Q & A with Frank McAveety: Leader of Glasgow Council
Frank McAveety became leader of Glasgow council last year for the second time in his career. After almost 30 years in public life in the city, he talks to New Start about solving the ‘Glasgow effect’ and dealing with ‘referendumitis’.
Q: What are the particular challenges of Glasgow’s economy?
A: One of the challenges Glasgow will always have is its location in the UK. How does Glasgow assert its unique character economically in a relatively small country in which it dominates, with 40% of Scotland’s population in the greater Glasgow region? Even London doesn’t overwhelm the rest of England to the same extent.
There have also been two big economic dislocations for Glasgow – the oil prices in the 70s and the monetarist policies of the late 70s and 80s. Glasgow has tried to respond in different ways in each decade. One of the commitments of the past was about supporting developments in housing at a micro level. We pioneered the most radical housing association network in the UK and also founded food co-operatives.
‘What’s happened is that our cities and economies got
fractured and to respond to that we need to build partnerships’
Our knowledge economy is strong and 46.5% of our population has further and higher educational achievement. But the big challenge is that there is still a section of the population that we are not shifting into jobs. There have been endless programmes by national government and partnerships that are trying to help people who are one or two steps removed from labour market.
Q: There have been lots of studies into the Glasgow Effect, the particularly poor health statistics seen in the city compared to the rest of the UK. A recent report from the Centre for Population Health blames regeneration and the displacement of people in the city over decades. Do you agree?
A: Post war, Glasgow was very big and it created a number of New Towns, more than in other cities. The nature of those communities was different in each place – you had railway engineers in one part of the city, steelmaking in the east end and manufacturing in the north of the city, skilled engine workers in the south. Each was a well organised, well paid, trade unionised work place. Then we had the oil crisis in 1973 and monetarist policies did not favour the city and lots of people left from the New Towns. There is a myth that lots of poor, dispossessed people left; actually it was the best people who left.
When I first became councillor in the 1980s the first report I took home was the Grieve Report, which said that the problem with Glasgow is that it’s not retaining its population, its housing’s not fit for purpose, and its debt is killing it.
The Grieve Report was a kick up the backside. I became leader in 1997 and said we need to sort houses and schools and jobs and I’ve not changed from that. What’s happened is that our cities and economies have become fractured and to respond to that we need to build partnerships. We have four universities in the Glasgow city region and lots of intellectual capital. The economic leadership forum is led by a professor at Glasgow university.
The Glasgow Centre for Population Health’s key recommendations are to ensure that decision-makers at all levels are serious about either decentralising decision-making to get economic growth, or redistributing resources to prioritise areas of disadvantage.
Q: How has the Scottish independence referendum and discussions about constitution played out in the city?
A: We are doing an awful lot but always get preoccupied with questions of identity, asking are we Scottish, British or European? Over the last three to four years the political debate has been dominated by whether we want to stay in the UK or the EU, while the reality for most people is, “I’d quite like a job, I’d like to live in a place that I’m confident has a future”. It’s frustrating for those of us at a local level that feel we have some of the solutions and wish the national, political level could be more constructive. The Scottish Parliament now has no overall majority and the challenge for Scotland and the UK is how can we put together a genuine attempt to say we need to be a bit more radical and
‘We’ve been tied up with referendumitis.
Now we need to get back to reality.’
Q: How will austerity hit Glasgow?
A: Public spend will decline and there are only two answers: to change government, which is a hard thing to do; or to give powers at a local level to help economic growth so that the economy can grow and replenish and replace public sector spend. These questions are the great conundrum in public policy in the UK. European cities have a number of other levers – city mayors and tax raising powers and revenue generating benefits – and that’s a massive debate that the UK likes to talk about but never delivers on.
We’ve done community budgeting and it was such a success that we are going to extend it. I’m a great believer that ordinary people faced with the reality of options will try to find solutions. You can trust them but you have to be straight and you have to go in and listen. In many of the most challenging neighbourhoods, ordinary working people want a sense of ownership and greater control over their lives and want to make sure big institutions – health bodies and councils – are listening to them.
We also need to put all public sector budgets on the table and have a discussion about how best to use them. In health, acute services suck up money but the things people care about – primary care, support, after care – get squeezed. We see big hospital developments procured internationally – the Southern General was built by an Australian construction firm. We need to have a serious discussion about what we should invest in and how to turn public service contracts and developments into economic benefits for this economy. We also need to talk seriously about devolution.
Devolution is a fine and noble thing but its utterly meaningless if it stops at Edinburgh. It should be democratisation down to communities. Instead we’ve been tied up with referendumitis. Let’s get back to reality – local councils and the people’s experience of local government – that’s what impacts on people’s lives so let’s get that right.
Q: You experimented during the Commonwealth Games with a procurement policy focused on boosting the local economy. Can that be further extended in the city?
A: During the Commonwealth Games we worked with SME partners and a lot of those contracts were recycled into the local economy. Now we are looking at doing something similar with the city deal. We recently launched our procurement policy which includes investing in good quality employers and encouraging local staffing. We have 450 accredited Living Wage employers.
The big challenge is that national government has gone for a national procurement strategy. I think we need regional procurement strategies to take into account local markets and create supply chains that are interrelated. We are devolving resources from social work and health into the same budget and believe you work more effectively with social partnerships across the public and private sectors. If we are asking the local public sector to reform we have to allow those powers and resources to flow to allow variable decisions to be made.
Q: Whats happening with the city deal?
A: It has allowed us to frontload major investment infrastructure projects that would otherwise have taken 20 years. One of these is the Tontine building near Glasgow Cross – which is a development model for SMEs and small business incubators and new markets for technologies. It’s located in a place with a fascinating social history. It’s where the medieval church of Glasgow was when Glasgow first developed as a city in the 14th century, and then it was the place where mass waves of Highland and Island immigration came. Before that it was the merchant city area with lots of tobacco traders based there. So it has this real rich tapestry of history and maps the ups and downs of Glasgow economic history. The Tontine building will be filled with people looking at creating a new economy.
The city region includes Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire and Dumbartonshire. If Scotland is going to prosper then these are the areas that we need to treat with serious intent.
Q: Whats the answer to creating a local economy that works for everyone in the city?
A: We need an innovative ecology of economic activity. We need to start off by asking, “What is in Glasgow’s interest.” “How can we ensure investments can benefit those that have been on the edge of the labour market?” That requires big institutions that are delivering at the local level to invest in training commitments and careers guidance. The decision-making authorities in the city are nowhere near where they should be. Skills Development Scotland and Scottish Enterprise – two major national agencies – should be working much more cleverly with the council. My offer is that we as a council will open up and be more inclusive and more engaging. Everyone has to be honest about what they can bring to the table. It’s like Hogmanay – you have to bring something to the door and then we can have a party.
Clare Goff is Editor at New Start magazine