With the last of the Edinburgh Labour councillors who won power in 1984 about to stand down, I’m reminded of their slogan at the time proudly painted on the side of council vehicles: “Improving Services, Creating Jobs”. That seems like a hundred years ago now.
Tens of thousands of jobs have been cut in Scottish local government. We have not lost a vast army of bureaucrats, we have lost people.
People who are home carers, cleaners, janitors and trading standards officers. They deliver child protection, fostering and adoption, public health, cleansing, residential homes, housing, licensing, community safety, libraries and all the other things we often forget local councils provide.
Edinburgh has around 18,000 employees. Most of them — about 10,000 workers — need protection of vulnerable groups clearance to do their jobs. That’s how many provide direct services to children and vulnerable adults.
And after all the redundancies, the workers left behind find their jobs becoming impossible as they are forced to do more and more with fewer resources. It is them that get the anger from the public, not the politicians.
A survey by UNISON of home care members last month found that nearly half of them said they worked longer than their contracted hours so they could provide the service.
That’s how services are muddling through the cuts. Not by brave stances by politicians but by workers on the ground working above and beyond.
Integration of local authority care services with NHS services in joint boards we are told is the answer – but it has no chance of success unless it can magically reinstate the millions they have cut from home care budgets.
But the problem is not just about cuts. It is about local democracy. It is about accountability. It is about the people who rely on local services having a fighting chance of being able to have their say on how those services are delivered.
That is under threat too. Education – the service we all use at some time - is on the verge of being taken away from the direct control of councils and local people.
It is being spun as giving more power to head teachers but we already have lots of devolved school management. It is not about giving power, it is about taking power away from local communities and local councils and centralising it into some kind of regional structures.
And a bit like Donald Trump’s Mexican wall, the plan is that local government will actually pay for it, with £100 million raised locally in council tax being taken away from councils to spread across the country.
Breaking the link between local taxation and local spending and local services would be another nail in the coffin of local democracy.
This centralisation is nothing new of course. The centralised police force was set up in full knowledge of the VAT problem. £76 million is going on VAT so far, instead of going on services.
The centralised fire service now paying out £10 million in VAT and losing 1,000 jobs.
Local control centres lost, leaving overworked call handlers and the loss of key local knowledge in emergencies.
And it may be that joint health a social care services will improve joined up working. But if they don’t, you’ve lost the ability to do very much about it because your direct link to your local councillor with their direct link to the management of the services has gone.
So instead of centralising. Instead of tinkering with systems and reorganising and creating chaos and upheaval every few years, how about looking seriously about how we finance local services in a sustainable way?
How about looking at the 95 old and new PFI schemes (yes there are new ones under a different name) and doing something about the £35 billion in unitary payments?
How about having a hard look at the monitoring of these contracts? How about refinancing them at cheaper rates?
How about a fairer council tax that makes sure everyone pays their fair share?
And how about rejecting austerity, investing in services, building jobs, building communities and building the tax base that will ensure the decent public services Scotland has always aspired to?
All that and more can be done with powers that exist and are to come. But it will only happen if we can engage with each other as trade unions and communities to back the politicians willing to make that change – and pressurise and lean on that ones that aren’t.
"That this conference of the People's Assembly Scotland condems the Scottish Government overseeing the deep cuts in local government funding which has resulted in loss of tens of thousands of jobs.
This Conference welcomes the all Scotland Conference called by the STUC on 14th October which can greatly assist in building such a movement.
These and other proposals in the composite could transform the situation faced by councils if they were backed by a mass movement of unions and communities.
give more flexibility to councils in the use of capital budgets.unfreeze the Council Tax.
unburden Councils from PPP and PFI debt arrangements.an amnesty on the repayment of pre Scotland Act debts by Scottish Councils.
The trade union movement needs to develop a strategy to address the crisis in local government, a strategy which should include the demands as laid out in composite J at the 2016 STUC which included:
Conference calls for a protocol committing the Scottish Government and Scotland's councils to reject austerity, consider changes to council finance mechanisms and rebuild democratically controlled council services which meets community need.
This would be based on a committment to a public sector ethos, local democracy, ethical care and a bottom up service design.
Conference believes that such a strategy can succeed if backed by the mobilisation of workers and their communities to take part in days of action in protest against the attacks on local government jobs, service provision, and local democracy .
Conference recognises that such councillors will need broad based support to provide that leadership which requires to be built at grassroot level involving local trades unions branches, trade union councils, along with community groups, and coordinated through the STUC and affiliates at national level.
Conference believes we should be seeking to reinvest in local authorities to provide vital jobs in our communities with decent pay, pensions, terms and conditions and equal pay. The job of councillors who oppose austerity, be it from Westminster or Holyrood, is to demonstrate political leadership.