Conversations for Change were a series of online discussions hosted by SANE and Enough! during the first lockdown of the Covid 19 pandemic. Their aim was to bring groups together from across Glasgow coming together to learn about each other’s work, share any agendas or developments in relation to COVID-19 and to begin to explore together whether there was value in trying to establish a broader alliance of groups to work together to push for change as a result of this crisis. We knew that during the crisis many organisations would not only be actively involved on the front lines, directly responding to the needs of our most vulnerable, but would also be developing their demands for how to build a stronger society from this.
There was no fixed agenda but during each Conversation participating groups were encouraged to get to know each other’s work, invited to talk about the implications of Covid-19 for their organisation. The appetite for working together for radical change was explored. The process helped to build connections across a range of organisations but a key concern quickly emerged about the composition and aims of the Glasgow City Council Post Pandemic Economic Recovery Group.
An open letter to the leader of the Council reflected the desire for greater democracy in the city and a willingness to contribute the expertise of civil society within Glasgow. The Conversations also sowed the seeds for a Peoples Plan for Glasgow as a radical alternative.
Open Letter to Susan Aitkin, Leader of Glasgow City Council, (1 June, 2020)
The signatories to the letter were:
Commonweal, Commonweal Glasgow, Divest Strathclyde, Enough (Scotland), Get Glasgow Moving, Glasgow Eco-Trust, Feminist Exchange Network, Peoples Health Movement Scotland, Alison Phipps OBE, Professor of Languages and Intercultural Studies Glasgow University, Planning Democracy, Propagate, REPAIREL CIC, The Common Good Awareness Project, The Peoples Bank of Govanhill, The S.A.N.E. Collective
We hope you are safe and well during these unprecedented and challenging times. We welcome Glasgow City Council (GCC) in establishing the COVID 19 Economic Recovery Group, to consider how Glasgow begins to recover – and very importantly – renews from the pandemic.
However, we have significant concerns regarding the COVID-19 Economic Recovery Group’s ability to provide advice which will deliver the profound and radical changes needed to ensure the well-being of all Glasgow residents in an uncertain future.
We have identified and detailed two main challenges:
- Scope and Remit: This should be more ambitious, systemic and progressive by including broader perspectives, which go beyond a narrow and traditional framing of economic recovery centred on growth. To respond to the unprecedented challenges that we face from the COVD-19 pandemic and the climate and ecological emergencies, an economic recovery should be just and sustainable.
- Composition and Process: This critical process has been removed from the people it primarily impacts. It should enable and facilitate the people of Glasgow to contribute and participate in the renewal of their city – a resident-led participatory process.
If GCC really believes that its PEOPLE MAKE GLASGOW then we encourage it to let its people lead the way in shaping its future. There is no group of experts who can better understand what Glasgow needs and who, we know, will be working in the best interests of everyone.
In light of these considerations, we call on GCC to dissolve the current COVID-19 Economic Recovery Group and replace it with a resident-led participatory process, whose remit will make binding recommendations on achieving the collective well-being of all residents of Glasgow, within planetary boundaries. The expertise of the Economic Recovery Group members and others can still make a valuable contribution to a process which has resident involvement at its centre, from the start.
We offer our support and willingness to be in dialogue and work together with GCC on the development of this process.
The situation demands urgency, but we believe getting the future right is more important than speed. Substantial expertise on participatory processes, a highly committed and engaged Glasgow civil society sector and a significant amount of policy knowledge from across sectors and perspectives already exist in Scotland. By building from this, Glasgow City Council is well positioned to enable and collaborate in a truly transformative process for this city.
The COVID-19 pandemic has already changed peoples’ lives immeasurably. There is a powerful sense that Glaswegians want and need something different. Ensuring a just, fair, and sustainable response to this crisis is the biggest responsibility and challenge we have collectively faced in decades. The depth of the economic crisis we now face means that making economic growth the driver of recovery will only result in the same uneven outcomes for the people who live here that we have been witnessing for decades.
We urge Glasgow City Council to exercise bravery, leadership and creativity in calling upon and trusting the people of Glasgow to shape our collective future. We ask, if not now, when will we Let Glasgow Flourish?
Response from Susan Aitkin, Leader of Glasgow City Council, (June 2020)
Thank you for your letter, which contains much of interest. It also reflects much of the existing thinking and activity that has been taking place within Glasgow City Council and the city’s wider networks over the past three years. However, it also contains a number of misconceptions and misunderstanding which I’ll address in this response.
I agree entirely that traditional models of economic growth have not served the needs of Glasgow’s most deprived communities nor shifted the stubborn statistics around low skills and high levels of health inequality which have long been among the main perpetuators of poverty in the city. That is why, over the past three years, there has been a concerted effort to embed new ways of working in economic development – both within the Council and our partners – which focus on reducing inequality, improving health, promoting fair work and maximising opportunities for citizens who have previously been excluded from accessing them. The term we have used to describe our strategy has been Inclusive Growth, however it could just as easily be described as Wellbeing Economics or any of the other terms that have emerged to describe broadly similar approaches. More recently, these priorities have been supplemented and underpinned by our commitment to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2030 and the need to not only transition to a low carbon economic model, but to also ensure that transition is a just one, from which our most disadvantaged communities are able to reap the benefits.
This overarching strategy is guided by a number of pieces of work on specific areas of activity, many of which are already embedded in our practice, others of which are works in progress. Some examples of these include: a Social Enterprise Strategy and Action Plan, coproduced with the sector; a restructuring of our internal procurement and tendering processes to support local SMEs, social enterprises and third sector-led businesses; the development and application of an Inclusive Growth Diagnostic, which identified the economic development investments and interventions which deliver the biggest impact and benefit for the most deprived citizens; and the report of the Connectivity Commission, which has provided a template for transport policy and infrastructure as an enabler for social justice and an inclusive economy across the Glasgow city region. The Council’s Climate Emergency Action Plan, which will be published shortly and which contains many elements of work which are already underway, in some cases for many years, will form another key supporting plank of the overall strategic approach.
In addition, over the past 18 months, through our Participatory Budgeting work, we have piloted and resourced the development of Citizen’s Panels, supported by local anchor organisations. The first four of these were situated in the electoral wards which had the highest levels of overall poverty; the highest levels of child poverty; the biggest population of people aged under 18; and the largest BAME population. Each panel set its own priorities and have not only directed Council spend in those areas, but have also identified wider policy approaches which are already being adopted and implemented. The establishment of such panels is not a quick process nor without challenge if they are to be more than lip service, however the lessons learned from the pilot have demonstrated that they provide a viable model for long term, meaningful citizen engagement and community empowerment. In our 20/21 budget, we provided resource for one of these panels to be established in every ward in the city and part of our planning in the weeks ahead will look at how can accelerate the work to put these in place.
None of this work is mutually exclusive. It all forms part of an overarching City Government and Council strategy focused on reducing inequalities, enhancing wellbeing and reaching net zero carbon emissions.
The establishment of the Glasgow Economic Recovery Group did not emerge from a vacuum, therefore, but from a well-established strategic approach by the Council and our partners over the past three years. Nor is it the entirety of our response. In fact it’s only one stream of our work and as well as the Sustainable Glasgow and Social Recovery and Renewal groups, we are also working to a strategy which considers how the Council gets up and running in a way that’s safe for our staff and is financially secure and how we enable citizens to access our services in the new world we will be in for the foreseeable future.
The membership of GERG is also primarily drawn from an existing economic partnership ecosystem: the Glasgow Economic Leadership (GEL) Board, which was established in 2008; the Glasgow Partnership for Economic Growth (GPEG); and the Commission for Urban Economic Growth, which advises the City Region Cabinet and member local authorities and which has been instrumental in helping develop strategies and measures for inclusive and wellbeing-focused growth. That is why it is incorrect for you to state that GCVS were a ‘late addition;’, for example: GCVS have been represented on GPEG since its establishment in 2017 and are members of the GERG in that capacity. Not were the STUC a late addition; they were invited at the same time as other representatives but have regrettably not yet responded, though I hope that our efforts to engage them will result in trade union representation before long. The Terms of Reference are currently in draft form and will be signed off shortly, which is why they are not yet published, but the purpose of the group outlined in them is very straightforward: To provide strategic advice to support the city’s efforts to maximise resilience during and economic recovery following the Covid-19 pandemic.
The work of this particular group is intended to be primarily focused on delivery, determining how to most effectively mobilise partners at community, city, regional and national level to accelerate work already planned or underway, reflecting the critical need to respond rapidly to the emergency we now face, and identifying key asks of national and UK governments. There are decisions and actions which must be taken now in order to ensure that people have jobs to go back to after this and it is the role of democratically elected politicians to ensure this happens.
I also disagree that the existence of the GERG, the Sustainable Glasgow board and the forthcoming Social Recovery Group constitute a ‘siloed approach’. In fact, the opposite is the case. All of these groups are chaired by senior members of the City Government and it is that democratic leadership that will ensure that all of this work not only coordinates with and complements but actively advances the policies for inclusive economics, decarbonisation and empowered communities and citizens which are at the heart of the manifesto that the City Government was elected on. We have always understood these aims to be indivisible. The Covid-19 pandemic and resulting economic emergency only adds more urgency to our determination to transform the life chances and outcomes of Glasgow’s most disadvantaged citizens and communities.
The work of the GERG and Sustainable Glasgow and the establishment of the Social Recovery Group is pressing and will continue at pace. Simultaneously, implementation of the citizen-led engagement with policy and resource allocation within Glasgow’s communities that we have already been embedding across the city will be accelerated in response to the emergency we now face.
Councillor Susan Aitken
Reply to Susan Aitkin, Leader of Glasgow City Council (19 August 2020)
Dear Councillor Aitken,
We thank you for replying to our letter of June 1st 2020. We have now had an opportunity to discuss your response.
We are heartened and reassured at the concern of GCC about the impact of the Covid-19 crisis for the residents of Glasgow. We fully recognise that in facing a crisis of this severity that a primary motivation is ensuring there are jobs for the people of Glasgow. However, we would reiterate the main argument of our original letter – that the remedies that were proposed will not meet the scale of the challenge. Indeed, we note the Covid-19 Glasgow City Region Economic Response proposals which appear enormously complex, confusing and hark back to the pre-Covid 19 era and not to the present crisis.The scale of the challenge we are now facing – both due to Covid and to climate breakdown – demands transformational thinking and action and, we believe, this will not be delivered through the process currently in development.
We restate our belief that the best way to deliver transformational change for the city is by instigating an inclusive and participatory process for the people of Glasgow to shape their own future. This process should aim towards the creation of a more equitable society within the planetary limits and where the economy serves society. The argument for using ‘inclusive growth’ as a means of achieving this aim is not supported by evidence. Most recently in the Final Report by Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights. We further highlight that ‘inclusive growth’ does not form part of the wellbeing economy family. Wellbeing economics is one of a range of alternative economic models which de-prioritise the pursuit of economic growth as a way to achieve social objectives. In practice, we believe this means that Glasgow should place the social recovery at the centre of moving forward, enabled by a participatory process, with economic recovery in support. Models like community wealth building, donut economics, wellbeing economics, resilience economics and post-growth and degrowth thinking provide rich and robust theory and practice to build from.
In the pandemic, it was community based mutual aid which really delivered – with some support from the Council it must be recognised – and this is the model the Council should focus on. The economic recovery must be overseen by the social recovery and the social recovery overseen by the community as a whole, and in particular those active groups who have delivered during the pandemic. There is a breadth of alternative knowledge and visionary thinking which exists out with the GERG to be drawn upon.
We know that what we are proposing is an entirely new way of working for the Council but that is what is needed. We agree that the types of process we outline require significant work. We would argue that transforming Glasgow to respond to the biggest challenges of our times warrants this effort. We would welcome the opportunity to be in conversation to shape the direction of recovery plans in Glasgow. Further, the organisations who have signed up to the letter will continue to develop their own proposals which will involve communities and will be examining and analysing emerging plans as they relate to these. We will be sharing this widely in order to engage as many people as possible. We appreciate your time in considering our perspectives and look forward to your response.