Ewan Aitken is a man on a mission

Ewan aitken

The former-Edinburgh council leader and current head of Cyrenians says there is a positive future for collaboration between local authorities and the third sector 

Paul Cardwell's photo

21st August 2014 by Paul Cardwell 0 Comments

The third sector should collaborate more and work with local authorities rather than berating them according to Cyrenians’ chief executive Ewan Aitken.

Aitken who took over at the poverty and homelessness charity in May told TFN he has spent the first few months in his new role meeting over 40 different organisations to get a feel of what is happening in the sector.

After being repeatedly told austerity is truly hurting society he is now calling on the sector to take a new approach when it comes to working together and funding projects in a bid to deliver for those who are most excluded and vulnerable.

“All the signs are that people are in more and more difficult places and see less and less ways out,” he said. 

“We ourselves are seeing increased demand for our services for food, for support, for family conflict and our recovery services.

Councils cannot pay for the services they used to pay for but they have some money and we need to look at a different way of approaching that

“Councils cannot pay for the services they used to pay for but they have some money and we need to look at a different way of approaching that.”

Aitken who left City of Edinburgh Council in 2012 after more than a decade as a councillor, gets the relationship between the third sector and local authorities. He  is, however, critical of council methods such as competitive tendering models which undermine the capacity to collaborate, and is calling for a shift to a model where the sector suggests solutions to problems to councils. In exchange, the third sector has to understand what councils can bring to the table rather than demanding they just pay for it all.

“The third sector has got that creative capacity but we have got to be willing to take some risks to genuinely collaborate and approach councils,” says Aitken who has already begun discussions with potential partners in local authorities.

“We’ve got a journey to go to make it a reality but people are up for it and that is very exciting. I’m already enthusiastic about this job but I am even more enthusiastic now I’ve had these conversations.”

Aitken, who is also a Church of Scotland minister, left City of Edinburgh Council to lead the Church of Scotland’s Church and Society Council but was tempted back into politics to run against Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill in the 2011 Scottish Parliament election in East Edinburgh. 

Next month’s referendum, he says, is hampering progress for the third sector with many unwilling to commit to projects due to the air of uncertainty over Scotland’s constitutional future.

Whatever the outcome, Aitken believes there will be major opportunities for the sector post-18 September.

I think the public sector will still be trying to work out what to do about the outcome of the vote whatever it is

“We are in unchartered waters and there is a role for the third sector to be providing some leadership in that time. 

“I think the public sector will still be trying to work out what to do about the outcome of the vote whatever it is. 

“The eye will be elsewhere and therefore we need to say what culture we want in the third sector and the relationship between the third sector and the public sector and understand how we can deliver particularly for those who are most excluded and vulnerable.”

As well as his political and Church of Scotland background, Aitken has a wealth of experience in the third sector.

He is the chair of BBC Children in Need Scotland, on the board of the Edinburgh International Science Festival and particularly passionate about issues of social justice.

Like any new chief executive, Aitken has brought ideas from his former roles as well an enthusiasm to stamp his own personality on the sector but still finds time to praise his predecessors.

He replaces Carol-Anne Alcorn who carried out the role of interim chief executive following the sudden death of Des Ryan in April last year.

Ryan’s “powerful legacy is a platform to build on” Aitken added, ensuring the Cyrenians, with its history of creating third sector solutions to social problems, can take advantage of the opportunities ahead and play a leading role in creating a new  social system, where the lines between public, private and third sectors become far less distinct.