Scotland

Leaving a legacy: The challenges and rewards of leading Dundee City Council – Interview with Cllr John Alexander

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Cllr John Alexander, Leader of Dundee City Council

Winner of LGIU’s 2023 Leader of the Year award, Dundee City Council’s Cllr John Alexander shares his insights on successful projects, empowering councils, and the rewarding but tough role of a councillor in today’s challenging times.

Cllr Awards 2024 nominations are now open – nominate here!

What motivated you to pursue a leadership role in local government and why were you inspired to lead Dundee City Council in particular?

“Pursue” is perhaps not the right word as it wasn’t necessarily my intention to become Leader of Dundee City Council. That said, I always throw my all into any role that I have had over the years and being a councillor is no different.

I was blessed by having some great opportunities to learn, interact and see great leaders in action when I was first elected at 23 years old. Having held roles including Convener of Housing and Neighbourhood Services, it gave me a real understanding of the work of services across the city and inspired me to get even more involved, to learn and to challenge. Those are some of the key ingredients in leadership roles, I think.

Could you share some background on the most significant projects you have led, such as the Waterfront Regeneration and the Michelin-Scotland Innovation Parc?

The city has a great track record of meaningful partnership and delivery, be that the V&A, the Michelin Scotland Innovation Parc (MSIP), the development of the Life Science Innovation District or the Eden Project.

Each of these projects have their challenges, and the one that I am proudest of is MSIP which stemmed from the closure of Michelin’s tyre manufacturing site after nearly 50 years. The aftermath of that decision was a particularly dark period for the city, but we swiftly dusted ourselves off and pulled city and national partners together.

We met with senior Michelin officials on the outskirts of Edinburgh so that they could present their closure plan. However, we had developed an alternative bold vision for the future of the site and we asked to present first. Our vision was based upon the incredible global reputation Scotland has in the renewables, mobility and innovation sectors and Michelin went away inspired and thoughtful about the future.

As a result, we formed a new company, MSIP, with three shareholders – Dundee City Council, Scottish Enterprise and Michelin itself. This Parc is helping to provide a platform for the city to develop new ideas and bring them to market. More recently a Skills Academy, led by Dundee and Angus College and Innovation Hub have been created on-site to compliment this work.

Want to share your councils projects through LGIU? Get in touch, we’re always looking for local government innovation and inspiration.

What is most rewarding about being a councillor?

The truth is that it’s getting tougher and tougher to be a councillor. The pressure is great and expectations sky high, in what is the most challenging financial period in recent history.

Despite that, the day-to-day wins keep you going. Helping constituents with education issues or housing matters and getting a positive result can be so rewarding and humbling. Beyond that, being involved with a diverse range of subjects keeps the day busy, varied and incredibly interesting.

How do you ensure that the City Council’s gross revenue budget and gross capital programme are focused on growth and prosperity?

We need to empower councils with the tools and levers to make decisions that manifestly improve outcomes for citizens, in terms of economic growth and prosperity.

Councils have links and a footprint in every single community. We know the challenges and the scale of those, and we work with key city partners to develop approaches that address them, but we do so with one hand tied behind our back.

We have continued to target our resources on where they can make the biggest impact whilst also making our elbows felt by pushing a positive narrative. It’s that kind of bold and ambitious approach that delivers results and attracts opportunities, such as the Eden Project, to a city like Dundee.

What challenges did you face as the political leader of Dundee City Council, and how did you overcome them?

There are, of course, daily challenges and in the current financial climate – following 13 years of austerity – those challenges are growing.

During my time as Leader, we’ve dealt with the Covid pandemic, financial crisis, a cost of living crisis and more local challenges related to budgets and projects. Each has presented a new and diverse range of challenges but again, working together, we’ve managed to steer the city through each in the knowledge that we are doing our best to protect people.

We work our way through the problem in the knowledge that 149,000 residents rely upon us to lead and deliver.

What are the difficulties or risks of being a councillor?

The one thing I love about being a local councillor is how approachable you are, and that people feel able and confident to approach you, whether that’s through official channels or in the middle aisle of Aldi!

There are, of course, risks associated with that, but I can honestly say that in nearly 7 years as leader and 12 as a councillor overall, I have only had a couple of negative experiences.

With a platform comes responsibility. With responsibility comes accountability, and with accountability comes challenge. People are mostly polite in person, even where they disagree.

The biggest difficulty councillors face is with social media and the impact of covid resulting in a lower tolerance and “keyboard experts”. It’s problematic, and it often brings out the worst in people; that can have an impact. I’m lucky that I’m an incredibly resilient person in that sense, but it’s a tough gig, particularly if you’re coming into the job fresh.

What do you hope to achieve in the future for your community and in your career as a leader?

The toughest part of the job is knowing that, given the precarious finances, we can’t achieve all that we want for our fellow Dundonians.

After a reduction in our cost base to the tune of more than £160m after 13 years of UK austerity, services are creaking, and all local authorities are struggling to deliver all of the services they once did.

However, we are laser-focused on doing more, and our track record speaks volumes:

  • Dundee was the first city in the UK to become a Living Wage City.
  • In 2022, Dundee was named in the UK’s FDI top 20 destinations for the very first time.
  • Our school estate has just recently been rated the best, in condition terms, that it’s ever been.
  • We launched the UK’s first participatory budgeting model, led a council and focused on climate change.
  • Dundee was awarded Public Transport Authority of the Year for its work on decarbonisation of transportation.
  • Dundee has been recognised as one of 119 cities across the globe that are taking bold leadership on environmental action and transparency, despite the challenging global economic situation.

I want to leave the city better than I found it when I was elected, that’s it in a nutshell.

Check out Cllr John Alexander’s interview on the night of his big win – and don’t forget to nominate a worthy councillor for the upcoming 2024 award ceremony!



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