Powerful Communities can put a halt to “Community Empowerment”
Back at the end of 2018 stories started to circulate about the future of Whitehill Pool in Dennistoun. Over the next few months details of properties owned and managed by Glasgow Life that were being “reviewed” emerged, and the local people and users of the pool began a highly successful community campaign in support of the pool and other local sports facilities. In the years since, Whitehill Pool has secured investment and has been guaranteed a future. Glasgow City Council will tell you that this is a story that shows the local campaigners were wrong, that it wasn’t going to close. The reality is that the reverse is true, the council wouldn’t dare close the place after the organised campaign demonstrated that the local people wouldn’t accept it. Last year, when we emerged from the first lockdown, some libraries were re-opening, some were delaying opening because of COVID restrictions, and others were being “reviewed” with no promise of ever re-opening. A highly visible grassroots campaign began in Pollokshields to protect their local library, meeting outside the closed building to make art, banners and to read books. And here we are again, the threat of closure or asset transfer hangs over dozens of community facilities while Glasgow City Council (GCC) and Glasgow Life (GL) have this annual dance around the Council budget and the GL property portfolio.
Essentially, this dance is about a shortfall in budget. GL operate each year with a flat service fee from GCC and the revenue derived from the operation of their venues. Roughly, each year GL’s books show an income of around £120M and outgoings of much the same. This £120M is made up of two thirds from the service fee (around £80M) and one third (£40M) from their own income. The result of the pandemic is that they have had little or no revenue and are £40M short. About half of this has been covered by schemes such as furloughing staff and the fight is about whether GCC will give GL the shortfall or, indeed, whether the Scottish Government will give GCC the money to plug the gap. The difference between this and any other council Department in Glasgow, or most leisure and cultural services provided by councils elsewhere, is the existence of Glasgow Life.
Glasgow Life was set up in 2006 by Glasgow City Council. They were a private company, wholly-owned by the Council, who then became a registered charity the following year, 2007. It is what is known as an ‘Arm’s Length External Organisation’ (ALEO). Like housing stock transfer from council-owned to independent housing associations, it was very much in vogue at the time and part of what New Labour called “modernisation”. But this is not the argument that many would like us to be having, they would prefere a narrative where one party is the baddie and the other blameless. It is not about whether Labour or SNP are to blame, that is not the debate here. It is still the tactic today, continued on, whoever has been in charge at Holyrood, Westminster or George Square. It is what David Cameron called “The Big Society” and what the Scottish Government call Community Empowerment.
The Community Empowerment Act, on the face of it, acknowledged great campaigns such as Govanhill Baths, the land buy-outs in Islands and other examples of the community taking control of unused space or taking over what had been privately owned land, turning it to community use. It purported to be a charter for increasing localised democracy. But what it started was a deliberate strategy to do this, not as a model for situations that arise where community ownership is desired and appropriate, but as the norm. The emergence of the “People Make Glasgow Communities” strategy, as a potential way of outsourcing services to the third sector, is the direct outcome of the Community Empowerment Act 2015 .
Backroom deals negotiated over a hot property portfolio are the exact opposite of Community Empowerment. In fact, the creation of these ‘arms-length’ companies, the transfer of the housing stock and other such moves dramatically disempower the population, taking away one of the few tools of power that they have, their vote. Previously the council and its councillors could be held to account every 4 years at the ballot box. Now, if the housing stock is shit, your councillor isn’t held responsible, they are ‘on your side’ and will write a letter to the Housing Association but, ultimately, they will tell you it is “out of their hands”. A main selling point of the Community Empowerment Act was the proposed “participatory budgeting” yet here we are, locked outside, our “participation” limited to placards, petitions and social media.
There are times when Community ownership is the right model for a specific project and times when a partnership between the council and a local third sector group works. But imagining that this model will work automatically, when it didn’t evolve from the local circumstances, is not backed by evidence. Places like The Hidden Gardens in Pollokshields or Malls Mire woodland in Toryglen are good examples of the latter, Govanhill Baths being the perfect reminder of the former. Their community-owned and run Wellbeing Centre comes after 20 years of fighting and was the last resort for the campaign. The first 5 years was campaigning to stop the pool closing or pushing for the Council to re-open the place, only forming a Trust to bid for the building when GCC put the land and building up for sale to potential developers.
But trying to artificially create a demand for community control where none exists, to shoehorn a disparate group into a company to run these services and assets is a recipe for disaster. It is, in effect, creating dozens of little unaccountable Glasgow Life’s, all costing more than it costs for the council to run them. The deficit in costs is ultimately met by reducing services, cutting opening hours and replacing paid workers with volunteers. Instead of 30 libraries HR, payroll and admin done in one place there are 30 little offices all tied up with the day to day paperwork and the constant, intense, fund-raising, always one year from potential closure. Thirty little Glasgow Life’s all negotiating against the threat of closure year-on-year. The responsibility placed on individuals to maintain such a project where there was no visible community support to start with can be crippling.
The safest, most secure and most democratically accountable model for ownership and management of these facilities is for it to be done in-house by the GCC.
The excuse for “a review” is often that these facilities are under-used, that they don’t have the numbers to make it viable. The facilities with less demand, less usage, need MORE help and need to be overseen and underwritten by the Council. They don’t take this attitude with minority languages, they don’t do it to Opera. In those cases they would agree with me, that the lack of use is evidence that it needs more subsidy in order that the minority get a full service.
Of course, there is an election on, which is why it is likely that a solution will be found in the short-term. But that election also means that false opposition and partisan positions of support will pollute the debate. We should not let that distract us. Doing this during an election period IS a great example of community empowerment, the vocal outcry will stop any closures – because they don’t want to lose votes. But make no mistake, it doesn’t end here, we need to be wary of losing assets over the coming years. GL have 14 facilities where they want to transfer ownership to a community organisation that doesn’t currently exist, where no local groups have expressed a desire to do this. And, as we saw last year in Pollokshields or 2 years ago in Dennistoun, that list will always be there, our vital resources, at the heart of our communities, being used as a bargaining chip. Let’s do as the people in Kinning Park did 25 years ago, Govanhill did 20 years ago, as Dennistoun did 2 years ago, as Pollokshields, Whiteinch and Maryhill are doing right now. Say no. Tell them we will not accept this.
What can we do? Visit the Facebook and other online pages of groups who are fighting the closures. Glasgow Against Closures has information on all of the facilities that could be under threat now or in the future. They have an online petition online petition against all closures in the city. Search for and join the local group in your area. If there isn’t a local group, start one. Contact organisations like Living Rent Glasgow Trades Unions such as GMB, UNITE or UNISON. They will have activists in your area who will be organising or who will put you in touch with those who are. We will likely win this round. But what we do now prepares us for this in the future, strengthens our hand, and making our voices heard, forcing the councils to listen and respond, is far more empowering to communities than forming yet another community trust. As we say in Govanhill, united we will swim!