Edinburgh should have a directly elected Provost to revitalise democracy in the city – Stephen Jardine

Driving down the Royal Mile at 7am a couple of weeks ago, Edinburgh had never looked more beautiful.

Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, seen taking part in the Great North Run, is one of a number of directly elected city politicians in England (Picture: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)
Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, seen taking part in the Great North Run, is one of a number of directly elected city politicians in England (Picture: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

With the sun glinting off the medieval buildings, it wasn’t hard to see why Scotland’s capital is one of the best loved cities in the world.

Then all hell broke loose.

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As I drove past a refuse lorry, the workers started to move bags of rubbish and rats jumped out, spilling across the street. It was as far from the picture postcard image of Edinburgh as you can imagine.

When Glasgow’s litter-strewn streets were criticised in the run up to COP26, council leader Susan Aitken said at least her city’s rat problem wasn’t as bad as Edinburgh’s. She may be right but that is a sad indictment of Scotland in 2022.

Our two biggest cities may be fierce rivals but right now they have something in common, both have never looked worse.

In Glasgow, budget cuts have exacerbated the effects of long-term industrial decline and the pandemic has interrupted the flow of investment and regeneration required to reverse that.

In Edinburgh, we have none of those legacy issues but a vision for the city that revolved around turning it into Disney’s version of Scotland left it vulnerable when tourists and their cash disappeared during the pandemic.

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Right now, all the problems seem to be coming together at once. Tram-works continue to make Leith a no-go area, Princes Street is where retail goes to die, litter is abundant and if you want to bring together locals divided by politics or religion, just mention the subject of potholes and suddenly everyone is united in anger.

Local authorities will say their hands are tied by budget cuts which leave them very little room for manoeuvre once their statutory spending obligations have been fulfilled. However the problems go beyond spending decisions.

As Holyrood has strengthened its powers so the importance of local government has waned. You only have to look at the elections on May 5.

Does anyone in Edinburgh really know where each party stands on roads, pavements, litter and recycling? An election that should be decided on these core local issues is instead dominated by the usual divide over national issues like independence and Brexit.

This should be a vote where local issues matter more than ever before. For the past two years, we’ve all spent much more time in our local communities, treading the pavements for exercise and socialising in local parks. Our council infrastructure has been flexed and tested like never before and yet this election is barely visible.

We deserve better than that. Right now we should be having the biggest discussion about the future of local government but apart from the odd leaflet on the doorstep, where is the debate?

Who is talking about the future of Princes Street or congestion charging or the best public transport options for the years ahead?

What Edinburgh needs right now is a directly elected Provost to provide leadership on all this and real accountability. It’s an approach that has worked in England but that has been traditionally rejected here in case it challenges the existing power base.

That was then but this is now. The challenges facing Edinburgh and our other great cities need real solutions and a different kind of leadership.

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