. In recent years, the pressure of work has made planning a weekend away an epic task, so holidays in the islands and trips to see his son in York and daughters in London will be a high priority.
“I’d like to do more travelling, and one thing I’m really looking forward to is having more spontaneity in my life,” he says.
He admits, though, that the break will probably be short-lived. “I don’t see myself as being retired, I’ve got too much energy and enthusiasm for that still,” he says.
“I’ll be looking to see where I can make a contribution in the future.”