Scotland Democracy, devolution and governance

In Conversation with… John Alexander, Leader of Dundee Council

Kim Fellows (KF) LGiU speaking to John Alexander (JA), Leader of Dundee City Council for the last three years and a councillor in Dundee for five years previously. John Alexander was also named Leader of the Year last year at the LGiU Scotland & CCLA Councillor Awards.

KF
Thank you, John could you please tell us about the key ambitions for Dundee over the next 12 to 18 months?

JA
The key ambitions are, as they always have been, about reducing inequality in the city. I think many people across the whole of Scotland are aware of the issues that we face on a daily basis. We are very similar to other local authorities but perhaps inequality is more pronounced in Dundee looking at unemployment, employment, but more than that, our own addiction and poverty levels and obviously as a post-industrial inner city with small geography, some of those issues are much more pronounced. You only have to walk a couple of minutes from my office in the city centre to be able to see that in real life. So that’s our biggest challenge, that’s our motivation, that drives our ambition over the next 12 months – which is to push forward with the economic regeneration of the city. To reduce the poverty that exists, and also to implement everything that we have outlined in terms of the action plan that was drawn up for the drugs commission, and the fairness commission looking at poverty and addiction, as two of the big social problems that the city faces. Our agenda is driven by social reality, but also those challenges. One of the things I always say about Dundee is that we never shy away from any of those challenges. You’ll never hear me talk about the waterfront or the V&A without talking about poverty or deprivation, because they’re all intertwined – they’re part of the same agenda and we shouldn’t ever lose sight of that fact. I would never want people to see each of those projects or developments as disjointed or separate from the wider social agenda.

KF
It would be helpful just to focus on what the pandemic has meant for you as a council and the challenges you’re facing on a daily basis.

JA
From the outset, I suppose one of the biggest challenges that we faced, and now face even more, was social inequality. Poverty and deprivation have been in existence in the city for longer than I’ve been alive, never mind as long as I’ve been in post. As we start to really drive an agenda that tries to turn that around, the Covid-19 outbreak has compounded and exacerbated the problems that the city faces. So that’s a big challenge.

From a council perspective, the main challenges right now are, in terms of being able to provide the full range of services, being able to do everything that we want to in order to make Dundee the best place it possibly can be. But even to continue to provide some of those basic elements of service on the goodwill of many of our staff – I should say it’s been tremendous to see how many people have put the shoulder to the wheel during this outbreak – we, like many other local authorities across Scotland are facing huge financial challenges.

It was a difficult budget-setting process in February. The budget we set a number of weeks ago has now been ripped up and put in the bin. It is no longer worth the paper that it is written on and I think that’s the biggest challenge that we face, not to mention the fact that many councils will be exposed on a number of different fronts. For example, Dundee City Council has a big income-generating element to its work in terms of architectural services. Looking at construction work, we have in-house services that bid for other contracts, which generate multimillion-pound amounts on a monthly basis. That’s a huge challenge for us in terms of our ongoing revenue position.

So the budget that we just set out had a number of challenges in it, and we had to make some reductions to our services, but what the future looks like in terms of even just three, four months away is very different from how it looked four weeks ago. Those are some of the issues that we face, but we are a resilient city and I think that’s something that people are very much aware of. We, in many ways, use our challenges as our driving force, as our motivation, and I think that’s exactly what we’re going to do with Covid-19. I’ll not be resting on my laurels or sitting on my hands at any point in time as we try to not only tackle the issues that the outbreak has now forced upon us, but the problems that it has exacerbated that were already underlying in the city.

I think it’s really important that we recognise that finances are a challenge, but that worry doesn’t prevent us from taking the action that’s required. And it’s a difficult balance. If I take one small issue, PPE, I know there’s been a big national conversation around making sure all the staff across health boards and across health and social care partnerships have the right equipment. As far as I was concerned, our chequebook was not limited at all. I would rather that we had a stockpile, and we had too much equipment in our storage facilities that would then get used up over the next few years.

Even whilst we’re facing those financial challenges, there can’t be a barrier to putting things in place and making the decisions that we need to make. So yes, it’s a big challenge – I’ve had many conversations with colleagues in Scottish Government and I know that they’re receptive and they’re listening to what we need to make sure that all of the 32 councils in Scotland are supported, with a tangible amount of support, so that we can make sure that we can continue to do everything that we need to do for our communities.

KF
Moving on, I think people would be very interested to hear how you have taken an innovative approach to drug and addiction problems.

JA
I said earlier in the interview, [that] one of the things that you’ll never hear me doing is shying away from the problems that we’ve got here in Dundee. They exist elsewhere but Dundee is where I was born and raised, educated, brought up my family, and it’s the city that I love and know the most. I think everybody’s got a really good grasp of what the issues are – the challenge that we’ve always had is that the approach has not necessarily been consistent and it hasn’t been joined up enough. Drug addiction has been an issue in Dundee, Glasgow, and other localities for the best part of three, four decades and so I found it quite strange coming into post three years ago and one of the first items on my agenda was this idea of a drugs commission. I was very clear that what we needed was an independent focus. We needed someone outwith the usual organisational structures to step back and have a look at all of the various services that are provided, everything that was in the city, and to just be honest about whether that’s good enough or not at this point in time.

To be clear, I wouldn’t want it to ever be said or thought that I don’t have confidence in NHS Tayside, Dundee City Council or any of those other key partners, but I think it’s a really important step to give that independent focus, that outward looking approach, to somebody who might not know the city as well as we do. Because I think, it’s that old adage – you can’t see the wood from the trees. Sometimes you think you’re doing the right thing but you need somebody who has a different perspective from a different locality to come in and really observe and understand it from a different kind of position.

So we set up that commission to take a forensic approach. With some of the leading minds, some fantastic, passionate locals as well as national representation and input from international leaders in their field as well, to set the scene to help us understand what we’re looking at. And there was lots of good work. There were also lots of failings, it’s fair to say. I think it’s so much more powerful that we had everybody buy into that process from the outset and therefore, once the action plan came out, and those 15 recommendations were set out very clearly, we could all get on with the job of delivering them. There was no delay in having to then re-assess them within each organisational structure because we took it forward as a city and the response had to be from the city. So we talked about leadership often, but I think that was the leadership of a city, which you don’t see all that often in the grand scheme of things, but it’s a really important step in us tackling an issue that has taken hundreds of lives over the last few decades. If we don’t do anything or we don’t challenge the way we are approaching things, addictions will continue to take many lives for the foreseeable future.

KF
Thank you. Something that we’d like to continue to do is share good practice more effectively across Scotland, the UK and internationally.

Readers would like to hear about the retention of jobs through the Michelin Factory process and perhaps one or two or three key lessons and reflections that you’d like to share, especially those reflections you take forward to a post-pandemic world.

JA
I think it’s probably helpful to set the context of the conversation and how we got into the position of having this fantastic asset in the new Michelin Scotland Innovation Park. It almost became a bit of a catchphrase, if I’m being honest – I always talked about Dundee having a bold and ambitious agenda and so that’s become something of a mantra for everything that we do. Very early on, in terms of my leadership of the council, we were presented with probably the biggest economic challenge the city has faced, at least in the last 15 years, which was the closure, or the proposed closure at that stage, of Michelin in terms of its tyre manufacturing facility; 850 jobs, our largest private sector employer, and in a city that has higher levels of unemployment, lower levels of employment, and higher levels of poverty. It was just a disaster and a real gut wrenching moment for all of us. It has been an institution in the city for 50 years and nobody expected it to go at the time that it did following something like £50 million of investment over the last five years before the decision was made.

It wasn’t expected and I think that was part of our response. It took 24 hours to sit in a darkened room and just gather our thoughts a little bit, but soon after that we brought the key partners in the city together. I had conversations with my counterpart, Derek Mackay at that point in time, in Scottish Government and very clearly set out to have a proactive conversation with the senior hierarchy in Michelin to see if we could repurpose the site and give it a new focus and a new energy at the same time. I think a couple of conversations probably aligned, there was some good fortune in what was a really difficult situation. I wouldn’t want to claim any responsibility for that because I think in many ways the stars just aligned. In terms of the renewables agenda, that sustainability piece, and the key national legislation that was in place, that really gathered a lot of attention from Michelin. Michelin had always had a focused agenda in terms of supporting the workforce, supporting the localities in which they were based and [we] had a very good relationship in that regard. We were doing a lot of bold and ambitious things in terms of the waterfront regeneration, in terms of our approach to renewables at the Port of Dundee, our approach to culture and the V&A. So, I think that energy, that vibrancy and that proactive approach is something that helped us in that conversation.

Within a couple of weeks we had a meeting arranged with the hierarchy of Michelin and we met with them in a hotel in Edinburgh. They flew straight in for that meeting with myself, Derek Mackay and a series of others from Dundee Council, Scottish Enterprise and Scottish Government. They came to present their closure plan and before they could present that plan, we presented our alternative and I think that was really important because what we were trying to do was capture a moment and help them understand that there is a future on the site. It might not be tyre manufacturing, and I think we had to also be honest with them that while we desperately wanted them to retain manufacturing on the site, the reality is, in terms of the justification and the economics around it, we could understand why they made the decision they had. I think that honesty and that proactivity is what changed the conversation.

We were then asked to leave the room so they could remaster their proposition, then a series of conversations took place. Within a couple of months we had a memorandum of understanding set out and we’re here now, just over a year later, and we’ve got a fantastic opportunity that will stand Dundee in good stead for the next fifty years long after I retire, hopefully.

KF
You have to make it happen. And now referring to the next economic challenge, what would be the one or two key things you’d say about the experience of Michelin that you’ll take forward to the post-pandemic world?

JA
I think the reality is, for me and the lessons that I’ve learned through that process, the key is that proactive approach. Under normal circumstances – and I know through other experiences that I’ve had both positive and negative – the tendency is,when there’s an outside entity making a decision, is to accept that decision or to rail against it.Those are your two options; its a one or a zero, it’s a very binary kind of approach. Whereas actually, you can have a much more frank, honest and positive conversation if you can get in amongst the detail of that, to understand where they’re coming from. When I’m thinking of post Covid-19 and our approach to that, it’s kind of picking up where we left off but while we might have been operating in fifth gear, now we’re going to have to find the sixth gear, and really put our foot to the metal. That engagement is going to be absolutely critical.

One of the things that I described early on was my first meeting of the Dundee Economic Forum – making our elbows felt. Dundee, let’s be honest, we’ve got a chip on our shoulder. Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Glasgow; fantastic, big cities, lots going on,

and Dundee always felt like we were on the back seat, on the back burner a little bit. Perhaps the fourth largest city but not seen as much in those terms. So I described it as making our elbows felt – we’re not waiting for the conversations to happen, we’re going out and making them ourselves. I don’t wait for the developer or investor to find out about Dundee, I make sure that we put Dundee on their agenda. That’s the approach that we’re going to have to continue to take after Covid-19 because, we are going to have to reframe the economy, we going to have to reframe our approaches and the way we engage with services.

Fundamentally, it comes down to a conversation and a relationship for me, and the biggest successes that we’ve delivered in this city, whether it be the V&A or whether it be the Michelin Scotland Innovation Park, have been as a result of engagement and a good relationship and an honesty and those are the three key things I think we need to continue to do going forward. And do it with even more rigour and more energy.

KF 
Thank you very much.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *