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Meeting the Challenge: Can John Alexander do it for Dundee?

John Alexander and Nicola Sturgeon celebrate the local election results in Dundee

Meeting the Challenge: Can John Alexander do it for Dundee?

Don’t wait for the doors to open; kick them in.” John Alexander is describing his approach to governance.

At 34 and in his second term in the role, the leader of Dundee City Council is still the youngest councillor in the authority and has become the head of the country’s only SNP-majority local administration.

Raised in the city’s Kirkton scheme – one of those marked deep red on the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation over poor rates of income, education and housing – Alexander has never lost an election. A first-time candidate in 2012, he became a councillor at just 23 while working part-time in a local shop, and made it to council leader five years later after growing his own share of first preference votes by 57 per cent. And now, another five years later and with a reputation for success, he’s turned down the chance to stand for Holyrood in order to stay in City Square.

“I was asked to stand at the last Scottish Parliament election and I said no. I don’t see it as a hierarchy; it isn’t local government at the bottom of the pile and the Scottish Government at the top, we do different things,” he says. 

“I can see the benefit of what I do on a daily basis. I don’t want to remove myself from that ability to have a positive impact on my city. I feel like I’m only just scratching the surface. I’m happy getting paid less and doing more.”

That means trying to meet the needs of a city that’s undergoing rapid modernisation and winning plaudits from style guides, yet is still branded the ‘drug death capital of Europe’. An average of 43.1 people per 100,000 lost their lives to drugs between 2016-2020, making for 63 deaths per year.

It’s a city of contrasts and there’s huge pressure on Alexander to get it right. Part of that, he says, has to do with addressing how Dundee sees itself after bruising years of industrial decline. But the city’s £1bn waterfront transformation continues, the award-winning V&A Dundee routinely makes it into international travel bibles and there are plans for yet further renewal. Cornwall’s Eden Project is planning a site here, while there’s a separate bid for green port status. Dundee is also, as the council is wont to remind people, the sunniest city in Scotland and there’s no shortage of photos of Alexander and his colleagues in the branded shades that formed part of the Sunny Dundee tourism drive.

However, he says there’s no place for rose-tinted glasses in an administration still trying to overcome that legacy of industrial decline, thanks to waves of job losses at key employers like electronics firm NCR and jeans giant Levis. “We’re not whitewashing reality and pretending that the waterfront or the V&A or any of it has solved the city’s problems, but these are all milestones on a journey of lifeline prosperity,” he tells Holyrood. 

“My very first speech as leader of the council talked about the chip that Dundee has on its shoulder. It’s a very visible and live chip. People talk about NCR and Levis as if it happened yesterday; I was either not born or in nappies when those things happened. For me, it’s about changing the narrative. We have to create opportunities for ourselves - don’t wait for doors to open, kick them in. We need to be at the table for every conversation.”

That includes conversations that might include news some don’t want to hear, says Alexander. He admits he took “a bit of a kicking” over the green port bid from both inside and outside the council, such is the controversy around that scheme.

The “new model of green freeports” was unveiled by the Scottish Government in January last year after the UK Government announced plans to establish two freeports in Scotland in a effort to create thousands of post-Brexit jobs. The model allows companies to import goods and then export them outwith standard customs and tax rules. The ‘green’ twist aims to protect workers’ rights, deliver inclusive growth and contribute to a net zero economy, but the Scottish Greens have warned of potential greenwashing by corporations and critics of the UK Government’s levelling-up strategy have criticised what they see as an over-reach by London into Scottish matters.

The 20 June deadline for bids is upon us and Shetland is one other possible location, as are Montrose, Glasgow and Aberdeen, amongst others. Forth Ports, which owns the Port of Dundee, says it has come up with a “compelling proposal” for its Firth of Forth site and Alexander says he’s realistic about Dundee’s chances. “I’m not naïve to think Dundee is necessarily going to win, but I think we would regret not being involved in the conversation and exploring that,” he says. “If you’re not there from the start, you don’t understand the totality of what you are talking about.”

He is, however, more attached to the idea of delivering Eden Project Dundee by 2025, transforming the former Dundee Gas Works into a walled garden on the Tay that will deliver yet another visitor attraction, this time from the team behind the pioneering project that has seen a disused Cornish quarry become a thriving wonder of natural science. The Scottish version will create up to 500 direct and indirect jobs, it is claimed, also tapping into the city’s scientific prowess. Around 1,700 people are employed in life sciences, with cutting-edge research taking place at local universities.  

“It feels like one of my babies,” father-of-two Alexander tells Holyrood in his city centre office. “The very first discussion with Eden happened at this table. There was no expectation, there was no ask, it was just a conversation and an introduction by the University of Dundee. We can see this is a huge opportunity, the project is going 100 miles an hour. 

“It isn’t a tourism project and that’s why it resonates with people. We see there is an immediate benefit from that but it’s much bigger, it’s much more fundamental to what we are trying to do as a city about education, jobs and climate. What better narrative than a site that’s contaminated and dirty being transformed into something that is a world class destination focused around the environment and climate change?”

There is, of course, the “small matter of finance” to sort out first, as well as the planning process. The business case will be going through the council within six-to-nine months, Alexander says, and he wants to make sure Eden knows who it is dealing with, so he’s taken the team on a city tour that includes Kirkton so they “understand the context of the city”.

“I don’t say it just because it’s my job; I love this city,” he says. “I have only ever lived in Dundee; I have never known anywhere else.”

Living now with his wife Sarah and their two sons, Alexander studied law in Dundee and graduated at the famous Caird Hall on his birthday, where he was treated to a rendition of Happy Birthday from the stage. “It was mortifying,” he says. His passion for politics developed at high school, but it didn’t rub off on his nearest and dearest. “My wife hates politics, none of my family and close friends are involved in politics. If I start talking too much about work, my wife tells me to shut up,” he explains, and says he is careful about the impact of a 24/7 job on his home life. “There are certain things I won’t compromise on. I take my boys to school and nursery in the morning, I don’t miss sports day and I don’t miss parents’ night. That job of ‘dad’ is number one.

“I came into politics with no objectives other than I didn’t see anybody who looked like me, my background, my age, and I thought I had nothing to lose. I was working in a car dealership that had a shop, and people voted for me because they knew me. They’d say, ‘we think you’re alright, so we’ll give you a chance’.

“The motivation isn’t the shiny lights, it’s the poverty, it’s the challenges that exist. It’s because we have high levels of unemployment, low levels of educational attainment; it’s to create opportunities for people who wouldn’t have them otherwise.”

Those opportunities include a local manifesto commitment to create a “Dundee Guarantee” which offers an apprenticeship to every care experienced young person who wants one. There’s a high level of people with care experience in Dundee, and Alexander says authorities “need to do a lot more” on this and overall attainment, so the administration plans to use an additional £1.5m to “propel” this forward. There’s more money also to tackle the social inequality so marked in the city through actions like the Fuel Well initiative, which supports winter power bills for those on a range of benefits. Around one third of households are considered to be in fuel poverty.

There’s also a focus on job creation and economic development. That’s off the back of promising stats from February this year, when the local employment rate sat higher than the Scottish average for the first time since those records began. “The physical transformation is translating into jobs,” Alexander says. “It’s the underdog story – we are using that as our motivation. What we have now got is a real hunger to make our own future and we can now demonstrate that by practice.” 

He cites the Michelin Innovation Parc as an example. A joint venture between Scottish Enterprise, Dundee City Council and Michelin, the parc is another example of Alexander’s ability to pull off a win. There was outcry in 2018 when the French tire firm announced the end of manufacturing in the city with the loss of around 800 jobs. By the time the gates shut in June 2020, Alexander had helped convince the company not to back out entirely, and instead to commit to creating what Scottish Development International calls a “world-class” tech centre able to “drive the Scottish economy and support global sustainability and R&D” through a focus on greener tech. It’s a blueprint Alexander and then-finance secretary Derek Mackay had readied. “They came to present their closure plan, but we went first and presented our vision for how we could do things differently, and they then didn’t make their presentation,” Alexander says of Michelin.

If only it could be quite so easy to solve the city’s drug problem. In 2020, the Accounts Commission said this was one of the “complex and deep-rooted challenges” facing Dundee, despite the “significant investment” the city was attracting. That was two years after the council, health board, police and other organisations formed the Dundee Drugs Commission. The commission published a series of recommendations in 2019 including better support for drug users leaving hospital after an overdose, better integration of drug support and mental health treatment and wider work to reduce the stigma around addiction, and this spring its chair, Dr Robert Peat, said the “scale of the challenge has been greater” than anticipated. Action to date has not gone “far enough, deep enough or fast enough”, a review said, despite a 21 per cent fall in the most recent annual drugs death figures from 72 to 57. Further updates are expected within the next few months.

“This isn’t going away,” says Alexander. “We don’t want to diminish what staff are doing, because they work really hard, but we need to be honest and say that too many people are dying and we are failing people.

“Most of the services in the area are not funded or delivered by the council, and the commission has brought partners together. 

“I’m not going to turn around the drug issue in the city in the next five years - not going to happen. Anyone who tells you they can is a liar. The issue of drugs and alcohol has been here longer than I have been alive. You only need to walk five minutes from this office door to see the evidence. I’m going to do everything I can to impart change, but we are not going to turn it around. You could have improved everything, but that doesn’t mean everybody suddenly stops taking drugs.”

Alexander aims to join the board of NHS Tayside to help health professionals and the council work closely together. He’s keen on partnership working, he says, and held fortnightly meetings with opposition group leaders during his last term – something he wants to continue now, despite having a majority administration. “I always try to work with the opposition and that will continue,” he says. “There’s a maturity in politics in Dundee now, which hasn’t always been the case.” 

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