Next week’s local elections have more or less disappeared into the morass of general election coverage and tedious referendum speculation.
The Tories, not unreasonably, believe they can improve their standing in the former by pointing to the threat of the latter. The Nationalists, having set the hare running, don’t now know how to stop it even though it has developed a distinct limp.
Voices seeking to focus on other matters find difficulty in being heard. Even those who suspect the Nationalists might do less well than assumed next Thursday attribute that to the unpopularity of Ms Sturgeon’s referendum zeal rather than her administration’s atrocious treatment of local government.
That’s a pity. The statistics which matter need not be divined from opinion polls but should start from two hard facts. First, since 2010 and the era of “austerity” budgets, the Scottish Government’s resources have increased in real terms by 0.4 per cent. Second, in the same period, the Scottish Government has cut the allocation to councils by 19.4 per cent.
These are not difficult figures to understand and are the Scottish Government’s own. They are considerably more difficult to defend, if anyone took the trouble to prosecute them. It remains a mystery why so little effort has been made to put them at the centre of public attention since so much else flows from them.
For starters, they make a mockery of the SNP’s campaign pledge to “protect local services” by “stopping them falling into the hands of the Tories”. If anyone can provide an explanation of how receiving a marginally increased budget equates to wicked austerity while cutting the money to those who deliver the said services by nearly a fifth represents “protecting” anything, I would be interested to hear it.
The Nationalists do not deserve an enhanced local mandate – not solely or mainly due to their referendum fixation but as a rejection of their treatment of councils and the services they provide. That, in turn, is part of a much wider centralising agenda which consistently transfers powers and resources to Scotland-wide bodies, closer to Ministerial control.
Local government is much maligned but by any reasonable measure delivers a more reliable and recognisable job for its electorate than any higher tier of policy-making. Most of it goes unreported but that does not make it any less significant. On the contrary, much of the stuff of headlines is, by comparison, trivial and marginal in its impact on people’s daily lives.
Much of the creativity in politics arises at local level because those responsible are motivated by a desire to do what is best for the places in which they live. Local politics is not an abstraction which might, hypothetically, deliver great benefits at some point in the future. Councillors know their own communities and, overwhelmingly, have a real desire to make them better places to live in.
In that spirit, I will dwell on one example of the difference a good local authority can make and which would never, never come from a centralised Scotland-wide approach to local regeneration. I refer to the effort by Renfrewshire Council to have Paisley designated as the UK’s City of Culture in 2021. The bid will be lodged today along with ten others, including Perth.
Paisley is a classic example of a post-industrial town which has not had its troubles to seek. Its wealth was built on textiles with mills employing tens of thousands. One by one, they closed until the industry disappeared altogether by the 1990s, along with other major employers. Meanwhile, a massive shopping development was established at Braehead and Paisley’s town centre went into freefall.
Parts of Paisley have among the highest deprivation rates in Scotland. So who would think of promoting Paisley as a “city of culture”? Well, the answer is “a good local authority” and the same kind of visionaries who saw the benefits of winning transformational designations for Glasgow in the past and, more recently, won City of Culture status for ostensibly unpromising places like Derry and Hull. In other words, not national politicians but local councils.
Scrape the surface and Paisley’s bid becomes more comprehensible, building on strengths that would scarcely be recognised outside the community itself. Its town centre has Scotland’s second-highest concentration of listed buildings, behind only Edinburgh and numbering 111. Its museum holds a stunning collection based on Paisley’s textile heritage and is central to the overall bid.
Paisley is using the bid as a means of redefining the town centre as a hub for creative industries. The council believe their approach to regeneration can show the way for many other towns facing similar challenges. In this way, the local authority is looking to the future while at the same time delivering the services on which its poorest people rely most – and all against the backdrop of a 20 per cent funding cut.
I got to know a bit about the Paisley bid because, wearing my Harris Tweed hat, we are working with them to revive historic synergies between the two textile traditions. As a result, I have become even more convinced than before that by far the most effective way of making a real difference to struggling Scottish communities is to pass more powers and resources down to local levels – not by taking them away as is happening at present. It is true in islands, towns and cities. That should be the underlying issue next Thursday, yet it is barely spoken of.
Can that be changed in the last week? Never mind worrying about television debates around the general election. What exposure has there been to the competing visions for our cities and districts? Virtually none. What attempt has there been to hold Ministers accountable for these massive funding cuts? Virtually none. What credit has been given to councils, like Renfrewshire, which is facing challenges with a degree of creativity that makes Holyrood look like a backwater? None at all.
Next Thursday, local government should be judged on its merits in each of Scotland’s 32 council areas. If that is applied, the one certainty is that the winners will not be the political party which has robbed councils of one-fifth of their budgets and now claims the right to exploit the consequences.