Cammy Day: 'We have a £1.5bn service need and £1.1bn to pay for it'
When Labour’s Cammy Day started making noises about taking control of City of Edinburgh Council in May, the SNP was up in arms. The party had run the city in coalition with Labour since 2017 and after no party won an outright majority at the local government elections, had expected, as the party with the largest number of seats, that the arrangement would continue.
After rumours began to circulate that Day – deputy leader to the SNP’s Adam McVey since 2017 – had a minority administration in mind, SNP grandees mobilised, with local MSPs Angus Robertson, Ash Regan, Ben Macpherson and Gordon MacDonald and MPs Joanna Cherry, Tommy Sheppard and Deidre Brock writing to him to point out that their party had returned 19 councillors to Labour’s 13 and demanding “urgent clarification” on his intentions.
Day, who speaks to me via Teams after the recent rail strikes caused our face-to-face meeting to be called off, says he had been happy working alongside McVey in the previous administration, but adds that he’d felt compelled to give something different a try. Instead of playing second fiddle, he wanted to take the lead and held wide-ranging talks to come up with a deal.
As McVey huffed about Labour over-riding the wishes of the people of Edinburgh, Day offered up enough committee convenorships to win Lib Dem and Tory support for his minority plan, securing his seat at the helm without breaching party leader Anas Sarwar’s ban on formal coalitions.
“My party nationally made some rules about who we could and couldn’t engage with and there were to be no coalitions,” Day says.
“I was having quite productive discussions with the Lib Dems and Greens to see if that would work as a coalition but I wasn’t allowed to so I looked to see if that could be an informal partnership. That didn’t work for the other parties and I understand why – they wanted something more formal.
“None of us go into politics to be in opposition – we all want to be in power to change things the way we want. I looked at every option I could but when I saw some colleagues elsewhere heading Labour minority councils I thought I’d look at that and how to get it through. It hadn’t been in our plan and I would have preferred a different arrangement, but I managed to get support from the majority of people in the chamber and here we are with Labour running the city.”
To say the SNP – which Day also held discussions with in the immediate aftermath of the election – was put out is an understatement, with McVey even refusing to vacate the leader’s office after the minority leadership was agreed.
“There are two offices in the chambers that are designated offices, one is for the leader and one is for the lord provost,” Day says. “In this building it’s not easy to find groupings for political parties that work.
“It is difficult, to be fair, but on the day of the council meeting [when Day was elected leader] the lord provost moved into his office and it wasn’t until 10 days after that that I moved into mine.
“The argument was that there were no rooms available. I get on really well with Adam, but there did become a time where it became an embarrassment because I was the leader and I wasn’t sat in the leader’s office. The chief executive had to ask him to move. He got our old group room, which is a nice room as well.”
The first week I was in I wrote to the cabinet secretary to outline Edinburgh’s case, but I haven’t had a reply. It’s frustrating that I’m not getting the listening ear you’d expect as a capital city.
Though he has become used to politicking during his 12 years on the council, Day never imagined he would become a politician, much less that he would one day seize control of the administration in his home town or oust the former leader from his quarters.
Edinburgh born and bred, he and his three brothers – who he still meets up with for hillwalking expeditions most weekends – were brought up in the north of the city by a self-employed builder father and a mother who worked initially in a bank and then later in the NHS.
His own career began with youth work, something that not only gave him a deep understanding of the myriad issues the city faces but introduced him to the trade union and Labour movements too.
“I spent most of my working time in youth and community work across Edinburgh, primarily in some of the more disadvantaged areas of the city,” he says.
“Some of the young people had disabilities or learning needs and there were people who had had a rough time in life. I went into schools and worked on community projects – there was an acceptance that the academic route is not for everyone and my job was to help young people achieve their best. I’m really pleased now when I see young people we worked with and they tell me they have their own family and have just bought a house. That’s a great result.”
At that stage Day’s interest in politics was peripheral, something he dabbled in as a means of engaging the youngsters he was working with.
“My last job before politics was as a youth participation co-ordinator for the Pilton Project, where I worked with young people to set up the first-ever truly independent young people’s forum,” he recalls.
“At that point Hungry for Success was a Scottish Government policy on school meals – the forum’s role was to see whether it worked for young people or whether it was juts a fluffy document.
“We got the document and I translated it into young-people friendly language and then they took it to schools and youth clubs to consult. They got funding together and developed a report on the back of that. The Scottish Government called it Hungry for Success but their take was A Taste of Reality.”
Having begun doing some trade union work while employed in the voluntary sector, Day says he joined the Labour Party primarily because he was asked to but also because its values chimed with his own.
As he got sucked further into the Labour movement, a role as an Edinburgh branch officer for Unison led to a national position and that meant he started to encounter what he terms “minor politicians”.
From there he realised he could “help people in other ways” and, although his ambition had always been to become either a teacher, a police officer or a minister of religion, he decided to stand for elected office.
“I stood several times before I won,” he says. “The first was for the ward I lived in – Craigleith and Telford. I had no hope of winning it as it was a strong Tory seat, but you’ve got to learn somehow.
“The second was in Drum Brae/Gyle. I lost by 600 votes and I was devastated. I remember sitting on the landing at the top of my stairs being really upset. You put a lot of time and energy and resource into it and it’s quite a blow when you work so hard and get really good responses [but still lose].”
Following the sudden death of Elizabeth Maginnis – “a really, really strong woman and powerful member of Labour in Edinburgh” – Day successfully contested her Granton seat in 2008.
He attempted to win Edinburgh West in the general elections of 2010 and 2015, but did not garner enough votes to unseat the Liberal Democrats in the first instance, then fell victim to the SNP’s historic landslide in the second.
Having focused on working his way through the council ranks instead, he says his biggest challenge now he is leader is finding ways to address poverty in the city while fighting for the level of funding he believes a capital deserves.
“For me, the primary thing has to be reducing poverty,” he says. “That’s not just because of the cost-of-living crisis – we were dealing with that in the last administration. I was vice-chair of the Edinburgh Poverty Commission and we took evidence from people from a whole range of socio-economic backgrounds to understand where poverty is.
“Around 80,000 people were living in poverty at the time but that’s a figure that was taken just before Covid so more than likely it’s a lot higher now. What we found was that it wasn’t what you would have thought of people being in poverty – a lot of it was people working in low-paid jobs, on zero-hours contracts, from the traveller community.
“One in five of that 80,000 are children. We need to do something about that. That has to be my goal and that of this administration, the whole council and the government.”
At the same time, the council must focus on continuing to sell Edinburgh on the global stage, attracting investors such as Richard Branson – who chose India Buildings on the city’s Victoria Street as the site of the first Virgin Hotels launch outside the US – and ensuring it remains the kind of place people want to visit and relocate to.
Our only tax-raising power is council tax, which for most of the last 10 years was capped by government. The only other thing is parking charges.
The conundrum Day faces is that, even though the council is engaged in large-scale regeneration projects like the 10-year Granton Waterfront development, seeing yet more hotels owned by multi-millionaires spring up can be hard for locals to swallow, particularly if they feel their city has been allowed to become a playground for the rich while funding for the every-day issues they are grappling with has dwindled.
“One of my frustrations is we’ve got to do a bit of everything,” he says.
“People say ‘how can you spend millions on the tram when you should be spending it on social homes or care for the elderly’ but if you don’t have a decent transport system people won’t be able to get to their jobs. It’s easy to say we should spend all our money on social care, but Edinburgh is the lowest-funded council in Scotland [on a per capita basis] and we have to fund a bit of everything. It’s not an easy job – we have a £1.5bn service need and £1.1bn to pay for it.”
Given the funding challenges – something all councils are currently faced with to some degree – Day says he wrote to Scottish Government finance secretary Kate Forbes as soon as he took over as leader, requesting an urgent meeting to make the case for additional funds for Edinburgh.
He says the city’s settlement from central government is reduced due to the high proportion of children that are educated privately there but says that, the issues with poverty aside, Edinburgh should be viewed as a special case purely because it is the nation’s capital.
Day hillwalking with his brother
With the city acting as a focal point for citizens, tourists and protestors alike, its infrastructure needs are huge, he says, and the national government has a duty to recognise and make allowance for that.
“Edinburgh has one of the biggest public sector housebuilding programmes in the country and we still can’t keep up,” Day says.
“We want to work with the government to look at any other options because people want to live here. There are parts of the country that aren’t as popular and we need to be honest about that.
“The first week I was in I wrote to the cabinet secretary to outline Edinburgh’s case, but I haven’t had a reply. It’s frustrating that I’m not getting the listening ear you’d expect as a capital city. We are less than a mile up the road from them and would at least expect them to engage.
“We are the capital city and I think there should be a bit more attention given to the capital city. Edinburgh is the conduit to the rest of Scotland – it’s one of the main drivers of Scotland’s economy.”
Whether Day can convince the Holyrood administration that Edinburgh is a special case or not, the reality is that budgets across the pubic sector are going to be tighter than ever in the coming year, with soaring inflation hitting hard after years of monetary constraints.
Day says Edinburgh has been just about able to make ends meet so far by refinancing loans, reducing its real estate portfolio and rationalising headcounts. With the city staring down the barrel of a £60m deficit, he warns that his first term as leader is going to be marked by the cuts he knows are looming.
“How can you shave off costs? The low-hanging fruit is all gone and we’re getting to the bones,” he says.
“Now we have to look at the statutory services we are obliged to fund – we have to provide social care and we have to provide care – and we have to look for new alternatives for bringing in money like a tourist tax.
“Our only tax-raising power is council tax, which for most of the last 10 years was capped by government. The only other thing is parking charges.
“Every year we go round the blocks trying to see what we can do. We reduce energy costs, we reduce staff numbers through retirements and voluntary redundancies. We’ve managed so far but with a looming £60m deficit in our budget I know we have difficult decisions coming. I’ll be blunt – it’s cuts we’ll have to make.”