Cardownie defects to SNP and launches attack on Labour policy

EDINBURGH'S Deputy Lord Provost Steve Cardownie today launched a savage attack on the city's Labour-run council after stunning colleagues by defecting to the SNP.

He insisted the council had got it badly wrong with its 714 million trams scheme, the controversial reorganisation of traffic in the city centre and a planned programme of school closures.

The long-serving Labour member's defection has put the party's grip on power in the Capital in serious doubt.

Labour now relies on the casting vote of Lord Provost Lesley Hinds to win crucial votes. There are 29 Labour councillors and the same number in opposition.

That means the council will face a battle to force through some of its key policies. With fire board convener Ken Harrold off work after suffering a heart attack, the council could face a crisis within weeks.

Councillor Cardownie faces being stripped of his role overseeing the city's festivals and major events following his defection. Labour will also look into whether they can force him out of his role as deputy lord provost, although it seems likely that convention means he will be able to cling on to that post.

Cllr Cardownie, who attacked a "right-wing lurch" in the Labour party nationally, said that city council leaders had repeatedly got it wrong on several of the biggest issues affecting Edinburgh.

He described the introduction of traffic changes in the city centre as a "complete cock-up".

The former Scottish Socialist Party member - who insisted he planned to stay in his high-profile civic position - called for the council to shelve its multi-million pound tram network and its planned programme of school closures.

Edinburgh should be investing millions of pounds in improvements to its bus services rather than reviving trams in the city, he said.

He also criticised the proposed transfer of council houses to a housing association and the planned closure of Leith Waterworld.

Cllr Cardownie - a close ally of council leader Donald Anderson in recent years - immediately faced calls to resign his seat in the Newhaven ward and his Deputy Lord Provost position.

There were suggestions that Cllr Cardownie, a councillor in Edinburgh since 1988, who only recently resigned as Labour group whip, had personal reasons for standing down.

He has recently become a father again, it was pointed out, and he was also said to be concerned about the possibility of being dumped from Labour's list of candidates for the next local government elections.

Today Cllr Cardownie said: "I have had no indication that my position was under threat. Labour will try to spin it that I am leaving for personal reasons, but that is not the case.

"I have taken what I think could be deemed to be an honourable position to leave the Labour group by joining a dynamic party better able to represent the Scottish people and ultimately gain independence."

Cllr Cardownie launched an attack on the council's handling of transport improvements, branding recent changes to the road system in the New Town "a pound of mince".

And he said it was a mistake both to take forward the city's road tolls scheme and the plans for a 714m tram network.

He added: "I'm not at all convinced that Edinburgh has got the acute traffic congestion problems that our officials believe we have.

"I'm also not convinced about the need to spend millions of pounds on a tram service that is not going to cover the whole city and without us knowing that is going to encourage more people to use public transport.

"The officials advising us to do this are the same officials that advised us on the changes that have been made to the traffic system in the city centre, which has been a complete cock-up.

"I sometimes think we are too willing to accept their advice, and not be more questioning. This tram system could be a costly mistake for Edinburgh.

"I'm also uncomfortable with the programme of school closures in Edinburgh. I do not see that as being in the best interests of the city. I've already opposed one school closure in my ward and would do so again if any others came forward in the next round of proposals."

Mr Cardownie said he would not stand down from his council seat and fight a by-election under his new party colours, pointing out that Labour had not expected recent defectors to stand again when they switched parties.

He said he would have to go through the SNP's selection procedures for the next council elections and rejected any suggestions he harboured ambitions to be an MSP. It is thought, though, that he may be looking to play a more senior role at the council after proportional representation is introduced in 2007.

He could reasonably hope to leader of the SNP group in the council, who may hold the balance of power after the election in 18 months' time.

He added: "I want to remain friends with my colleagues, if they don't, that's up to them. They will have been fairweather friends.

"I'm not here to sabotage the Labour group's policies, I'm here to put forward the SNP's. If that coincides with the policies of the Tories and Liberals, though I don't think it will, then so be it."

Councillor Anderson suggested his former close colleague had ulterior motives for his switch.

He said: "I am shocked, angry and sad to hear this news. We can only speculate as to the real reasons behind this, but I had a one-to-one meeting with Steve recently at which he said he was concerned about the selection process in Leith.

"I had absolutely no inkling about this at all. None of us did. Steve has been a Labour man all his days and has never shown any inclinations to the SNP.

"This would appear to be a direct consequence of the advent of PR.

"The SNP may hold the balance of power in the next council and Steve may think he could find himself in pole position."

Cllr Anderson said the Labour group would be checking the rules on whether Cllr Cardownie would have to step down from his Deputy Lord Provost position, but thought it unlikely because he had been elected for a full four-year term by the council.

He will, however, almost certainly face attempts to remove him from his post as festivals and events champion.

Cllr Anderson said: "I believe he should resign from both his seat and his position as Deputy Lord Provost."

The city council's Tory group leader Iain Whyte said: "I had absolutely no inkling about this at all.

"The only thing I can imagine is behind it is that he didn't feel he was going to be selected again.

"I can only assume that this is the start of the disintegration of the Labour group in the run-up to the next elections, when as many as ten of them are likely to lose their seats.

"Labour is now relying on the casting vote of Lesley Hinds to get them through on issues, although on the likes of education and transport I suspect they may face problems, especially with the way the Central Edinburgh Traffic Management scheme is going."

Labour has led the city council for 21 years, although it has not enjoyed overall control for the whole time.

The district council elections in 1984 saw a massive upheaval when the Tories were thrown out of office and Labour took power with an overall majority for the first time.

They have remained in charge at the City Chambers ever since, though they had to rely on the support of two SNP councillors for a four-year spell after the 1992 elections.

The SNP came second in the seat Cllr Cardownie contested as a Labour party member at the last council election in 2003, 338 votes behind Cllr Cardownie's total of 1037 in Newhaven.

The Scottish Nationalists also challenged Labour with strong support in other seats in the Leith and Granton areas at the same election.

Controversial figure rarely has to fight for attention

DEPUTY Lord Provost Steve Cardownie has rarely been far from controversy during his 17 years as an Edinburgh councillor.

He was selected to represent Edinburgh's Newhaven ward in 1988 and four years later became chairman of the recreation committee.

The former trade union stalwart has been in charge of much of the city's cultural life ever since and was appointed Edinburgh's festivals and events champion in 2001.

In 1998, he provoked anger when he submitted a 150 claim after ripping his trousers on a desk.

And in 2003, his annual expenses claim of 9371 - more than 2000 higher than the Lord Provost's - was criticised.

In September, 2004, his Russian-themed nightspot da-da-da was accused of operating illegally as a pub.

The Shandwick Place business, in which Cllr Cardownie is a partner, was alleged to have run as a pub for more than two months without correct planning permission.

At the time, Cllr Cardownie insisted he had no day-to-day involvement but the business was forced to apply for a public house drinks licence.

A month earlier, opposition politicians called for an investigation into his trips to Kiev after he married a second Ukrainian bride.

It was claimed at the time that Cllr Cardownie's frequent visits to the country had more to do with "developing his love life" than local authority business.

It emerged the city's festivals champion had visited the Ukraine three times since 2000 on council business at a cost of more than 1500 to the public purse.

He tied the knot in July 2004 to Ukrainian accountant Nataliya Bobyr in a low-key ceremony.

It was his fifth marriage - and his second to a Ukrainian.