I added a link to an excellent local news website to my blogroll recently. I found myself visiting ForArgyll frequently, as they seem to be committed to a muscular, opinionated kind of investigative journalism that often makes for interesting reading. Whether or not you agree with their comment, they seem to be committed to holding our local government to account in an intelligent and committed way.
And although many of you probably care little about the politics of Argyll- the county in which I live and work-I thought it worth reflecting on how the economic crisis is working itself out locally.
I work for the local council, and whilst it would not be appropriate for me to discuss detail of the financial situation the social work department is facing, it is no secret to say that it is frightening.
Argyll and Bute council is one of those few local governing bodies that has been governed by coalitions of mostly ‘independent’ councillors for years. Political parties tend to be minorities in any administration. Whether this is a good thing or not is a point of debate, but it is very hard to know what individual representatives stand for. It also means that the representatives often lack a wider context of support, political affiliation and even scrutiny by national political organisations. And things can become very parochial indeed.
Overall, Argyll is home to around 60,000 people dispersed across remote islands and large rural areas. Our largest town, Helensburgh, has less than 20,000 people- and often feels like part of a Glasgow rather than the Highlands. We are an ageing population- not just in terms of more older people, but more OLDER older people. Our school rolls are shrinking and all services tend to be marginal in their cost effectiveness because of the dispersed nature of the population they serve.
Into this context will come savage cuts.
But at present, no one seems to have a clue what is going to be cut, and how the council will balance it’s budget. It has already been a total dog’s breakfast- with all sorts of allegations flying around.
The council took the decision to close a number of local schools, in order to save money, but then effective campaigning pointed out that the calculations of savings on which the closures where based on were totally wrong- this because of the grant allocations from central government and a whole host of other things. Oh- and the council is supposed to consult on these closures, and they had failed to do so. Chaos ensued. The Scottish National Party councillors who were then part of the ruling coalition (one of whom was the education spokesperson) withdrew from government, and since then we have had much politicking to form a new ruling group.
Meanwhile, the executive and the administration are coming under increasing fire- not least from ForArgyll, whose probing questions have centred around-
- The role of the council leadership in negotiating a way of calculating allocations of central government money to local authorities in Scotland. Our council leader appears to have participated in this debate, not understood it, and the end result is that Argyll were hit with an extra £5 million of cuts.
- Resignations of leaders, and their future electability.
- Poor administration- for example unmanageable agenda’s at council meetings, resulting in absolutely no meaningful discussion or debate of key issues, or as ‘For Argyll’ put it- We lost the will to live shortly before the end of the interminable and rambling Executive Committee and escaped to fresh air and a world that slowly righted itself. It is hard to describe to anyone who has not been there, just how deadly and cock-eyed these occasions are. Logic, reason and genuine discussion simply do not penetrate the fog, the artifice and the blindly defensive fortifications.
I have worked for the council since 2002, and these are chaotic times.
Meanwhile, over in the health service…
This is the front page picture from our local paper. It features a friend of mine, and local Episcopal minister, Andrew Swift, taking part in a campaign to save the local hospice.
This has caused unprecedented local ill feeling- the hospice was formed as a result of considerable local fundraising, and in partnership with the local Health Authority, who have now decided to close it. This is related to their own financial crisis, but has been spun out over a long period of time, with lots of allegations and counter allegations.
First many local GP’s issued a joint letter of protest.
Followed by a joint statement from local ministers- represented ably by Andrew as above.
Local passions are running high.
In the middle of all this, I find myself asking whether some good will come from all this?
Optimism is not really my natural condition, and there is much to fear as we face an uncertain future, locally and nationally.
But local engagement in politics, and a shakedown of old hierarchies and hegemonies- these things are good I think. They are a gift that comes with crisis- and the promise of real change.
Elections are coming…
Finally- local political quote of the week-
The leader of the Council is one of Dunoon’s councillors, Dick Walsh. When questioned about the closure of the hospice (and possibly relieved that he was not in the firing line for a change) he had this to say-
“The hospice will close over my dead body.”