By Penny Cole
Are filthy streets our biggest problem, really?
What is Glasgow’s biggest problem? If you read the papers recently you would think it is filth. Rat-infested filthy streets, where the council fails and the citizens show their indifference by chucking their rubbish on the ground. The red top tabloids have been piling in, with personal attacks on council leader Susan Aitken and whole pages of ratty pictures.
If only outright family destitution, the destruction of the safety net for the poorest in the city and the dismantling of the civic realm was getting as much attention from the media and from the Council itself. The complacent response of the Council – which in true politician style claimed there is no problem and every city has rats – well it was pretty shocking wasn’t it? But the filthy streets are only a symptom of the continuing collapse of Glasgow’s civic realm. What many called a managed decline is rapidly taking the form of a crash, with terrible human consequences.
A report published in October 2020 by Barnardo’s says that Scottish family support services are now seeing families experiencing absolute destitution – no food, no secure housing, no heating and exclusion from social life. Parents’ mental health and family relationships are suffering, in fact mental health services are overwhelmed. Cuts in social work services and closures of community-based support, the rolling out of universal credit and the sanctions regime are destroying the economic stability of an increasing number of families. The report is based on research in 2019 – before the pandemic. The situation now is dramatically worse.
Glasgow had 5,262 homeless households in 2019/20 and though required by law to offer homeless households at least temporary accommodation, the Council did not do so on 3,835 occasions. They told researchers that child poverty costs $400m a year. We might be forgiven for thinking it might be better just to take the money and divide it up between the families.
Labour and Tory politicians on the council are joining in with the failed council, filthy streets mantra. But Glasgow’s problems are not party political – or not only party political – they have their root in the neoliberal, market-driven practices that have been unchallengeable local policy for 3 decades. Labour should recall that it was on their watch that a dirty deal was made with the unions that embedded unequal pay which the SNP administration had to resolve. And they were responsible for the establishment of the ALEOs, including Glasgow Life which has presided over the destruction of the City’s cultural and community facilities.
It was under the Tory government that a local government reorganisation hived off most of the City’s wealthiest areas into faked-up new local authorities like East Dunbartonshire and East Renfrewshire. These areas continue to benefit from Glasgow’s jobs, services and infrastructure but their citizens are paying Council tax somewhere else. It was an act of financial vandalism.
After the devastation of industrial Glasgow in the 1970s successive governments and local authorities have viewed the city’s public realm as an extended event space and visitor attraction, a starry-eyed vision following on from the success of the Garden Festival and the City of Culture. The highest paid official of the council is not its chief executive but the head of the conference and marketing etc.
Not to say that there are no new business developments. Between 1998 and 2001 the city’s financial services developed rapidly and that continues with the entry of giants like Barclays, JP Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, HBOS and others to massive new builds in the City Centre. In order to attract this kind of business, cheap or free land, public subsidies and development grants have been demanded by corporations so wealthy they could buy and sell the city council wholesale. The other big growth area is education with the three universities etc. But in each case the City has had to reshape itself to suit these businesses (you have to include the universities as businesses). Overall, this has diverted land, funds and the Council’s focus away from citizens to corporations. This reshaping has had the effect of reducing the importance and the “human hours” the council devotes to the City’s people. Glasgow has suffered the highest percentage of cuts of any area in Scotland. This has made it impossible for the Council to really get to grips with poverty and inequality.
So if there’s nothing you can do except manage the decline of social and community services, it is not surprising that the council’s focus turns to those areas where it can claim success. The real failure of the SNP administration is not the filthy streets nor the lack of new social housing nor the focus on low-paid jobs. It is their total failure of imagination and passion to start shaping the city for the benefit of the population and not the corporations. That decision to continue on the road set out by the previous Labour administration and of course successive SNP governments at Holyrood, is the main reason why the SNP administration deserves no support. But voting for either of the opposition parties in May 2022 would be to jump out of the frying pan into the fire. We need to develop a radical municipalist movement to jump the neoliberal track, refocusing and regenerating local democracy by the people, for the people.