Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Strathclyde Regional Council, ashes to ashes

Strathclyde Regional Council - India Street HQ, 2018

I was walking to the Charing Cross station after spending some time with former colleagues and veered off to see the site of my former offices in India Street where I had worked for 16 years for Strathclyde Regional Council. 

Strathclyde Regional Council was formed in 1975 as the largest local authority in the UK serving a population of 2.5 million. It was formed following a Royal Commission of Local Government in Scotland, chaired by Lord Wheatley. Like any Royal Commission, the proposals had been meticulously researched with much evidence behind the proposals to create 9 regional councils, 53 district councils and 3 island councils to replace the 33 counties, 4 cities, 21 large burghs and hundreds of small burghs and landward districts that preceded them. The proposals had been subject to lengthy consultations that were transparent and generally accepted as a necessary reform. The existing muddle of councils with different sets of functions had failed to tackle the social and housing conditions and, in some cases, there was endemic corruption within them. 

In Strathclyde 103 councillors were elected in 1974 to serve on the council. The council was led by two outstanding councillors from the majority Labour Party: the Rev Geoff Shaw, a Church of Scotland minister who worked in the Gorbals, and Dick Stewart, an ex-miner from Harthill. They were chalk and cheese. The eloquent and erudite Geoff Shaw with his passion for social justice and the pragmatic and brutally principled Dick Stewart who was no orator but a disciplinarian equally determined to deliver social justice. 

They melded together a diverse group of councillors, not tolerating any form of corruption and providing a clear agenda for the 100,000 staff to follow. The west of Scotland was in a state of meltdown as mines closed, shipyards ran out of work, factories were closing and 60,000 people a year were leaving the region. The former Glasgow Corporation had engaged in a programme of the demolition of older tenemental properties to accommodate the building of urban motorways and the construction of huge council housing schemes lacking the range of facilities required by the residents. Jobs and people were moving to the New Towns of East Kilbride, Cumbernauld and Irvine. Stonehouse had been designated as the fourth new town in the region to continue this exodus. 

There seemed to be little recognition by the Scottish Office or by the existing councils that this was eroding the social and economic fabric of not only Glasow but also towns like Clydebank, Dumbarton, Paisley, Greenock, Motherwell, Hamilton, Airdrie, Coatbridge, and Kilmarnock. The West Central Scotland Plan had called for a radical shift in urban policy to regenerate these older urban centres along with Glasgow. This was not well received by the many in the business community who were enjoying the low rentals and new infrastructure in the new towns. Nor did the majority of existing councils welcome the Plan, the exceptions being Clydebank, Greenock, Motherwell and Coatbridge, which were more positive about the need for a radical shift in policy.

The Scottish Office had planned for rapid population and economic growth in 1962 but the collapse of traditional industries meant that the opposite was happening. The outcome was social and economic turbulence in the region, which the 1971 census identified as containing the worst concentrations of urban deprivation in the UK. Strathclyde Regional Council recognised this and made its two overarching objectives the need to tackle multiple deprivation and economic development. 

These objectives were pursued with a missionary zeal that included recruitment of more teachers to eradicate part-time education in deprived areas, reallocation of staff to areas of greatest need,community engagement including the encouragement of house modernisation through the creation of 29 housing associations, and investment in rail electrification and underground modernisation rather than highway construction. The Council also persuading the Scottish Office to establish an economic and environmental agency, the Scottish Development Agency. Whilst this was generally a positive initiative, the agency was largely staffed by professionals transferred from the New Town corporations who were more focused on development than community engagement.

Over its first ten years, Strathclyde achieved a remarkable transformation in the way local government was run with an emphasis on community development, positive discrimination, urban regeneration, investing in public transport and renewing outworn infrastructure. It used its financial clout effectively and utilised its influence to gain both European funding and government grants like the urban programme for its poorer communities. The politics were dominated by Labour but there were also high calibre and principled politicians from other parties and they worked collaboratively on many issues. 

Scottish Conservative politicians such as Secretary of States, George Younger and Malcolm Rifkind, were slightly in awe of Strathclyde and supportive of many initiatives. The same could not be said of Prime Minister Thatcher who, after disbanding the GLC and Metropolitan Councils in 1986, saw Strathclyde as the last bulwark against the neo-liberal policies she was pursuing. Her distaste for Strathclyde was shared by some of the District Councils, notably Cunningham, Kyle and Carrick, Strathkelvin and Eastwood who resented the influence of the all-powerful region and its emphasis on urban renewal. Despite the significant benefits of these policies to Glasgow, the Glasgow District Council resented the loss of its municipal muscle and there was a tense relationship between region and district aggravated by the preciousness of their chief executives. 

Rather than addressing this issue by reducing the size of Strathclyde by setting up Ayrshire as a separate region or re-examining the distribution of functions between region and districts. The Scottish Office, encouraged by the UK government, decided to reorganise local government for the whole of Scotland. There was no Royal Commission this time, just a set of proposals for unitary authorities with four options ranging from 15 to 63 units. There was a cursory consultation period before first 25 and eventually, 32 unitary councils were designated in October 1994. The new councils were elected in April 1995 and became operational a year later. 

What is often forgotten in describing the shift to unitary councils, in itself a generally positive step, was the transfer of many functions: water, sewerage, police, fire, transport, colleges, careers, children's panels, assessors and various other functions to either joint boards or national bodies. The new councils were in many ways less able to shape development in their areas than was possible under the two-tier system of local government. This precipitated the introduction of Community Planning in 1999 as a means of coordinating the activities across the illogical tartan of administrative boundaries that the Scottish Office and the Scottish Government seemed to determined to create. In practice, it was a severe dilution of local democracy and harbinger of the downward spiral of public services in Scotland.

Glasgow became a unitary Council again after 20 years. Although it no longer included Rutherglen, and its suburbs were spread across East Renfrewshire, East Dunbartonshire, South Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire Councils. The politicians from these councils and from the City of Glasgow adopted an anti-Strathclyde stance on many issues including the adoption of its policies and often gave short shrift to many of the staff who transferred from Strathclyde. This extended to the use of buildings, which were sold or renamed, as with Strathclyde HQ in Glasgow that became Nye Bevan House for no obvious reason other than to bury reference to Strathclyde. The eventual demolition of Strathclyde HQ buildings is a visual manifestation of the way that the many accomplishments of Strathclyde Regional Council have and are being erased from the history of local governance. 

It is maybe the fact that Glasgow City Council lacks the vision of its predecessor or the confidence to deliver public services without resorting to outsourcing many functions. Try finding a public convenience in Glasgow or an affordable parking place. And services from social work to cleansing are the poor relation when compared to most other Scottish Councils. Strathclyde's significant contribution to the revitalisation of Scottish public services is in many ways a more successful legacy than the Scottish Government with its centralising tendencies and blind faith in its own judgement has achieved since its formation in 1999.


St Vincent Street facade as was
India Street, now home of Scottish Power
Happy Days
Where does this connection come from?

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