Glasgow: Putting the pieces of an alternative economy together
Glaswegians are unconventional and often disrespectful of power. But can they bring together the disparate pieces of the city’s emerging alternative economy and challenge the status quo?
‘All these planks somehow go together and make a boat. And that boat somehow can hold us, take us all on a voyage. The voyage of a busted-up community to a better future.’ Colin MacLeod
In a forgotten corner of Govan in Glasgow you can glimpse how regeneration could be if it was driven – not by spreadsheets and buildings – but by trust, empathy and strengthening the individual and collective agency of people.
Galgael is a social enterprise set up by Colin Macleod after his failed attempt as leader of the ‘Pollak Free State’ to stop the M77 motorway being constructed through the park in the neighbourhood he grew up in.
Here, in the former shipbuilding capital of the world, men – and some women – who are long-term unemployed, suffering from mental health problems or otherwise battered by life can come to learn the skills needed to build the traditional wooden boats that once sailed on the Clyde.
‘The old ways of doing things – paternalistic, centralised, focused on the
physical and financial – are no longer working for places like Glasgow’
MacLeod learnt his own woodworking craft among native Americans, and Galgael is imbued with the reconnection to land and to native culture that they taught him. When he died in 2005 at the age of 39, many who had railed against him as a protester celebrated his powers as a chieftain and community builder.
We don’t know what MacLeod would have to say about the Clyde Waterfront regeneration plans that are now transforming the city’s riverfront, but a recent report from the Centre for Population Health suggests such regeneration – big and distant from local needs – is doing more harm than good to the people of Glasgow.
History, politics and vulnerability: explaining excess mortality in Scotland and Glasgow is the latest attempt to try to understand why Scotland – and in particular Glasgow – have such high levels of ‘excess mortality’– rates of death that are above and beyond that which can be explained by socio-economic deprivation alone. The so-called ‘Glasgow effect’ is increasing and can be observed across all adult age groups in the country.
The new report suggests that the displacement of people from inner-city neighbourhoods from the 1970s onwards made Glasgow more vulnerable than similar post-industrial cities to poverty and deprivation. The city suffered more than places like Liverpool and Manchester, with larger-scale slum clearances, a greater emphasis on high-rise development and fewer protections for its citizens, the report said.
That the Commonwealth Games, held in the city in 2014, planned to include in its opening ceremony the demolition of the Red Road flats suggests that few of the mistakes of regeneration past have been learned. Typifying public policy of the 70s, the demolition of the Red Road flats was seen as symbolic of the city’s rebirth. But for those living in the neighbourhood, their destruction was seen as another example of regeneration ‘being done to them’.
And the motorways that now criss-cross Glasgow city centre and which Colin MacLeod and other citizens protested about have created a city with poor connectivity and outlying estates cut off from economic opportunities.
The silent crisis
Every post-industrial city has had its share of regeneration triumphs and blunders. What makes Glasgow stand out is what has become known as the ‘silent crisis’ – the fact that Scotland has the lowest levels of local democracy in the European Union. On every measure of local democracy – from turnout to ratio of councillors to citizens – Scotland comes bottom. Glaswegians die earlier than their counterparts in other post-industrial cities because their sense of control over their lives is so much lower, it is suggested. Trust in institutions is at rock bottom.
‘It’s a critical situation where local democracy is almost corrupt’ says Katie Gallogly-Swan, campaigns organiser at the Electoral Reform Society Scotland. ‘People are so disenfranchised. They feel completely powerless and apathetic to change.’
This sense of powerlessness has become normalised and can be felt more heavily in places like Govanhill, in the south of the city. Described by one commentator as the ‘Ellis Island of Scotland,’ Govanhill has been the landing spot for migrants to Scotland for centuries, from refugees from the Highland clearances to Irish immigrants in the 70s and eastern European and south Asians today. The most diverse area of the country, it is overcrowded, under-resourced and disenfranchised.
‘People are so disenfranchised. They feel
completely powerless and apathetic to change.’
When Glasgow council took the decision to close the local pool – Govanhill Baths – without consultation in 2001, the community fought back. The baths were occupied for five months, the longest occupation of a public building in British history. Now the building is run by the Govanhill Community Trust, which has recently been awarded heritage lottery funding to restore the baths to their former glory.
It was at Govanhill Baths that New Start, NEF and CLES held the final Activating Local Economic Alternatives event in May, bringing together local activists and practitioners in the city to discuss ways in which an alternative approach to the local economy could bear fruit and help communities like Govan and Govanhill, left behind in the dominant economic narrative, tell a different story about local success.
Telling a different story about the economy
The event was hosted by Small is Beautiful, an organisation set up to celebrate and discuss the growing ‘small’ economy of micro-businesses and sole traders, and how that fits with the pro-growth, ‘big’ narrative that dominates local economic development.
The struggle for any alternative vision of regeneration or local economics is how to tell its story and challenge the dominant narrative. The alternative economy – mapped through this Activating Alternative Local Economies project – is not a single idea but is made up of the small and the diverse, from artists to social enterprises, sole traders to community trusts, community cafés to digital start-ups. It also includes big anchor institutions like the NHS and progressive councils like Preston and Birmingham. How can all of these disparate people and organisations speak as one and set out a new narrative for our local economies?
Ben Wray from the Common Weal opened the event by setting out the challenge of the simplicity of the economic narratives that dominate – be that Tesco-isation or UKIP’s ‘local jobs for local people’.
‘Our story of local economies, of community spaces with dynamic innovative small businesses and the local multiplier effect has to be told within a bigger story of future of economy and the internet’, he said.
Revealing the ‘iceberg economy’
One attempt to join up and show the power of the alternative comes from the People’s Bank of Govanhill, set up by Ailie Rutherford during her time as artist-in-residence at the Govanhill Baths. Unlike local currencies such as the Bristol Pound, which Rutherford says are less relevant to communities with high levels of poverty, the People’s Bank taps into and reveals the ‘iceberg economy’, the much bigger set of exchanges that sit underneath the financial economy. Those exchanging Govanhill Notes do so according to their affordability; they can be exchanged in local shops and cafes and the Govanhill Theatre; are used to pay volunteers; and are a way of mapping the multitude of non-financial exchanges that make the area rich.
‘When people talk about an economy they generally mean profit-making businesses and paid work, those visible, financial aspects’, says Rutherford. ‘But underneath the visible part of the economy – the tip of the iceberg – is a much bigger set of exchanges that are not generally quantified but which make places work and people interconnect, from volunteering and sharing to self-sufficiency, mutual support and foraging.’
If the alternative approach to local economics is to challenge the dominant narrative, it needs to make visible and relevant that which is often hidden and seen as irrelevant – empathy, connection, mutual support and understanding. It needs to ‘name and nurture’ powerful local projects that often go under the radar and get lost amid media stigmatisation. It needs to demonstrate the importance of community and individual agency and challenge the mainstream system to do more than play lip service to organisations that build power and autonomy. It needs to show that the old ways of doing things – paternalistic, centralised, focused on the physical and financial – are no longer working for places like Glasgow.
Joining the dots of the alternative
The story of the alternative is in many ways still hidden in Glasgow – as it is in many cities – but put the pieces of the jigsaw together and you start to get a picture of something bigger than its individual parts. The plan for Glasgow to become Britain’s ‘biggest power station’ by creating a network of solar energy projects set up on derelict land. The community councils that could be the places that re-build local democracy. The work of Can Do Places and Test Towns, which help re-invent high streets and local areas through enterprise activity. The glimpse of how the city’s fragmented parts could become connected and vibrant, seen during the Commonwealth Games in 2014. Even the ‘empowerment pants’ of the city’s female empowerment network, MsMissMrs.
Can all these disparate parts somehow join together and lead this busted-up community to a better future? Can the council or a broader forum join the dots and create new structures and bases for the energy of the city’s people to coalesce and create?
As in each of the cities this project has visited, and with the current backdrop of political, economic and environmental crises, the words of Antonio Gramsci ring true: ‘the old is dying and the new cannot be born. In this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear’.
The pieces of the alternative economy are there, waiting to be joined together and brought to life.
We finish this article and this series of editions on alternative economic approaches from the ten core cities of the UK with the words of Jimmie Reid, the Glaswegian trade union activist who delivered this inaugural speech on alienation as rector of Glasgow university in 1972 and whose words still resonate today:
‘To measure social progress purely by material advance is not enough. Our aim must be the enrichment of the whole quality of life. It requires a social and cultural, or if you wish, a spiritual transformation of our country. A necessary part of this must be the restructuring of the institutions of government and, where necessary, the evolution of additional structures so as to involve the people in the decision-making processes of our society. The so-called experts will tell you that this would be cumbersome or marginally inefficient. I am prepared to sacrifice a margin of efficiency for the value of the people’s participation.’
- The final report on the ‘Activating Local Alternative Economies’ project, funded by Friends Provident Foundation, will be published in September
- Click on the links to read the editions from Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Newcastle, Sheffield, Leeds, Liverpool, Belfast, Glasgow.