Capital connections: City of Edinburgh Council leader Adam McVey
By his own admission, Adam McVey became a politician by accident.
In 2012’s council elections, he agreed to stand as the SNP’s second candidate in the Leith Ward where he lives and campaigned for his running mate, the then Deputy Lord Provost, Rob Munn. He never expected to be elected and it was a surprise when he gained a seat and Munn lost out.
Speaking to Holyrood in the city chambers, McVey said: “In 2011, I campaigned for Marco Biagi and he encouraged me to stand in 2012. I remember the party was looking for additional candidates and I sent an email saying that if no women wanted to stand in Leith – they already had a man selected – then I would do it.
“I live locally and I was available but I didn’t really think I would get elected, I just thought that it would be an interesting thing to do.
“I was working at a social investment charity at that time and I campaigned around housing and homelessness. I thought if people read my leaflets and they liked that message, it might move things along a bit in that policy area.
“It was interesting to come into the council at that time but for me personally, it was a bit devastating because the person who was standing with me didn’t get elected and my efforts in the campaign were around trying to get him elected more than myself.
“It wasn’t the most pleasant start but at the same time, I rolled up my sleeves and started to work on things I was interested in. I joined the finance committee, I joined the economy committee, things I had a bit of background in and where I felt I could contribute.”
Growing up in Renfrew, McVey believes witnessing the lack of opportunities in the area is the reason he’s in politics today.
He said: “I genuinely think that’s why I’m in politics now. It wasn’t an environment that would give everyone the best start in life.
“There are people I grew up with, who are very smart and very capable but because they didn’t have the opportunities others had, they are living in a completely different world.
“That is still what motivates me to get up every day and come here and try and improve things for people. I live in Leith, represent Leith and it’s a similar community, it’s very mixed.
“It’s a working-class area, even though it’s going through gentrification right now. This idea is still with me from when I was young and has stayed with me.
“My parents didn’t tell me who they voted for until after I had joined the SNP. My dad once said that SNP canvassers had come to the door and he told me the story of him saying to them, ‘well,
I’ve voted SNP all my life and my son’s an SNP councillor’ and I was looking at him and thinking, ‘I didn’t know you’d voted SNP all your life!’
“My family were political in the sense that they would talk about issues but it wasn’t in an overtly party-political way. They weren’t members of any party and I didn’t know who they voted for until much later in life.”
When he was 16, McVey started to think seriously about politics and he believes the Iraq war was a big driver in making him join the SNP.
“A lot of people who are around 30, my age, can cite this event as one of their motivations for getting into politics,” he added.
“I could see it was a major mistake in terms of foreign policy from the UK and that informed a lot of my thinking, I was then led to join the SNP as a result.
“My best friend is a staunch Lib Dem and joined for exactly the same reason. For a lot of people it was a big motivator, it was something which galvanised people to think that if they didn’t get involved and didn’t make an effort to change things, it’ll happen again and again.”
However, despite joining the SNP when he was 16, it wasn’t until the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections that he really started to get involved in a serious way.
He said: “Before that I was one of those ‘on paper’ members which we spend so much of our time now trying to encourage to become more than that. I sometimes try and think back to that time to draw on my experiences. It took about six years as a member of the party before I got up and did something seriously.
“It wasn’t really who I was at that time, even though I was political at that age. I went to my first branch meeting when I was 16 and it wasn’t an experience I would like to repeat.
“I’m sure I brought the average age down by many years and it didn’t feel to me like a diverse group of people who I could associate myself with, become friends with or engage with.
“Thank goodness, one of the things we’ve done in Leith is really try and strengthen our branch so that when people show up, they are welcomed and funnelled into peer groups which are similar and thankfully we are in such a position in our party that there’re so many people who are members so you can do that.”
After throwing himself into the role as councillor, McVey was re-elected in 2017 and then became SNP group leader. Shortly after, he became leader of the joint SNP/Labour administration, aged 30 years old.
However, McVey doesn’t think his age has impacted on the way he has been treated or influences how he approaches the job.
“The way I lead the group and the council is very much a ‘one team’ approach, everyone has a role and everyone has something to contribute and unless you utilise everyone’s skills and experience, you’re not going to get as far as you think you will on some of the big issues you are trying to achieve,” he said.
“I’ve found my colleagues [are] very receptive to that. I don’t think my being younger has made much difference.
“Thankfully, local government is becoming more diverse and it is the spread of different people which is important, though we still have work to do, especially in relation to encouraging more ethnic minorities to get involved.
“When people think of Edinburgh, they don’t think of a young, dynamic, vibrant city a lot of the time. Sometimes they remember the fantastic architecture and history but it is worth remembering just how vibrant a capital city we are.
“We become the centre of culture in the world for a month every year. Edinburgh is not a city for one type of person, it’s a diverse, metropolitan place.”
Leading a coalition is not always easy in local government and Edinburgh is no exception.
The city has 63 councillors in total and the administration is made up of 19 SNP members and 12 Labour, short of a vital majority. This means policies and plans are liable to be voted down if the opposition parties join forces.
McVey stressed how important it is to work with everyone in the council and to keep all councillors informed in a bid to avoid the opposition blocking many decisions.
He said: “It is very different to the last term because then the coalition had a majority of about a third of the council chamber so the way the vote was going to go was never in doubt.
“Since May, we’ve lost maybe three or four votes in committee and in council, which is a good record when you think about every meeting and every full council meeting we have week in, week out.
“It shows the strength of our programme and the strength of our arguments that the opposition has not felt it needs to unite to block or change something we’re proposing.
“Hopefully, a big reason for that is because we are engaging constructively with people and we recognise that the voters didn’t give the SNP and Labour a majority and we need to work with other people.
“I try and flag things up as early as possible with opposition parties so they can come to a decision about any policy. Hopefully, across the administration, everyone has been just as open and trying to ensure people have their voices heard.”
Looking ahead, there are a number of issues which McVey feels are very important for the council to deal with in Edinburgh.
He said: “We’ve got a very varied programme and the next six months to a year are going to be crucial because a lot of what we’re hoping to deliver is reliant on the building blocks we are making now.
“One example is the 10,000 affordable homes we’re hoping to build in the next five years. This is so reliant on us making sustained progress.
“Homelessness has been a massive item on our agenda because numbers have increased in Edinburgh and the number of people in temporary accommodation is startling.
“The overspend in the budget is also startling and when you get to the point when you’re spending a vast sum of money on an outcome which is not good for people, you’re not in a good policy place. We’re trying to ensure that people can get the accommodation they need for themselves and their families and they’re not having to rely on B&Bs, which are never going to be a long-term solution.
“A lot of the reasons behind it have been out of our control, the UK benefit changes for example are something we can’t just change and to some extent, we’re responding to events rather than shaping them.
“We’re putting in a lot of money and we’ll publish our budget in the next couple of weeks and hopefully, it’ll get through but it has a substantial investment in homelessness services to make sure we get to a point where we’re not having to bulk buy B&B spaces.”
McVey also mentions air quality which is a key issue for the SNP, Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens.
He said: “In terms of our low emissions zone, more details will be announced on that in the next six months or so.
“Air quality is a huge issue and it’s a perennial issue in places like west Edinburgh and Salamander Street in my area. Thankfully, it seems to be an acute problem in terms of where it exists, so [there’s] not a smog across the whole city.
“When we start looking at things like a new way of organising the city centre, we can then look at the traffic interface and how we’re connecting the entire city together. By taking a radical view of that, we can get to a point where air quality is improving, not just in the city centre itself but because people are using alternatives rather than cars, the commuter routes to and from the city centre will improve dramatically.”
Another big issue which has hit the headlines recently is the proposed transient visitor levy, or tourist tax, which could raise £15m a year. McVey said the business case for the tax is almost complete and then the council will be consulting with the city’s tourism businesses.
He said: “The transient visitor levy is going to be a big thing in the next few months.
“Obviously the British Hospitality Association has its view in terms of the possible impact and a lack of support for it but actually, we think there’re a lot of general managers and other smaller hoteliers who want to engage in what a tourist tax could be spent on, what the levy should be and how it should be applied.
“In the next few weeks we’ll be publishing this and consulting on it. We want to ensure people feel they can respond to it and that we don’t just dictate what it’s going to look like. If we get the industry to do that, we’ll be in a very strong place for making an argument to the Scottish Government in terms of giving us the powers to do it.”
In the party’s council election manifesto, the SNP said it supported the idea of extending the city’s tram system down Leith Walk and on to Newhaven in principle, however, plans would only go ahead if stringent conditions were met.
McVey said: “In the autumn, the report will come back to council on the final business case on extending the tram system.
“It’s worth remembering this is the third stage in the process of the tram extension so it has been a long and thorough process to ensure we’ve got all the numbers right in terms of the business case.
“Hopefully, when that comes back in the autumn, we’ll have a robust business case which is what we went out with in the elections last year.
“We said that if we can produce a robust business case, which safeguards and minimises disruptions and make sure the public finances are protected, then we’ll extend the tram to Newhaven.
“I’m quite optimistic that what we’ll see is a robust business case we promised people we’d deliver.”