Labour’s Councillor Andrew Burns is the new leader at City of Edinburgh Council
Amid the fraught, late night meetings and speculation in the aftermath of last month’s council election, Edinburgh’s negotiations and subsequent coalition announcement was a breath of fresh air across the local government landscape. In Scotland’s capital, the politicians proved they were capable of putting national differences aside for what was best for the city and its people. After a humiliating defeat for the Liberal Democrats in the city, which saw some high-profile scalps, including former council leader Jenny Dawe, no party had an overall majority. Labour and the SNP were sitting at 20 and 18 councillors respectively, with the Conservatives on 11, the Greens six and the Lib Dems limping behind on three. After the celebrations and commiserations of 4 May, all the parties got down to business straight away, with a weekend of meetings trying to determine the new political make-up of the local authority.
While some councils were still wrangling over details weeks later, just days after the polls closed, City of Edinburgh Council announced it would be led by a Labour and SNP coalition. The move was universally lauded as a sign of mature and reasonable behaviour from both parties.
The new leader of the council is the affable Andrew Burns, councillor for Fountainbridge/ Craiglockhart, with the SNP’s Steve Cardownie in the deputy leader role. With the experience of both working in administration and opposition during his time with the council, and after being Labour group leader for four years, Burns knows the challenge he is up against.
Speaking of working with the SNP, Burns said: “When you looked at the two manifestos, taking out the national question, which just doesn’t apply to local councils, you couldn’t have put a cigarette paper between them. There was a big emphasis on the economy, housing, social care and rebuilding trust with the electorate.
“Those were big themes in both [manifestos]and it was not difficult to bring the coalition agreement together. I was delighted. In the last ten years it has been very numerically tight. We now have an administration of 38 out of 58 and I do not for a second think it will all be plain sailing but it will provide a degree of stability and certainty in delivering a programme for the capital which has not been here for a decade. Both groups have a good influx of new blood and it is a very exciting prospect.”
Burns said Labour initially put forward the idea of an all-party approach for the council, however, he said there “wasn’t an appetite” for it among the Lib Dems, Greens or SNP, which was “a disappointment”. However, this did not stop or hinder the subsequent deal.
Referring to how he wants the city to move forwards, Burns said: “I am going to be relentless in trying to be positive and forward-looking in the next five years. However, there are two issues I can’t help looking back on because we have to solve them and solve them quickly. One is the trams, which is well on the way to being resolved. Over the last 12 months there has been a lot of progress and we are going to work hard over the summer to get a grip on it and make sure we can be certain about delivery dates and price, and we will be very public about it. I, alongside Lesley Hinds [the new transport committee convener], will lead from the front.
“The other issue, which is less high profile but potentially, in reputation terms, could be as damaging, is the statutory notice repairs problem which has led to a police investigation. We are going to make a priority to get that resolved and get a new reconfigured service up and running. We aim to do that for the next financial year. Those are two issues we need to resolve in a bid to make sure that reputationally, the city is not damaged any further by them. Looking forward, we have the co-operative developments, much bigger emphasis on openness and transparency and scrutiny, through the Budget and Petitions Committee. It has been a big theme for both coalition partners.”
The Labour and SNP unveiled their commitment to the city with a number of priorities. These include plans to implement the establishment of a Petitions Committee to allow Edinburgh’s citizens to call for specific action to be taken by the council, and the creation of a cross-party Budget Committee, open to all representatives, which will allow all councillors the chance for proper budget scrutiny prior to decisions being made. Other priorities include starting a city-wide transport forum of experts and citizens, establishing a carers’ champion and also a champion for third sector issues at senior elected member level. Burns was first elected to the council in May 1999. In previous administrations, he had responsibility for the transport and education portfolios when Labour was in power.
Born and brought up in the small village of Salsburgh, where his parents still live, Burns gained his first degree from the University of Ulster in 1984 and has had a wide range of employment experience. He has a professional background in personnel and training, and worked for several years in that capacity in a variety of roles in both manufacturing industry and the service sector. He became a graduate of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in 1990, gaining full member status of the CIPD in 2003. From 2008 to 2011 he was the chair of the Electoral Reform Society. Burns joined the Labour Party in 1992.
He said: “Although I was politically active, with a small p, in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, I didn’t actually join a political party until after the 1992 general election. At the time, I was down in Stoke on Trent. It is very similar in geography and make-up to Glasgow, it is strongly dominated by Labour but is surrounded by a blue swathe of Tory Staffordshire. I was stuck in this enclave in 1992 and I was convinced that Neil Kinnock was going to be Prime Minister.
“I was politically dismayed by the general election result and decided to become party political and I joined Labour in mid-1992. Immediately after that, in the middle of 1993, I moved to Edinburgh and I got completely subsumed in the devolution campaign from 1993 onwards. That then led on to the first Scottish Parliament elections in 1999, when lots of councillors became MSPs. I didn’t have a game plan but I stood for one of the council seats in the then Moat ward and was elected in 1999.
“From the referendum campaign, I have always had good cross-party links. Apart from the Scottish Conservatives, it was an all-party campaign and just a few weeks ago, two of my good friends from that campaign were elected. One being Gavin Corbett for the Greens, who I got to know during that campaign which was 15 years ago and the other is Sandy Howat, who is one of the SNP councillors. I’ve known Sandy and Gavin since the 1997 referendum campaign. It is nice to see them on the council, bringing different political perspectives.”