Ewan Aitken, Edinburgh's former city leader



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Edinburgh’s new leader promises
to listen over city’s transport plans

By Brian Baker

28 September 2006: After seven years at the helm, Donald Anderson stepped down as leader of the City of Edinburgh council in August 2006. He aims to contest the next set of Scottish Parliament elections in May 2007. In the meantime, new Edinburgh leader Ewan Aitken has put his predecessor in charge of culture and sport.

Edinburgh ruled by Nationalists and Liberals after May 2007 election

The high profile attempt to secure a congestion charging regime in the city, ultimately rejected by voters in a referendum in January 2005, was one of several contentious issues which Anderson was faced with as the city grew rapidly at the end of the 20th and in the early 21st centuries. 

A medical scientist by training, Donald Anderson was first elected to the former Lothian Regional Council in 1986 and subsequently switched to the city council. As city council leader since 1999 he has strongly advocated change to make the ‘Athens of the North’ fit for the challenges of globalisation.

In the last three years he has unwaveringly argued for the tram system planned for the city, which has been criticised in some quarters and may yet be abandoned if it becomes an issue at next May’s elections. The current plan for the tram, which has over £400m of in principle allocations by the Scottish Executive, is for an initial single line from Ocean Terminal at Leith in the east through the city centre and Haymarket areas to the business park and airport in the west.  

Anderson also strongly backs the plan for a new rail link to the airport, currently under consideration by Scotland’s parliament at Holyrood.  

He attacked the attitudes towards change of some of the city planning officials before leaving office. Cllr Anderson said that they had delayed innovations like the closure of parts of the Royal Mile to vehicles during the August festivals. He said there was a communist streak in some of them that would not allow the introduction of anything to our streets that was visible and were happy for things to be any colour as long as that colour is grey. “We’ve not got the balance right in what is a modern city,” he warned.

He said officials failed to acknowledge mistakes over the central area traffic scheme changes which were introduced and subsequently substantially withdrawn in 2005. “The main problem was no-one was prepared to admit they were wrong. A real weak point in the city development department is that although our officials appear to hear what shopkeepers and retailers say they don’t listen to them.” 

His critics say the failure to acknowledge and apologise for mistakes also applies to the leading councillors in the city. The ruling Labour Group in Edinburgh is divided, reflecting wider differences in the city population to some of the policies pursued by Anderson and his allies, notably former Transport Convenor Andrew Burns.  

Ewan Aitken, the candidate of the ruling cabal, only won the leadership by four votes over Cllr Elizabeth Maginnis who said that Labour had to be honest about mistakes notably over how the congestion charge campaign was managed.  

Cllr Aitken has acknowledged this saying he will spend the next few months “listening and learning from the people of Edinburgh.” He has also sought to distance the administration from the UK government in London. He says he will be stressing an Edinburgh Labour ‘brand’ rather than be seen as part of the UK party. “We want to fight the elections on the liveability issues like bins, roads, schools and parks. But it is made more difficult when the leader of your party takes you into a war that is illegal and then refuses to condemn acts of aggression”   

Ewen Aitken, 44, is an ordained Church of Scotland minister and is likely to be a less dominant leader. Donald Anderson has sometimes been accused of a bullying approach.  

However, he says he is proud to have helped to run the city. He says “Edinburgh has become a world-class destination from a provincial sleepy and dirty city. When l took over as council leader I was obsessed with making the capital a clean place to live and visit. I took tough actions and, as a result, Edinburgh has won the UK’s clean city awards on numerous occasions.” 

“Unemployment has been kept under three percent over the last five years,” he says. “This has never happened before.”  55,000 jobs have been created since 1995. Police patrols have been increased and the city has become a safer place. 

If elected an MSP, Donald Anderson intends to press forward measures to address alcohol and drug culture in Scotland. “There is almost an admiration in Scotland for people getting drunk. There has to be an early intervention in families, educating people to drink in a healthy way.”


Princes Street, Edinburgh's premier shopping street


After May 2007 elections
Ewan Aitken replaced by Jenny Dawe
9 June 2007: Ewan Aitken's time running the Scottish capital was brief - for the time being, anyway. After the May 2007 elections, a Liberal Democrat/Scottish National Party coalition took power in the city and Labour went into opposition for the first time since the Conservatives ran Edinburgh in the 1980's. The new Leader is Liberal Democrat Jenny Dawe who led her party to becoming the largest on the council in the election campaign. Like her predessecors, Councillor Dawe is a champion of the proposed Trams project, now under threat from the SNP administration at Holyrood. The partnership arrangement reached by the two parties to run the council allows the SNP to continue to oppose major transport projects, which their colleagues nationally wish to cancel.

Dawe wants to get more family housing included in large regeneration developments on the waterfront and to create a bed tax or festival levy to assist local taxpayers to pay for staging the major festivals in the city every August.

Donald Anderson may be regretting stepping down as he failed to be elected to the Scottish Parliament. More