Taking out the poison and bringing in the cash: Running a 21st century Capital city
City leader Cammy Day says the soaring cost of living in the Capital demands a London-style 'Edinburgh weighting' and talks tackling the city's 'toxic' politics
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There is a lightness and brightness in the grandiose corridors of power at Edinburgh’s City Chambers that was notably missing as recently as last year.
Then, the city’s politicians were so embroiled in factional warfare, bitter antagonisms and childish name-calling that the reputation of the Capital risked being tarnished. Everyone agreed something had gone badly wrong with civic debate in the city - and promptly blamed somebody else.
Fast forward 18 months and things look and feel quite different.
At the office of city council leader Cammy Day, just off the Royal Mile and overlooking a 10ft bronze statue of Alexander the Great taming his famous horse, Bucephalus, the door is generally open.
As he looks back on the events of the last year since he stepped up from deputy leader in dramatic circumstances (more of which later), the genial 49-year-old Labour councillor is in a reflective mood.
Turning away from toxic
"The toxic relationship that happened in the last administration between some parties impacted on the city,” he says, “because we spent so much time fighting in our Chamber rather than delivering what we should be delivering.
“We predominantly don't have that same fight in the Chamber any more, apart from one party (the SNP). They need to make their mind up whether they want to just sit on the outside and chip away at us or what?”
Day talks about taking an ‘adult’ approach to politics, based on seeking consensus and winning - or losing - arguments on a case-by-case basis.
“It's way, way harder. Now it takes up an awful lot of time negotiating, compromising and trying to get the best we can, and that's what my team and I do every day.
“I think overall there’s a different approach and if the toxic behaviour and language of the last five years has changed slightly because of that then I'm pleased.”
Pressures frustrating progress
What is missing as yet from the ledger of his relatively new administration is progress worth shouting about on his key aims of tackling poverty and building a more sustainable future.
The former youth worker, who worked on “tough” estates in Granton and other parts of north Edinburgh, measures progress by the impact of political decisions on people’s lives.
“We've got big pressures. We've still got people in poverty. We've still got a care system that doesn't work for people. I would like us to have that adult political discussion, rather than political bun fights.”
He is rightly proud of Edinburgh’s open-hearted response to the Ukrainian crisis and the council’s pro-active role in that.
A ‘Capital city weighting’
However, leading a minority administration with only 12 councillors out of 63 being Labour, means the maths is against him in the decision-making chamber.
When it comes to funding critical services, the sums are, if anything, even harder. That is the subject of on-going conversations with Deputy First Minister Shona Robison and other Scottish Government Ministers.
“We remain the worst funded council in Scotland and we will keep repeating that until somebody changes it. We are the Capital city yet we're not fairly funded.
“We’ve got a 60% increase in our homelessness costs, for example, and that is just one area.
“Our core grant needs to be increased. We should be talking about a Capital city supplement. The rising costs of accommodation here means that people have to live outwith the city, travel from as far away as Fife and Angus, to get to their work. Particularly for younger people, you struggle to live here.”
In particular, for public sector workers, he said: “In London, they have a London weighting. It's never going to be affordable for the council, but that would be a huge help for people who are experiencing higher and higher property prices and higher rent costs.
“It's not something we've persuaded the Government to do yet, because it could cost a lot of money, but the evidence shows that living costs in the city are growing more than any other city in Scotland, if not in any UK city outside of London.”
Open for business
Day is also pursuing powers to raise more public funds within the city through charges such as the Workplace Parking Levy and the Transient Visitor Levy or ‘tourist tax’. An agenda that is guaranteed to put him at odds with at least sections of the business community, but one he sees as necessary for delivering social change. “There is so much that needs to be done.”
He is adamant though that Scotland’s Capital must be a place where enterprise can thrive.
“We have Uniqlo coming to Princes Street, investing in the city and jobs, and Gucci coming to the city too. I really welcome that.
“It is not just in the city centre that we are seeing this kind of investment. I was really pleased to see a bar-restaurant on Leith Walk being put on the market and getting sold within two weeks for a pretty lucrative price. That’s seeing the benefit of the £200 million investment in the modern tram network.”
He is perhaps most passionate when talking about improving local housing.
“When I was housing convener, I went to a lady’s house in Moredun where we had just built our first new homes. Her name was Lorraine and I always remember we went to her window to pose for a photo.
“She made me tea and biscuits in her new kitchen. This is probably 10 years ago. Her energy costs had gone through the roof in her last house. She had a private landlord who didn't particularly care about energy efficiencies and she was paying over £150 a month.
“Now that's quite cheap for everybody, but ten years ago that was a lot of money for energy in a one bedroom house.
“Her bills, because of the council’s investment in energy efficiency, were £40 a month. That's life changing for people to be given the keys to a brand new house and save you hundreds of pounds.
“That's one person I met and I'm pretty sure that was replicated across all that estate.”
A political surprise
Showdowns with his SNP counterparts are of course something to which he is accustomed.
Day joined the Labour Party after becoming a union rep when he was a youth worker. As leader of the city’s Labour councillors, he first took the party into coalition as the junior partner of the SNP. He and his SNP counterpart Adam McVey confounded many expectations by making the coalition stick.
However, Day sprung a surprise last year when he outmanoeuvred his former coalition partners, and secured the support of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to form a minority administration. That decision is said by many City Chambers observers to be the course of ongoing rancour from some on the SNP benches.
The 49-year-old is ambitious. No one would be surprised to see him make the jump to Holyrood or Westminster in the elections between now and 2026.
He is also a pragmatist, enough so to talk admiringly of Margaret Thatcher’s achievements “as a woman in politics, although I didn’t agree with anything she believed in.”
Impact of dementia
He lives not so far from where he grew up in north Edinburgh with his three brothers, dad, who ran his own roofing business, and mum, who worked in the NHS latterly as a medical receptionist.
“I've always been around the north of the city, so I always find it difficult to come past Princes Street to the south,“ he says with a broad smile. “Yet I have been working here, technically in the south, for 15 years now.”
These days he visits his mum every Sunday and Monday afternoon, but the circumstances are very different.
“It impacts on my council work, but I think it is important. I have seen the change that comes when you need to rely on your children for care and the impact that has on the whole family.
“Dementia is a huge issue for the country. I’ve been one of my mum’s principal carers for some time now, along with the whole family and an amazing team at Blackwood.
“I remember a number of years ago being at a presentation about heart disease and how it was one of the biggest killers in the city. Now it’s been talked about so much and so much investment has gone into research that it is not so much the case any more. I think we need to do the same thing with dementia.”
Life in the Bear Pit
Another sign of the grounding of his politics is found on his bookshelves.
Alongside the odd self-help book, including one gifted recently by a colleague on the importance of being active, are a number of political biographies.
Barack Obama’s Promised Land is the last book he read. The one before that David Blunkett’s My Life in the Bear Pit, the story of how the former Home Secretary rose through the New Labour ranks from bruising city politics in Sheffield to Tony Blair’s Cabinet.
“I’m not very good at reading fiction because it loses my interest, so I have a bunch of biographies at home. It’s interesting what they did in power because in some ways it it linked to what I do every day.”
Self-help books perhaps for a centre-left political leader aiming to take on the odds?
Coming up: Don’t miss Kenny Kemp’s first deep dive into Edinburgh business life and the regional economy, plus the answer to why Taylor Swift is coming to the Capital.