Bright light in the big city

Bright light in the big city

Edinburgh recently launched its ambitious five-year business strategy for the city. BQ spoke to council chief exec Sue Bruce to see what lies behind these bold measures.

Sue Bruce runs a powerful and all-pervasive organisation.While the elected politicians make the decisions, and the Lord Provost undertakes the ceremonial formalities, Sue Bruce, as the chief executive of City of Edinburgh Council, and her executive colleagues, carry out their wishes, delivering services to an urban area beyond the immediate city boundaries to over 700,000 souls.

If cities are the dynamos of Scotland’s future wealth, then Edinburgh’s council is turning a massive crankshaft to create the vital economic energy that is required in Scotland.

But Scotland’s capital faces some acute challenges, particularly in tackling the business start-up rate and the rising unemployment among its young and excluded who exist in some of the poorest housing schemes in Europe.

While the elegant Georgian New Town and the High Street teem with camera-clicking tourists, you don’t need to look far to see tell-tale signs of the homeless sitting forlornly on the pavement with their ubiquitous mongrels.

Edinburgh’s council has taken a lot of punches in recent years, particularly over the debacle of the Edinburgh trams and a scandal over statutory roof repairs for the city’s sandstone tenements.

Senior officials have been suspended pending investigation. Some of these blows have been justified but others unfairly aimed when you consider the council is navigating the city through a terrible recession, exacerbated by the collapse of two of the city’s biggest institutions, RBS and Bank of Scotland.

Sue Bruce’s arrival was hailed as an inspirational development. She had been the hero of the hour, reshaping a bashed and battered oil-rich Aberdeen where the hapless council got itself into some serious debt problems.

Sue Bruce is recognised as a fire-fighter and fixer. Now she has turned her gimlet-eyed attention on Edinburgh. The council is a big beast with revenues of £1.4bn a year, and 17,000 people on the payroll, with over 14,000 full-time equivalents, from teachers, social workers, street cleaners to planners, gardeners and traffic wardens.

“This is a massive business in anybody’s terms. And although the dividends we deliver to the city are shown in terms of social and economic outcomes, we have to run it like a business,” she says.

It also has a role in local business development, a task handed back to Scotland’s local authorities from Scottish Enterprise.

“We have a statutory duty in terms of economic development, including Edinburgh Business Gateway. Edinburgh exercises that role well,” she says.

The capital’s council has just unveiled a £12m programme of business support as part of an ambitious five-year strategy. Sue Bruce has made a strong impression, particularly with the business community, getting out, pressing the flesh, at first listening and then explaining that the council and its elected politicians are committed to making Scotland’s capital truly tick.

Meeting her in a sun-drenched, open-plan office in the modern Waverley Court complex, as Edinburgh’s numerous festivals are in full flow, you might be lulled into thinking everything in the capital’s garden is rosy.

Yet there are serious issues to tackle in terms of getting young people into work, supporting more start-ups and creating a low-carbon, sustainable business environment.

Edinburgh Council has also taken steps to deal with the acute shortage of Grade A premium office space in the city, with a speculative building called the Atria that has defied the banking collapse.

Brewin Dolphin is the first business to move into the seven-storey Atria One, a feather in the cap for the council’s foresight. Sue Bruce, bespectacled and dressed in dark business suit and sipping her herbal tea at the end of a day of back-to-back meetings and presentations, is relishing the task before her.

“This job is fantastic. There is plenty to do and it’s a fantastic city to work in. “It’s a brilliant place.”

Edinburgh now has a Labour and SNP political coalition which signed a memorandum of understanding about where the city wants to go. This pledge by the 20 Labour and 18 SNP councillors out of the Edinburgh’s 58 elected representatives has ensured a more consensual approach.

For Sue Bruce, the memo of understanding demonstrates the clear political leadership and pragmatism in terms of the administration’s aspirations.

“There are all the big social and economic drivers to consider in Edinburgh. We’re working on a governance review to make sure our arrangements are crisp and neat. It’s a great opportunity to be here in this stage of the life of the council, working with the elected members to developing and delivering policy,” she says. How does she see her role as chief executive?

“There are some technical descriptions: one is head of paid services. Anything to do with management falls within my bailiwick and the job of chief executive is as a non-political chief adviser to the council. Clearly, I don’t do that single-handedly, there is team of extremely capable professional officers.”

Sue Bruce insists there is a great deal of intellectual capacity in the council, between elected members and officers. Does she feel this is under-estimated by the ordinary council taxpayer who wants the streets clean, social care ensured, bins emptied and schools working properly?

“Absolutely, there’s a huge amount in running a modern city that the public doesn’t see, our jobs, as officers, is to provide professional advice. That advice will reflect the political direction of the elected members.

"It is about providing visible managerial leadership and working hand-in-glove with the leaders and elected members and the Lord Provost on the civic side. They have a right to reject our professional advice, but we weigh up the risks.

"Our locally-elected politicians are utterly entitled to do something different if they think it is the right thing to do, they then hand it back to us to implement. But we still work together and they scrutinise our delivery.”

She says it seems straight-forward when you’ve been at the helm for a number of years. How is she qualified to run such a major enterprise?

Sue Bruce has been in local government for 36 years. If she was one of the numerous Edinburgh citizenry now besotted with body art, she would have ‘public service’ tattooed on her forearm.

“I started my career in youth work and community development in Johnstone in the West of Scotland,” she says.

It was the mid-1970s and the UK was in a recession that resulted in the four-day week, trouble and union strife and power cuts across the nation.

“There were no jobs around after I graduated from Jordanhill College of Education in Glasgow in 1976 with a diploma in community education. My first job was in a job creation scheme in Strathclyde Region,” she recalls.

And here she has an emotional affinity to Scotland’s young people in a similar position 36 years later. [She has also just taken on the position as chair of Young Scot].

“Edinburgh council area was not performing particularly well in Scottish terms as a positive destination for school-leavers. I found this surprising and alarming given Edinburgh’s obvious pulling power. It was bottom in local authority terms for supporting young school leavers into work.”

The council saw reversing this dismal statistic as a priority and, after consultation with business organisations, it created the Edinburgh Guarantee, an initiative to encourage businesses in the capital to take on young people to give them work experience, placements, mentoring, internships and a real job.

“We all agreed if everyone made a reasonable effort we had a good chance of turning this around,” she says.

These are jobs on top of the normal commercial quota, giving young people – and there are 3,500 leavers from the state sector alone every summer - a taste of the work place. Companies such as John Lewis, Standard Life, Scottish Widows, BT, Bank of New York Mellon, Nairn Oatcakes, Bright Purple, Royal London Group and Capital Solutions have signed up to help the cause.

“As far as possible, the Edinburgh Guarantee should be a real job with at least the minimum wage for internships.

“What young people said to us was, ‘We don’t want months of training then nothing, we’d rather have a real job and prove our worth,” says Sue. At the end of 2011, Edinburgh began to improve its position proving it had the capacity to make a difference through partnership with business.

“I think when you are young and unemployed, when you get your first break, you never actually forget it. It is meaningful to you and this is what happened to me.” She understands this intimately. She worked in economic and social regeneration in the uncompromising neighbourhood of Ferguslie Park, in Paisley, with its multiple issues of unemployment, deprivations and drug addiction.

“It was a great job and I loved it. It was about making a difference to people’s lives. Then I moved to Nitshill and the Gorbals as a middle manager and then there was a big reorganisation of the education of Strathclyde.”

“I remember the Rootes car plant at Linwood closing and there was mass unemployment. In the 1970s, when I was a student, the shipyards were going through their difficulties and I first became aware of Jimmy Reid’s movement at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders Work-In.

"The values he espoused about individuals and their place in society, is something I use as a reference point.”

All this battling for better conditions developed her sense of resolve and fairness. She advanced in community education, moving to become an officer in mainstream education.

Sue Bruce was asked to step into an interim executive position and given an opportunity to see the world from a different angle, moving to principal officer in Lanark division of Strathclyde, then into Renfrew division.

This was her first directorate job at 35. She was witnessing the consequences of Scotland’s urban decline first hand and why deep-rooted social problems had been created. She also began to understand that budget restraint meant tough choices.

Now she points to the demographic challenge for councils and their social care with many more people living into their 80s and 90s.

“One of the challenges for public service is to try and keep pace with that and understand the needs of people as they get older. But this places pressure on resources too,” she admits.

Increasingly, Scotland’s 32 councils require higher levels of modern IT to meet the expectations of citizens.

“Often public authorities can be challenged when taking major leaps into business technologies of the 21st century. Somehow, as public authorities we are expected to be behind the pace, but we’ve introduced iPad technology for the elected members and already we’re generating savings.

"Most of our committee meetings are in paperless forms. So do we go the whole way into cloud technology? But it all helps us to be most agile and serve the public.”

Sue Bruce believes strongly in the transformational power of continuing education. She has earned further university degrees, an MPhil and an LLB, which she has funded herself, often through part-time learning.

After local government reorganisation in 1996, she was deputy director of education for East Ayrshire, remaining there until 2000, when she went to East Dunbartonshire as director of education, social work and cultural services.

“There was a big change programme going on which has been kicked off by the chief executive Vicki Nash [who joined Ofcom in 2004]. It brought about a substantial change to the way the council was run.

"She had the idea of merging services together and I had the great job of starting with that directorate. There were a lot of bold moves and Vicki had great vision.” In 2004, Sue took over from Vicki as chief executive, and continued with the same processes, before moving to Aberdeen in 2008, where she revived a council administration that had lost its way, facing massive cuts.

“That was a great job, then I came to Edinburgh in 2011.” The council is taking a leadership position in launching its new economic strategy.

“Jobs growth is not going to come from the public sector – it’s going to come from the private sector – so we need to ensure we’re doing everything we can to help businesses identify opportunities for growth and employment,” she says. She admits that councils are often seen as putting barriers in the way of doing business.

“I want Edinburgh to be a place where it is easy to do business, where companies can find all the services they need in one place. We’re bringing every department in the council together to provide this ‘one-door’ approach to business services for the first time.”

“Without a growing business base, there can be no growth in job opportunities, so our call to action is for everyone to step up and work with us on this – delivery partners, council departments and businesses themselves. There are opportunities but sometimes the risks are inhibiting people from taking action.

“We can help by making it easy for businesses to interact with us and by supporting their plans to create and retain jobs, increase turnover and develop new products or markets.”

Sue Bruce singled out the Atria, beside the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, which is also being refurbished with additional hydraulic floor space which makes it more versatile for conferences, conventions or exhibitions, as an example of the council making a difference, although she admits the decision to undertake this was before she joined.

“There had been a slowdown in speculative development in Edinburgh, which is understandable given the recession. The council is the only developer of Grade A office space with the Atria, which has achieved BREEAM environmental assessment status. I think it was a really bold move and all credit to the people who went with it.

“It was prior to my time but there was a full risk assessment around the borrowing and letting a speculative development, but it showed that the public sector can lead the way. What we have is a really big asset in the centre of Edinburgh,” she says.

Sue Bruce sees this kind of development as a message to the market place that Edinburgh still wants to attract world-leading companies or inward investors keen to have a base in what might well be the capital of an independent nation.

You can’t possibly interview Edinburgh’s chief executive without asking about the troubled Tram project and the disruption caused by the digging up of roads and re-routing of traffic. Sue Bruce is credited with getting the whole project back on track after the messy disputes.

“The trams project has been disruptive but we are beginning to see the end now. The Mound and Princess Street are re-opened and looking very good.

“The trams will definitely be running by the summer of 2014. Old cities do take a lot of money to run and that has not been in great supply. There has been a massive replacement of the ageing gas pipe network. Sure, there has been mess and noise, but it all represents huge investment in the city and its future.”

Sue Bruce is a cool breath of fresh air in Edinburgh. Looking at her CV, she rarely stays more than four years in a job before moving onwards.

The question is will she stay a little bit longer in her current job and get a chance to savour the fruits of her undoubted civic talents? Let’s hope she’s still in charge and taking a ride out to the airport on the first trams.