Crisis? What crisis? say ‘odd couple’ who hold key to Edinburgh’s future

Jenny Dawe and Steve Cardownie - Edinburgh City Council's 'odd couple,' who insist there isn't a crisis in the city. Photo: Neil Hanna
Jenny Dawe and Steve Cardownie - Edinburgh City Council's 'odd couple,' who insist there isn't a crisis in the city. Photo: Neil Hanna
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TO MANY observers, they are the odd couple who have struggled to maintain a united front while their parties have been in charge of running Scotland’s capital.

Jenny Dawe and Steve Cardownie, leader and deputy leader respectively of Edinburgh city council, were catapulted into office after the 2007 elections when the Liberal Democrats and the SNP decided to join forces to oust Labour from office.

After 23 years of Labour rule in the city, the election was played out to a backdrop of discontent over how the council had been run under the leadership of Donald Anderson, who by the time polling day came round had already decided to quit the authority to stand for election to Holyrood.

Fast forward four and a half years and Councillors Dawe and Cardownie are rarely out of the headlines for their running of the council, with an initial rift over the tram project deepening as the scheme lurched from crisis to crisis, and a string of other behind-the-scenes disputes spilling out into the public domain.

Yet the pair are defiant when confronted by their critics, claiming they were left to pick up a “hugely depleted” budget when they took office, have successfully balanced the council’s finances in the face of a firestorm of cuts and have seen the city win a string of plaudits as it has battled the impact of the economic downturn.

Many council-watchers felt the most recent spat between the two parties – over plans to privatise key council services – was going to be the straw that would break the camel’s back, leading to the coalition finally splitting in the run-up to next May’s elections. But, not for the first time, the pair defied expectations and have kissed and made up.

It is thought both parties will happily form another alliance after May, if the numbers stack up to give them the majority of 29 councillors needed to seize power.

Early predictions are that it is a straight race between the Nationalists and Labour to become the biggest party – and gain the so-called “moral authority” to try to form an administration.

Ms Dawe yesterday told The Scotsman she had no regrets over either becoming council leader or forming an alliance with the SNP.

She also insisted she was prepared to stand for a second term as leader – with the caveat that it would be “foolish and arrogant” to pre-empt what may happen in the election.

“I would challenge anyone to have delivered more over the last four and a half years,” she said.

“I, and my administration, have acted responsibly in putting the people of Edinburgh first. I am the first leader of this council to have brought every department in on budget, or under it, and have done so for the past two years.

“There have been many challenges but I have given my all to serving the city as council leader and have been privileged to do so. Coalitions are what we can expect now in our political system and they inevitably involve difficult choices in difficult times. It takes political maturity to work in coalition. It means putting the needs of the city before political point scoring. I believe our coalition has shown that.”

Ms Dawe insisted the capital’s reputation and image had not been damaged by scandals over the tram project and the council’s handling of property repairs, the latter of which is now being investigated by the police.

She said she was “pleased” at how resilient Edinburgh had proved during her time in office, but stressed that the council was unable to “engineer a recovery in the international markets”.

“Judging by the continued investment in the city there is no evidence that either issue has had an adverse impact. Indeed the prospect of trams has been an encouragement to some companies. There are many in the business community who are totally supportive of the benefits the tram will bring to Edinburgh.

“Doing Edinburgh down serves no-one well. Innovative companies such as [Swiss banking software firm] Avaloq have chosen Edinburgh over numerous competitors.

“We have seen a banking crisis, a housing slump, a global recession and most recently turmoil in Europe. National economies are under threat and the UK has huge problems in managing its own debt.

“The council has a vital role to play but we can’t engineer a recovery in the international markets.”

BUT Labour group leader Andrew Burns, the city’s former transport leader, and a key figure in the planning of the tram project, said: “I don’t think there’s any doubt this has been a failed administration.

“We have seen that with a number of major issues and it goes right back to May 2007 when there was an obvious flaw at the heart of their coalition agreement, as it completely excluded the tram project.

“We have seen it with other things like the schools rationalisation programme and the privatisation plans. These were major strategic decisions, where there has been a complete split. I do feel the city has stagnated over the last few years and the coalition has simply not moved Edinburgh forward. Improvements are hard to see; things are at a standstill.”

Sources close to the Lib Dem group say Ms Dawe was reluctant to become council leader in the run-up to the elections and was hopeful of becoming Lord Provost instead. However, she commanded more support within her group than her closest rival, Marilyne MacLaren, and with the vast majority of her colleagues ruling out a coalition with Labour her fate was sealed.

One Lib Dem insider said: “It has been a bit of an impossible task trying to keep the SNP in check. With the exception of Steve Cardownie, they had little or no experience of front-line politics, and it has shown.

“Jenny is a good local politician but has just been out of depth running the council, particularly when you consider the nightmare of problems like the tram project. When your coalition partners have tried to hijack it at every opportunity it has become virtually impossible to govern with any authority.”

Mr Cardownie said: “It’s nonsense to suggest Edinburgh is in crisis. We inherited a hugely depleted budget and were immediately warned by the chief executive we would have to make major cuts.

“We’ve rebuilt the council’s reserves. The city has had endless accolades over the last few years and Edinburgh has coped a lot better than many other cities in coming out of the recession. There is no crisis here.”

THERE is mounting speculation at the council that should the Nationalists win the greatest number of seats Mr Cardownie will not be guaranteed to take the helm of the city.

Economic development leader Tom Buchanan, who has held the post since the last election, is said to be building a power-base from which to mount a leadership bid. He would not be drawn on his prospects, saying he had still to be selected as a candidate.

He said: “I do feel the city is found wanting when it comes to a long-term plan that looks at Edinburgh’s needs for the next 20 years and that should be a priority as the city goes forward.”