Is running Edinburgh so difficult?
4 Jun 2008
Governance Peter Wilson, writer and academic, comments on Edinburgh’s governance. “Is running a city of half a million people really so difficult?”
In the old, pre-Thatcher days of trade union power, the mention of a ‘work to rule’ was a well recognised threat to the effective functioning of the systems and processes that governed daily life. Put simply, if following the rules meant that things ground to a standstill, then surely there was something wrong with their composition? And so to the effective running of a city, in this case Scotland’s capital. In the heady days of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s when a vibrant - and largely young - Labour Council sought to bring the city into the modern world and in the face of the then Conservative government’s policies on public ownership, Edinburgh created new public projects for the first time in many years. The Festival Theatre and the International Conference Centre came about during this period, and the city even held major international competitions for a new Central Library and an architecture centre. Unfortunately, neither competition winner was implemented, a direct result of the UK government changing the structure of local politics in Scotland to remove the power – and autonomy – of large regional authorities such as Lothian and Strathclyde.
With the loss of their powerbase, many regional councillors and senior officers in Lothian moved seamlessly into new positions within the city’s council, bringing with them policies developed for an area considerably larger than the metropolitan confines of Edinburgh. The agenda subtly shifted: the energetic councillors previously in position were quickly replaced by a new generation of apparatchiks keen to secure their position with the new Labour hierarchy that by the late 1990’s held dominance at Westminster. A large majority in the council chamber and little effective opposition resulted in the time-honoured political solution: internal party factions led by strong personalities took hold of the larger budget committees to create fiefdoms from which power and patronage could be dispensed. Initiative was replaced by forelock-tugging comparisons with the achievements of others, e.g. how Edinburgh might compete with Glasgow as a major retail centre, and urban distinction – the quality by which the city was rightly world-renowned – made to defer to the crasser commercial instincts of city centre ‘managers’.
All of this clearly indicated a lack of vision for the city and, more importantly, a rofound intellectual vacuum in its leadership. With devolved government and a new parliament building, much lip service was given to Edinburgh’s re-emergence as a ‘European capital’ but without any apparent political comprehension of what it takes to function as such. As ever with long-serving, dominant administrations, a degree of arrogance coupled with ennui set in by the middle of the new century’s first decade and, lacking new ideas or energy, the incumbent council was – surprisingly – astonished to be rejected by the city’s voters in the 2007 local elections.
Time will tell if Edinburgh’s new, Lib Dem / SNP coalition administration will prove more imaginative and responsive to the architectural and urban needs of Edinburgh than its predecessor.However the forthcoming retirement of the heads of the Economic Development and Planning departments provides the ideal opportunity for the city fathers to positively address and debate the real architecture and urban design needs of Edinburgh. Given the very un-European capital quality of development that has taken place in the city over the past few years, it is not a moment too soon.