Edinburgh Follies: a Dame for All Seasons
Strange, is it not, how even in Nicola’s exciting New Scotland the same old nomenklatura names just keep on popping up. With the Scottish Electoral Commissioner, John McCormick, due to step down at the end of the year the search has been on for a replacement. It is not Nicola, however, who will be signing off on this one, but Speaker Bercow and his Westminster pals on the Speaker’s Committee for the Electoral Commission, with the approval of the now-brexited Prime Minister Cameron.
McCormick successfully oversaw the 2014 independence referendum, to the great satisfaction of Dave, Ed, Nick and anyone else who wasn’t so keen on what’s left of Britain falling apart, though his previous record as the head of BBC Scotland was not altogether unblemished, particularly when he ran a coach and horses through the BBC’s in-house producer guidelines by hiring Kirsty Wark’s company to make a £1m documentary, The Gathering Place, about the budget-busting Scottish Parliament project.
This might not have been so bad if Newsnight’s feisty inquisitrix hadn’t contributed to the disaster as a member of Holyrood’s designer selection panel and its most vocal cheerleader. It might have helped, too, if her publicly funded docu-defence of the indefensible had been worth staying awake for.
But the March of Time cries out ‘Advance’ does it not? McCormick’s chosen successor will be an ennobled public-sector diva whose glittering credentials include time spent as East Ayrshire’s depute director of education, head of East Dumbartonshire Council, and Chief Executive of chaotic Aberdeen City Council, which she gracefully steered out of ‘special measures’.
Dame Sue Bruce – for it is she – rose to further prominence as Chief Executive of Edinburgh City Council, where she gained brownie points as ‘recovery owner’ of the Edinburgh City Tram omnishambles, a task more about desperate news management and PR panic than anything else.
On the other hand she seemed to play no visible role in another celebrated scandal which she inherited – the great PFI schools disaster. Luckily for her, she’d quit her post when several newly built schools turned out to be defective, and no fewer than 17 had to be closed for safety reasons after the gable wall of one of them collapsed into the playground.
Bruce’s Edinburgh tenure was less than a passage of unalloyed glory. Speaker Bercow’s report commends her wholeheartedly for ‘rooting out management failure and corruption’ in the property repair and conservation department, but is he fully-informed? Possibly not, since the use of the word ‘my’ in the second paragraph of the section ‘Previous Posts’ suggests this glowing encomium was written by La Bruce’s own fair hand.
‘Rooting out corruption’ is a relative term. A police investigation launched in 2011 was abandoned by Scotland’s Crown Office due to an alleged lack of evidence, which, of course, had nothing to do with rumours from a source identified as ‘Reekieleaks’ about shredding machines being worked to burn-out in the bowels of the City Chambers. Not in bourgeois Edinburgh, surely!
The final outcome of all this ‘rooting out’ was that two lowly council functionaries were invited to cool their heels in a place of detention for the vulgar indiscretion of blowing their brown envelope bonuses on fast cars and lap-dancing club planning inspections, so in time honoured fashion none of the people who actually mattered were held accountable.
Since, in the event, no-one else was responsible for anything dodgy, Edinburgh could safely revert to its usual squeaky-clean state of grace – except for one annoying glitch. Unhelpful people began to allege that La Bruce herself might be guilty of a conflict of interest when she accepted a £50k per annum non-executive directorship from private sector Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE) just as that particular corporate giant was about to enter negotiations with the council of which she was head honcho.
It was most irritatingly pointed out that if previous council chief executives had entered into a similar arrangement as the one enjoined by the city’s fearless anti-corruption boss they might well have been accused of – err – corruption. It was possibly the case, of course, that the Dame had an altogether different contractual relationship from the one entered into by her predecessor, Tom Aitchison, who was prohibited from taking on outside work from the private sector. For some curious reason, however, the civic authorities seemed most reluctant to answer FoI questions on this specific point.
The most shadowy aspect of the steely Dame’s civic reign concerns her association with an opaque ‘fixer’ identified as Colin Smith – so opaque, indeed, that when the Edinburgh Evening News failed to source a photograph of Mr Smith they used, instead, a shot of Harvey Keitel as the notorious fixer Winston Wolfe in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.
Smith, a former quantity surveyor with Strathclyde Regional Council and Motherwell District Council, was paid almost £1m through his company, Hg Consulting, to fix the tram problem of which La Bruce was so-called ‘recovery owner.’ He was also handsomely rewarded to sort out various other problems, such as the troubled Water of Leith flood defences project.
As well as being head of Hg Consulting the Dame’s in-house Winston Wolfe Smith is also one of the mainstays of Aurum Resolution LLP, set up under Dame Bruce’s leadership after both had taken a ‘Core Solutions’ 2015 summer school course on ‘Using Mediation Skills as a Leader’ at the luxurious Blair Estate retreat in Ayrshire. At around the same time she established Bruce Consultancy Service Ltd with her husband John, a retired oil industry professional who is also on the board of Aurum.
One of Winston’s more bizarre interventions would appear to have been a bid to facilitate the use of low cost vanilla limestone in the place of traditional buff sandstone in a major project within Edinburgh’s UNESCO World Heritage Site, the St James Quarter. According to press reports, the Dame’s fixer had given a briefing to councillors in which he had advocated the use of cheap ‘n cheesy vanilla limestone (though that isn’t quite how he described it) instead of proper sandstone on the grounds that the latter was not available in the quantities, and to the timescale, required.
This must have come as something of a surprise to those who work at the quarry face of the UK stone industry, such as Marshalls Stancliffe of Derby and Dumfries, which had just supplied several times the amount required to the Bloomberg Building in London, and had more than enough to spare. Winston also forgot to mention that construction behemoth Laing O’Rourke, which was acting as a consultant on the project and in line to become lead contractor, owned Vetter UK, and had previously had interests in the Bavarian limestone quarrying company Naturstein Vetter GmbH.
For La Bruce, no doubt, this is all conveniently ‘arm’s length’, yet it can hardly be detached from the claim in her Bercow targeted auto-hagiography that she had a ‘key role in supporting the development of the Edinburgh economy – including FDI.’ In a country groaning under the weight of its own debt, FDI or ‘Foreign Direct Investment’ usually means flogging everything which isn’t nailed down to any global corporation which happens by. In this case, the corporation is TIAA, a long established pension fund for American teachers and professors based in Charlotte, North Carolina, which has around $800 billion funds under management, and loves to invest in overseas commercial property ventures.
TIAA, which owns UK company Henderson Global Investments, and trades as THI, failed to win any brownie points with its lurid proposals for London’s Grade 1 listed Smithfield Market. These fell victim to a campaign supported by such high profile locals as Alan Bennett, Jeanette Winterston, and Kristin Scott-Thomas. Tory minister Eric Pickles wisely threw TIAA’s plans out.
Bloodied, but not unbowed, the cash-rich pension monster betook itself northwards to Edinburgh, where it received a red carpet welcome in the form of a joint Scottish Government- Edinburgh Council ‘Growth Accelerator Model’ gift of £61.4m from the generous, if largely unwitting, Scottish taxpayer. “The collective effort and commitment to breathe new life into the St James Centre were instrumental in creating this unique investment model in record time.” burbled La Bruce “As a result The City of Edinburgh Council will swiftly invest £61m into this very important city-centre regeneration area which will help unlock further investment from the private sector.”
This wonderful news should perhaps be subjected to a reality check. First of all, the centrepiece of TIAA’s mixed development is a ‘designer’ shopping mall pace Milan’s famous Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, but without the classy architecture. Indeed, given the urge to penny-pinch by using vanilla limestone cladding, the architectural prognosis would seem to be drab in the extreme. The thing is – if the forecasts of, say, the British Retail Consortium are even halfway accurate – the city centre shopping mall is no longer sexy. Those who aren’t buying on-line increasingly have a preference for out-of-town retail heavens with free parking. So what if TIAA’s designer galleria turns out to be a tits-up-turkey? Will the taxpayers be getting their £61.4m subsidy back? Perhaps Dame Sue will tell us.
Palpably, the very act of bestowing such largesse upon a rich corporate American pension fund engaged in a wholly commercial venture would appear, by definition, to be a blatantly anti-competitive tilting of the obligatory level playing field. This little detail didn’t stop TIAA’s THI subsidiary itself instructing lawyers to object to a proposal for a film studio on the outskirts of Edinburgh on the vague pretext that it might encourage some future retail development which would reduce footfall in its own designer galleria paradise. Evidently, shafting the embryonic Scottish film industry was not problem for TIAA or its Charlotte based directors, who proudly proclaim that their company ethos is all about ‘doing the right thing’ and make hay with the fact that TIAA was founded in 1917 by the Scots-born philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, while they blithely demean the built heritage of his beloved native land.
There seems to be little comprehension of the fact that inward Foreign Direct Investment, while it undoubtedly has pluses, also has a number of glaringly obvious minuses. The first of these is that under the principle of fiduciary duty the directors of a global corporation are obliged to put the maximising of profit ahead of any other consideration, provided such profiteering is conducted within the framework of the law. In other words, they’ll do whatever it takes to make money.
On the subject of the framework of the law, one might wonder – hypothetically, you understand – what might happen if, on the matter of the limestone-sandstone controversy, it turns out that councillors were provided with inaccurate and misleading information. Might some churlish legal anorak discern such behaviour to be a form of fraud, and if so, will collars be fingered in Charlotte, North Carolina, insofar as the application of RICO (anti-racketeering) statutes and the provisions of the US Foreign and Corrupt Practices Act might be in point? Of course not! What a silly idea! Surely North Carolina’s Attorney General Roy Cooper would never give it a moment’s thought.
Yet even where it is perfectly legal, FDI is no unalloyed blessing. It extracts wealth from the host country, rather than recirculating it in the local economy, and can disadvantage local operators in the same marketplace. One academic has even suggested its advocates may be ‘foolishly pursuing an ephemeral fad’ Moreover, a nine year old child could work out that in buying into the TIAA deal both the council and the Scottish government have forfeited their impartiality as planning authorities.
Indeed, councillors became so meek and spineless in their dealings with the Charlotte corporate steamroller that they even granted planning consent for a hotel of such unimaginable vulgarity that it’s doubtful it would get the nod on the Las Vegas Strip. Attempts to describe this vile ‘copper spiral’ desecration of a UNESCO World Heritage Site as a ‘Walnut Whip’ have failed to excite the public imagination. The favoured designations are along the lines of ‘The Golden Turd’ or ‘Hotel la Dogpoop’ [aka ‘The Jobby’ – Ed].
It is presumably for her eagerness to facilitate developer travesties like this that the Dame was crowned MIPIM UK City Leader of the Year 2014. MIPIM, as devoted readers of Private Eye are aware, is the annual ‘Beer ‘n Hookerfest’ [sic] at which ruthless global construction interests wine and dine council apparatchiks with a view to cutting lucrative deals.
Good old Brucie! Didn’t she do well? Clearly the ideal candidate to safeguard Scotland’s electoral process.