Does Edinburgh need its own Boris Johnson in charge?

Six months after the first Scotsman conference, David Lee and David Maddox reveal growing calls for stronger leadership in the form of an elected mayor

• Boris Johnson

THE head of a leading thinktank has called for Edinburgh to have its own directly elected mayor to give the capital focus and direction for the future.

Former merchant banker Ben Thomson, now the chairman of the thinktank Reform Scotland and the National Galleries, said that Edinburgh lacked any vision or strong leadership making its future development uncertain.

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His comments have given weight to the argument that a new localist agenda in Scotland should see the four leading cities and large towns north of the Border all have their directly elected mayor or provost.

Mr Thomson was reflecting on a Scotsman conference six months ago held on the future of Edinburgh. He told The Scotsman: "I still don't have any great sense of a vision for Edinburgh. What we really need is leadership – someone who will really stand up and be counted."

Mr Thomson said he thought the chaos over the tramworks in the city, which are running over budget and behind schedule, demonstrated the lack of leadership: "There is no-one in a senior position clearly identified with the trams. In London, Ken Livingstone was very closely identified with the congestion charge. For good or bad, people want a leader to hold to account.

"People are being given the chance to vote on having a mayor elsewhere and that would be a great thing for Edinburgh. But a mayor would need real executive power to get on and do things. Edinburgh needs a leader to emerge who can give the city's people a vision of what Edinburgh wants to become."

Tom Campbell, chief executive of Essential Edinburgh, an organisation set up to improve business in the city, said he thought "a leader or a champion" who could sit above day-to-day crises was needed.

But he wondered if the financial crisis was actually Edinburgh's great opportunity: "Maybe the city does not have the luxury of being visionary – perhaps it needs someone like Bernstein who took Manchester after the IRA bombing and made it something extraordinary."

The debate over elected mayors has divided politicians since Labour introduced them in England for London and some large cities. Directly elected mayors were seen as unnecessary because of devolution in Scotland.

However, with Alastair McNish, the former head of the Accounts Commission recently calling for the merger of many of Scotland's 32 councils in the pages of The Scotsman, the debate on the future of local government has been reopened.

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Parties in Scotland remain divided on the issue. The idea of directly elected mayors is supported by the Conservatives.

A spokesman said: "It is good to see Reform Scotland taking up a Conservative idea. However, we do think that directly elected mayors or provosts would need to be introduced with the support of the communities involved, but we think they would be of great benefit to Scotland's cities and large towns and they fit into our idea of localism."

The Tories' coalition partners in Westminster the Liberal Democrats continue to disagree with them in Scotland.

Scottish Liberal Democrat local government spokeswoman Alison McInnes said: "Liberal Democrats are against elected mayors in Scotland. It would concentrate power in the office of just one person. Elected mayors are not necessary given the size of cities in Scotland and the fact that local councils are already unitary authorities."

There was some scepticism too from the Labour Party in Scotland. Local government spokesman Michael McMahon said: "Directly elected mayors could end up costing more. They have their own offices and staff and you have to ask whether a small advancement in democracy is worth spending a lot of extra money."

The SNP did not wish to comment, but a Scottish Government spokesman said: "I don't think we have any strong views one way or the other on directly elected mayors."

Other speakers at the February conference felt that Edinburgh was doing pretty well six months on – it had weathered the financial crisis, the festivals were booming and the private and public sectors were working more closely for the common good of the city. The need for better collaboration was one of the key findings of the conference.

Graham Birse, managing director of Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce, said he had seen an improvement in collaboration between the public and private sector over the last six months.

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"The private-public dialogue is much more open than it's ever been," he added. "We have had conversations about how the council can deliver its programmes on a much-reduced budget – talking about what economic development support we offer, and how to manage high-growth businesses and ensure they continue to prosper. In the past, those conversations would not have taken place."

Tom Buchanan, convener of the city council's economic development committee, said: "Following the conference, we can clearly see a greater private sector willingness to engage with the public sector.

"There are conversations about how to work together to promote things better. Recession forces people out of their comfort zone and that's bringing the public and private sector together to promote Edinburgh in a more imaginative way.

"That has been a big thing this year and it makes the job so much easier when everyone is pulling together. The recession has shown the public and private sector they cannot have duplication. Looking at 12 per cent budget cuts across the council makes you think about smarter working. In Edinburgh you have 127 agencies working around issues of youth unemployment and you have to ask if that's right."