Published: 27/05/2012 06:00 - Updated: 26/05/2012 22:26

What makes new Highland Council leader tick?

Written byby Hugh Ross

Drew Hendry, the new leader of Highland Council
Drew Hendry, the new leader of Highland Council

ANGER prompted the teenage Drew Hendry’s political awakening.

More than 30 years ago the newly elected Highland Council leader - who lives in Ross-shire - was growing up in Edinburgh where he became interested in the national referendum on whether Scotland should establish a devolved assembly.

Unable to vote because he was in his mid teens, he feels a great sense of injustice at the outcome of the 1979 vote to this day.

Those who turned out to vote were in favour of devolution by 52 per cent to 48 per cent – but a controversial rule, stipulating that at least 40 per cent of the full electorate had to vote yes, scuppered any hopes of devolution at that time.

“I was angry,” he recalls. “I was about 13 or 14 and I just remember the unfairness of the 40 per cent rule. That impacted on me to look at Scotland and its position in the world.”

The teenager became a volunteer for the SNP, convinced an independent Scotland was the way forward, and he formally joined the party as an adult.

Devolution, of course, did finally arrive in 1999 when the new Scottish Parliament opened.

Highland Council is now politically led
Highland Council is now politically led

Another generation-defining referendum is on the horizon but this time the father-of-four can vote and is in very different situation, having been elected into the top position in Highland local government politics.

It is a seismic change from the old established order when Independent councillors always ruled the roost. The SNP, which is the biggest political party on the council, controversially hooked up with the Liberal Democrats and Labour in a surprise move to form a new coalition.

For the first time a full political administration is now running the huge public-sector organisation which affects the lives of every man, woman and child in the Highlands.

Much to their collective shock and anger, the biggest group of councillors – 35 Independents – were frozen out and claimed First Minister Alex Salmond was “desperate” to get his hands on Highland Council.

Independent critics of a politically-led Highland Council have claimed First Minister Alex Salmond has exactly what he wants in the Highlands
Independent critics of a politically-led Highland Council have claimed First Minister Alex Salmond has exactly what he wants in the Highlands

Councillor Hendry has scoffed at that suggestion and, when asked if Mr Salmond has contacted him to offer congratulations, says it is unrealistic to expect the First Minister to call all the party’s successful councillors – although he has been inundated from messages sent by other well-wishers.

Not only is the Highlands entering uncharted territory with a political council, the independence referendum is looming in 2014.

If the SNP does a good job leading the council it will do its chances no harm at the ballot box.

However, given the pro-union stance of both the Lib Dems and Labour, it has to be a delicate balancing act for the SNP which cannot afford to upset its administration partners by attempting to crow about any possible council-related achievements.

Despite describing it as a “historic” political coalition, Councillor Hendry is at pains to stress the three parties have agreed to leave politics by the door and concentrate on doing what is right for the Highlands.

Parties and no politics? Impossible.

But the authority’s leader is adamant that pro-independence campaigning will not be used in conjunction with the council’s work.

“We have agreed to put the politics aside and concentrate on achieving the best outcomes for the Highlands,” he insists. “Outside the council chamber I will be campaigning for independence.”

A breakaway from the UK would see the Highlands closer to decision-making and prompt more external investment, he claims.

Councillor Hendry was only elected 2007 to represent the vast Aird and Loch Ness ward.

He has carved out a reputation as a solid and hard-working ward councillor who took the battle to the previous Independent, Lib Dem and Labour administration.

Little over a year ago he replaced John Finnie, who became a regional SNP MSP, as the party’s group leader.

The coalition has a bulging in-tray including issues such as the controversial Inverness bypass decision, the multi-million-pound Wick schools project and the long-term options for the Stromeferry bypass.

He refuses to comment on any of the issues until the new committee structure is agreed at a meeting in Inverness next week(Thurs 28.5).

Its programme of policies is also imminent, with some including a “living wage” for low-paid council staff and the resurrection of area committees among the headline commitments.

When the latter pledge was announced by the SNP in February, Lib Dem Councillor David Alston openly ridiculed it and claimed it would cost an extra £1 million and mean employing up to 40 middle managers to staff the meetings.

Not so, insists Councillor Hendry, who says no extra costs will be incurred or staff employed, maintaining it has been worked out in detail.

Councillor Hendry’s employment background is in retail and manufacturing, having worked for the Swedish electrical firm Electrolux in Edinburgh.

He worked his way up to director level, which saw him dealing with a number of European factories, and was also employed as the Scottish sales manager.

Having spent a lot of time in the Highlands, he and wife Jackie moved north in 1999, settling in Tore on the Black Isle.

He set up a company called Teclan, which provides sales and other support for businesses using the internet. Clients range from sole traders to large European firms.

The Inverness-based firm employs eight people and Councillor Hendry takes a back seat to concentrate on his public role, but says his background can help him in the coalition.

“I think having worked with people across Europe it will help me to understand what we need to do externally and internally,” he says.

“I have worked from the shop floor to the boardroom and have got a good feel for the different demands and needs of employers. But a council is a very different place from a business. We have to remember all the time we are dealing with outcomes for people and not a balance sheet – it is people’s lives being affected by the decisions.”

It has been a whirlwind few weeks for the broad-shouldered councillor who has a rugby prop’s build but prefers football. The Hearts supporter travelled to see his team thrash city rivals Hibs in the Scottish Cup final last weekend (19.5) to continue his memorable May.

The 47-year-old still sports an impressive “doorstep tan” from the election campaign trail but admits he is keen to get away for a short family break.

Long hours are the nature of the job. “It has been full on for the last couple of weeks,” says the leader, who will draw a £28,410 salary.

Tensions are bound to surface in the coalition, which holds a relatively slim majority, while the Independents have vowed to mount a strong opposition to any unpopular policies.

He says the parties have a system in place which will flag up potential disagreements early on to iron out conflict.

Councillor Hendry extends the olive branch to the Independents and says it is “very understandable” they are angry. “They wanted to form the administration but couldn’t find a partner. I am hopeful that once the dust settles those in opposition will emerge to work together for the benefit of the Highlands. The door will be open.”

Finally, what key attributes does a council leader need?

“A sense of humour, having a clear focus on the decisions at hand and being available for constituents,” he says. “I hope that in five years’ time people will be able to look back and think we did a good job and took the lead for the Highlands.”

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