When it comes to local government, creativity will be key to proving Scotland can go it alone

polling placeSO did you do your bit? Did you vote til you boaked and campaign til you croaked? If you’re a National reader, the chances are you not only cast a ballot but encouraged others to get out and do the same. And if your favoured candidates have triumphed, you might feel satisfied that local matters are in safe hands and you can turn your attention to the General Election, a mere five weeks away.

But when it comes to finding local solutions to local problems, the work is only just beginning.

Forget about the constitution for a minute, and think about bins. Bins and litter and dog poo. Scabby old closes and brand new blocks of flats. Off-licenses and betting shops. This is the day-to-day stuff of local government decision-making, and our new councillors should be measured not by what they promised last week or last month, but by how they balance competing priorities in the years to come. What will they decide is more important: cleaning the streets or delivering social work services? Providing new housing or protecting green space? Backing small businesses or responding to local concerns?

Our new councillors should be measured not by what they promised last week or last month, but by how they balance competing priorities in the years to come

There are no easy answers, and with budgets tighter than ever the new councillors are going to have to look for creative solutions instead of simply allocating extra funding and hoping for the best. If the SNP wants to devolve as much power as possible to the lowest possible level, and prove that Scotland can stand on its own two feet, its local representatives will need to remove the word “can’t” from their vocabulary. The bald truth is that an independent Scotland – certainly in its early years – will not have a lot of spare cash floating around. When it comes to service delivery, its government will have to do more with less.

So back to rubbish. There are several reasons why councillors’ inboxes are always bursting with emails about missed bin collections, litter and fly-tipping. Firstly, these are very visible (and often stinky) problems that confront residents every time they leave their homes. Overflowing bins, dirty streets and abandoned sofas send a message that no-one cares – but of course it’s a minority who are responsible, and many people do care. Some of them care enough to report the problem to the council, or indeed to contact their elected representatives to demand further action.

There are several reasons why councillors’ inboxes are always bursting with emails about missed bin collections, litter and fly-tipping

Other local problems are a lot less visible. The reduction in support staff to help children with special educational needs. The shortening of carers’ visits to elderly folk who need help washing, dressing and making breakfast. The inadequate internet provision in local libraries.

The challenge for councillors is not just to answer all those emails about rubbish, and liaise with the relevant departments, but to consider the underlying causes of the problems and think about how they are best addressed. If money was no object, cleansing problems could be mitigated – with round-the-clock bulk uplifts, street sweeping and bin-emptying – but wouldn’t it be far better if they could be prevented in the first place? And wouldn’t the money saved be better spent on teaching assistants, carers and high-speed broadband?

This is where a bit of imagination is required. It would make sense to collate all the data and try to figure out where exactly the rubbish is coming from. Residents of flats or houses? People passing through? Determined fly-tippers on dump-and-drive missions? Enforcement action might be the most popular option with those who make complaints and attend residents’ meetings, but it’s neither cheap nor easy. Rifling through bin bags is unpleasant and time-consuming work, and even if it yields proof of someone’s identity, there’s no guarantee that person did the dumping. I once found several folders of PhD research on the pavement around the corner from my flat, and assumed a local rogue landlord must have tossed them out between university terms. But no – I quickly established the student in question was the culprit by emailing him and feigning concern about his lost work (Police Scotland, help yourself to this ingenious technique). Should he have known better? Maybe, but I dare say it’s possible to have an in-depth knowledge of mechanical engineering yet not understand the rules about refuse collection in the foreign country where you’ve made a temporary home.

If our new local councillors want to find out why a back court’s full of rats or a pavement is piled high with bags of dirty nappies, they should try knocking on some doors. They should find out who is living in the area and what their needs are. To find out if they have English as a second language, or a physical impairment, or a mental health problem that prevents them from accessing services. Sure, some folk might just be irredeemable litter louts, but others are likely living in run-down flats owned by absent landlords, with little knowledge of their rights or responsibilities.

There is no easy solution. If there was, every local authority in Scotland would have cracked it by now. But freshly minted councillors have the chance to take a fresh approach to improving the housing, health and wellbeing of those living in their wards. To see potential where their predecessors saw only problems, and find joined-up solutions rather than simply playing a blame game with political rivals.

Let’s hope they’re up for the challenge. It begins today.

A version of this article first appeared in The National.

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