Q&A with Susan Aitken, SNP leader of Glasgow City Council
Holyrood asks the new Glasgow City Council leader about her experience of the role so far
Councillor Susan Aitken, Glasgow City Council - Image credit: Glasgow City Council
Has being leader of the council been like what you expected so far?
Susan Aitken: No matter how much you plan in advance, nothing can quite prepare you for the reality of taking on a job the size of leading Glasgow City Council, which is the third largest local authority in the UK. So many unexpected issues that are just part of life in a big city happen day to day – such as fire at the Blochairn market or the weir on the River Clyde malfunctioning – and you have to be ready to roll with the punches without being thrown off course.
Being much more in the public eye is also taking a bit of getting used to. I am lucky that colleagues in the Scottish Government who have led councils before have been incredibly generous with advice and support. I also have a fantastic depute and team of colleagues in the SNP group, and a council full of very talented officers.
What are you aiming to do differently from the previous administration?
SA: Glasgow City Council is a huge bureaucracy that has become very set in its ways after such a long time without any political change. For too many people in Glasgow, dealing with the council feels like coming up against ‘the system’ and that doesn’t make for healthy democratic engagement. We have set about opening up the council and the City Chambers, changing its closed culture to one that is listening and responsive, and literally inviting people in to tell us what they want us to do for their sector or community. The city is full of people and organisations who are mad keen to contribute to delivering change but who have felt shut out from doing so. Changing that culture is one of our overarching aims for the period we are in office.
We have also begun to break down the silos between departments to focus more on the outcomes we want to achieve for people and communities. The Cabinet is working as a team across portfolios, thinking thematically rather than departmentally, and collectively giving clear political vision and direction to a council that has traditionally been quite officer-led. Applying that approach to the budget will be another big change to the usual way of doing things.
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What key changes have you set your sights on achieving?
SA: We were elected on an extremely comprehensive and policy-rich manifesto, so it’s difficult to pick out just a few but here goes. A revolution in community empowerment, with a major shift of resources and decision-making powers to local people over the next five years – at least one per cent of the council’s budget – built on a foundation of helping communities grow the capacity and resilience to make confident decisions about the allocation of resources in their own neighbourhoods.
Reviewing and reshaping the Glasgow City Region Deal to ensure that all of the projects genuinely deliver on a strategy for long term inclusive growth across the city, creating high quality employment and ensuring that people have the skills and capacity they need to get those jobs. Closing the educational attainment gap. Putting prevention and early intervention at the heart of joined-up services to improve life chances for everyone. Building at least our share of the national target of 50,000 new affordable homes, significantly improving the council’s performance on tackling homelessness, and working towards the eradication of rough sleeping. Introducing a low emissions zone and developing a strategy for becoming a carbon neutral city. Capital investment for cleaner, better maintained neighbourhoods, such as new litter bins and LED street lighting. That’s a few to be going on with!
What are the biggest challenges you are expecting in your area over the next few years?
SA: The biggest single policy challenge will probably be working towards settling the thousands of equal pay cases we have inherited. I am determined that this long-running sore in Glasgow will finally be resolved, but there is no question it is going to be a complex, time-consuming and expensive task. More widely, the challenge will be to align the council with all of our partners in the city – other public sector organisations, the third sector, academia, business and industry, and communities above all – to work together as ‘Team Glasgow’, facing in the same direction and ensuring our respective contributions complement and interlink to reduce inequality and poverty, close the educational attainment gap, improve health and life expectancy, and make sure the city’s economy works for everyone and every community. I think the time is as ripe for that to happen as it has ever been. A new administration after so many years has brought with it a sense of opportunity for a fresh approach in Glasgow; our challenge is to ensure that opportunity isn’t lost.
As a minority administration, how will you find common ground with the opposition parties to get policy agreed?
SA: We have already worked with the other parties in the chamber to achieve unanimous support for a significant change in the committee and decision-making structure of Glasgow City Council. The old committee system was very closed and there was little opportunity for elected members to genuinely shape policy and influence change, or to scrutinise the workings of the administration. The new system should lead to a much more open democratic process, with opportunities for councillors, external bodies and communities to be involved in co-producing policy, rather than elected members just rubber-stamping decisions that have already been made elsewhere. The city government’s business manager led open discussions and negotiations with his equivalents in the other parties, compromises were made by us and others, and we reached agreement on a model that everyone is content with. That’s an approach we intend to continue throughout the next five years. We accept that losing votes here and there is part of the reality of being a minority administration; our focus will remain the implementation of our manifesto commitments and the outcomes we want to see for Glasgow’s communities.
There is still a significant gender imbalance in councils. How would you encourage more women to become councillors?
SA: I have been closely involved in work within the SNP to put gender balance mechanisms in place for elections, and I spent a lot of time in the couple of years leading up to the council elections talking to groups of women members about the joys and challenges of being a councillor, and helping to train and prepare those who put their names forward. We stood more women candidates than ever before – not quite 50/50, but moving much closer to that goal – and most SNP council groups are far better balanced than they were before May. We still have a way to go though, and I’ll continue to support women into elected office as much as I am able. I have always strongly believed that gender balance mechanisms for selections are essential to overcome historic imbalances, and I’m very glad that the SNP has used them in recent elections – with visible results.
If you were completely free to reform local government in Scotland, what would you change?
SA: Parity of esteem. Too many people still see local government and councillors as junior or subordinate to parliaments and parliamentarians. Local government is an equal partner in the interlocking spheres of governance in Scotland and should always be treated as such.
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