IS the size of an entourage supposed to reflect importance and status, or is it to ensure you don’t mess up?
It’s not often a city councillor feels the need to have others sitting by his side during an interview – indeed, all five group leaders gave interviews sans aides in the run up to the last local elections – so Councillor Frank Ross must be a special case.
Not only is there a press person on hand but a business manager too. The mob-handed approach may be down to the fact Cllr Ross is new to the job of economy convener – appointed due to the recent death of predecessor Tom Buchanan.
Yet it quickly becomes apparent Cllr Ross feels he needs no such help – even if they perhaps do, given the occasional nervous laughter and the odd shake of the head.
For 54-year-old father-of-two Frank Ross is a man of business. A doer rather than a thinker. A man who sees his job as an SNP councillor as his latest business venture.
He says he now works for the council rather than being a politician. Yes, he’s a man who likes to roll up the shirt sleeves and get stuck in about things. If that means shooting from the hip with the occasional slip, it doesn’t worry him.
For instance, the day we meet he’d tweeted about the chance of two new businesses coming to Edinburgh – Sainsbury’s Bank and the Bank of New York Mellon. So that must be great news, something to shout about?
“Well if they’re coming that would be fantastic. I saw that information tweeted and so I retweeted it without checking . . . perhaps I shouldn’t do that, but I was in a meeting”, he said. “So I’ve asked for further details about what’s happening.”
Tweeting also saw him criticised earlier in the year when he complained about the apparent lack of road gritting. “Well if I see a problem I’m going to highlight it not ignore it,” he says bullishly. “It was a valid comment on the day. But it’s the same in any business.
“You’ve got a responsibility to say what you think is wrong. It’s the only way to change things.”
Cllr Ross is an interesting addition to the city council.
Too often politicians are criticised for not having worked in the real world, or having faced the tough decisions which have to be made at board level. They live in ivory towers. Not him. His career has been amongst the figures in major Scottish businesses. He’s worked in industry all his life – in engineering manufacturing, an area which he’s hoping to improve in the city to help address Edinburgh’s over-reliance on the financial services sector.
After studying accountancy at Napier he worked for Racal, then Chubb for 19 years.
Then there was Tomkins, where he became managing director before being headhunted by Motherwell Bridge as part of the management buy-out team. When they sold to a larger firm he left – but was soon back on a freelance consultant basis and ended up working in Liberia for a while (there are apparently no exciting tales about this).
“It’s not a huge change moving from business to politics when you’re in administration,” he says.
“It might have been different if the SNP group were in opposition and not involved in decision making, but it means there’s a job to be done so I’m getting on with it.
“I always thought of businesses as being communities where you had to look after everyone and politics is not that different. I have been a union convener in my time too, I’ve sat on both sides of the table, so I don’t see why they should always be in conflict. It’s about working together for the good of the business and the people in it.”
Politics has always been an interest of Cllr Ross’s. He was a student when he became involved with the SNP, and is a Nationalist of the “whae’s like us?” variety.
“I’ve always thought of Scotland as a tenement society,” he says. “There’s a value in society and looking after people. Growing up in Leith, people’s doors were always open and you felt looked after.
“I think that makes Scotland different from the rest of the UK. In particular London and the south east doesn’t have that same feeling of community and responsibility towards community. And the UK government’s economic policy is driven by feeding London and the surrounding areas and doesn’t give Scotland the chance to deliver of its best.”
Independence, he admits, is not something he’s asked about on the doorsteps of his Corstorphine/Murrayfield ward, but puts it down to the sense of voters rather than disinterest. They just want to talk to him about council matters.
And so to those. Is his brief just ticking over without too much scrutiny given the other big council issues – trams, bins, Mortonhall ashes? After all, apart from the Green Investment Bank HQ announcement, haven’t things have been too quiet for a recession?
“My predecessor Tom did a fantastic job. If he hadn’t been as good as he was I wouldn’t be having an ‘easy time’ of it. Nevertheless I’m not conscious of not being under pressure,” he says. “For instance we’re still working on the detail of a business assistance scheme.
“There’s a huge amount going on in Edinburgh as it is but liquidity might be holding up expansion as the banks are still not lending . . . so that’s where we might be able to help if it’s in the best interests of the city. It’s all very early stages and officials are working out how it could work, but Manchester and Glasgow are already running such schemes, so I’m hopeful.”
He adds: “The city needs to keep growing in terms of employment. There’s obviously a gap between the number of people who require a job and the number of jobs there are available and we need to be looking at closing that gap by attracting inward investment, supporting existing businesses and encouraging young, talented individuals who will be the employers of the future.
“We’ve committed to supporting the creation and safeguarding of 20,000 jobs. The business assistance fund would be extra to this. And then there are schemes like Entrepreneurial Spark at the South Gyle which we’re working with Napier to support business start-ups. Some of the ideas coming out of there are very good.
“Then there’s our Edinburgh Guarantee to help school-leavers get a first step on to the job ladder. We’re also working at Craigroyston High to bring a hospitality academy with SVQ-type qualifications. The Business Gateway team is all back in-house and having really good results.”
But what about the financial sector, the root of so much pain. Isn’t Edinburgh still too dependent on it? “We have fantastic employment in finance here – not just banks, but insurance and investments”, he says. “I’d love more finance here. There’s nothing wrong with having a secure business in that sector.
“But there’s also tourism and hospitality. What we lack is manufacturing jobs – less than two per cent of the population is employed in manufacturing. I’d like to see that change, and investment in renewables will be part of that. But I’d like small, but high-value engineering companies in Edinburgh. We’ve got the capability and the people and the history, so I’m looking at how do we support that and get it off the ground?”
Growth is his aim. But can Edinburgh really sustain it? “Growth needs to keep happening as people’s expectations about quality of life and disposable income continue to rise,” he says.
“It would take a brave politician to say no to that. But in terms of building there are brownfield sites which need to be built on first such as Craigmillar and the Waterfront. But everyone [businesses] wants to be in the city centre and that’s a problem.
“One of the reasons we launched Connect West Edinburgh is to get more offices there which will be connected to the centre by a ten-minute tram ride. And have the airport on the doorstep.”
Edinburgh Airport is another problem for those worried about sustainability.
“The biggest target markets it has are those which people have always gone to, but through London,” he says. “They want to make Edinburgh the first port of call so more money is spent here rather than London. That has to be supported.”
Back to politics and he admits coalition government is the likely future in Edinburgh given the voting system. He seems happy with that as it means policies are won on “argument rather than dogma”.
But for a high-flier, can he be content with a convenership (and the treasurer position at Corstorphine Bowling Club)? It would be surprising if further ambitions towards leadership were not lurking.
He is adamant they are not – in the same way, you feel, that every politician is until they announce their leadership bid.
Yet his group’s leader, Steve Cardownie, has already faced down one leadership challenge since the last elections. Ross’s name was mentioned. “Not by me,” he laughs.
So Cllr Cardownie can sleep easy? “Well I don’t know how he sleeps. That’s his business.”
THE CRUCIAL ISSUES
ROSS ON MARKETING EDINBURGH
“Have we used the last two years as effectively as we might? Probably not.
“A lot of the problems have been about what they did in the past, and I can’t change that. As long as I’m focusing on are we clear about the way ahead, what we want to do and are we able to achieve that? They have gone through a lot of change but on a business level they’ve received a lot of support.”
He denies that reports of losing a member of staff from the Film Focus department will hurt. “We’re not losing staff. We’re just operating it at different levels and there’s more support staff than ever before.”
ROSS ON BIDS
“I think Business Improvement Districts are fantastic. They are a way for businesses to get involved in communities and they channel money into improvements in the public realm. I’d love to see more and two other areas are currently looking into it.”
ROSS ON CITY
CENTRE BEGGING BAN
“The issue is dependent on where you go. It’s not just about the people on the street but why they are there and there will always be many different reasons for that. There are some fantastic organisations which work in Edinburgh out of the streets every day trying to help.
“But trying to do a policy on something like that is incredibly difficult and I don’t believe that Scottish society as a whole would ever want a blanket ban on begging.
“If you talk to the police there have been issues about organised gangs using beggars on the streets and I think police intelligence has done a fantastic job in identifying these groups and ensuring they are not here. They shouldn’t be allowed on the streets.”
ROSS ON OFFICE SPACE
“What we need are top spec class A offices. That’s the shortage Edinburgh has. There are plenty companies which want to upgrade their offices to more sustainable office buildings but there are developments on the go to meet this demand and by 2017-18 we’re expecting a lot of people to move offices. So there will be a lot of refurbishment
work done on those that are vacated.
”The previous administration took a gamble on the Atria development at Morrison Street and that’s already attracted new business to the city.”