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Heart of the capital

Heart of the capital

Edinburgh, the Athens of the North and one of the jewels in Scotland’s crown, has an international reputation to uphold. From history, art and culture to industry, science and learning, Scotland’s capital is an important place. Beloved by both its proud residents and the many visitors who flock to the city to enjoy the myriad of festivals and events which take place throughout the year, ensuring Edinburgh maintains its place on the national and international stage is an important job.

After more than two years in the role, working as the city council’s chief executive is still very special for Sue Bruce. “For me,” she tells Holyrood, “this is the greatest job in local government in Scotland.”

Bruce has a formidable reputation. With a career in local government spanning 30 years, she became chief executive of East Dunbartonshire in 2004, before in 2008 taking on what was widely regarded as the toughest job in local government, steering Aberdeen City Council from meltdown towards organisational and financial stability. In 2011 she moved south, to the top job in City of Edinburgh Council.

Just after her appointment, she said: “The individual can’t be bigger than the city. One of the challenges is to have that leadership profile, but also to marry that up with personal humility about the role and yourself.” With serious issues dogging the city’s trams project and scandal emerging around historic allegations made against the council’s property services, the past few years have been tough.

However, as the tram project finally appears to be back on track, what challenges are currently facing Bruce, and the city?

“We are all in the midst of the biggest recession any of us have ever experienced,” she says, “for most of us, in our working lives, right now is probably the deepest recession we’ve faced. What we say is Edinburgh continues to be reasonably resilient. We have a scheme called the Edinburgh Guarantee, which is targeted at 16 to 19 year olds and it is something the council is fully behind. It is a partnership with businesses – and I mean right across the spectrum, public, private, voluntary, charitable – in Edinburgh.

“At the end of 2012 we turned out the best school leaver destinations in 15 years. To do that in the depths of a recession says an enormous amount about the leadership which is being shown in this, both by the council but also by businesses in Edinburgh who have found a way to make this work, even though everyone is oppressed at the moment. That is an example of the resilience of the city. In this respect, the city has understood the size of the challenge and has been imaginative with other sectors in coming up with a solution. We require, under the Edinburgh Guarantee, that the young people are paid at least the minimum wage. We don’t believe in unpaid internships.”

So what about the notorious trams project? Bruce said the council has brought the project, which was at the heart of its troubles when she started in 2011, back to plan. Bruce also believes rebuilding trust with the people of Edinburgh is an important part of the council’s job.

She added: “We got to grips with [the trams project] and we’re well on the way. I know people get upset when they hear there is still some quality assurance work to be done but we will still finish within the scheduled timescale and we’re very pleased about that. But there are lessons we should learn from that programme and what went wrong are things we should take to heart and make sure never happen again. We’ve also had big challenges around property services and that is another area where we’ve had to dig down and get to the root of what the issue was. Arising out of all this is the council has come a long way in demonstrating more of a partnership with the wider city but it takes years to build trust and respect and you can lose it in a minute. That’s something we should hold very much in our consciousness in the public sector. One of the main challenges with the trams is to ensure we do deliver that on the revised time and budget.”

City of Edinburgh has recently had a major independent audit by the Accounts Commission which found that the council’s overall performance was good and that its current actions are likely to lead to further improvements. However, the report also acknowledged the authority still has a number of high profile and significant challenges to resolve, and should give “absolute priority” to making sure planned savings are delivered.

The report said the council’s four-year budget sets out the need for recurring annual savings of £107m by 2017/18, with a range of annual savings planned to address this including £41m from improved procurement. The commission found that even if all these planned savings are achieved, the council has calculated that it will still need to identify savings of £7m in 2015/16, £19m in 2016/17 and £17m in 2017/18.

Chairman of the Accounts Commission, John Baillie, said: “We welcome the improvements the council has made in areas such as partnership working, economic development and children’s services but the scale of the financial challenge is substantial. The council does have plans for the next four years but there are significant risks and uncertainties around whether these targets are achievable. Its prospects for future improvement depend heavily on it achieving planned savings and addressing the funding gaps that remain. The council should give absolute priority to making sure the savings are delivered. The council shows a good understanding of the challenges it faces and the need to restore public confidence which has been damaged by the problems with the tram project and its statutory repairs service.”

The commission stated the council needed to take a number of steps to see improvement. These include developing a comprehensive workforce strategy; improving its information communication technology; ensuring it has effective risk management and internal audit arrangements; improving a range of services including adult social work; waste management; and meeting housing need; ensuring it has the capacity and skills needed to deliver its ambitious improvement programme and ensuring that staff have an understanding of, and commitment to, its change programme.

Bruce said the judgement was “fair”. She added: “It said performance was good not withstanding the difficulties we have had to face and our capacity to improve is fair, taking account of the size of the financial challenge ahead of us. We just to have to get on with it and deliver. We cannot spend what we haven’t got, in the same way as any household or business. Officers need to support elected members in their policy decisions by providing good, reliable, robust information to allow the policy decisions to be made and implemented.

“One of the things the council has very much at the front of its mind is a focus on outcomes. In these times of recession where members of the public, families, individuals, businesses and members of our own workforce have their own private worries about the impact of the economy, we have to do our best to continue to deliver high quality council services. I still see one of the big challenges ahead is to rebuild our reputation and relationship of trust with the public.”

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