Municipal mayhem of city on breadline

Unions threaten chaos as culture of cuts takes toll on Glasgow
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The Independent Online
Once it was "European City of Culture", but now Glasgow is becoming increasingly celebrated for municipal mayhem.

It is a tale of two cities. There is the middle-class Glasgow of private enterprise and burgeoning art, and there is the down-and-out Glasgow represented by the council. Scotland's largest city may be "miles better" as the advertising slogan has it, but in terms of its finances, the problems of the council are arguably worse than any other local authority in Britain.

To avoid imminent bankruptcy, the Labour-controlled council has slashed its budget by more than pounds 80m, increased council tax by 22 per cent - making residents among the highest taxed in the country - and registered its intention to get rid of almost 1,400 employees.

Teachers have been asked to bear the brunt of the cuts, along with social workers, who operate in some of the most deprived areas of the UK. While the well-heeled dine at one of the 11 Glasgow restaurants in the Good Food Guide, the meals-on-wheels department, which services some of the most poverty-stricken estates in Europe, is grinding to a halt.

The council argues that it is not to blame. Faced with cuts in its funding from central government, councillors are unable to see a way of balancing the books without redundancies. This has always been anathema to Labour and to public service unions. Selective walk-outs, a day-long stoppage by teachers last Wednesday and an all-out 24-hour strike by council workers testified to the anger felt by employees.

This week, social workers' leaders voted to withdraw "life and limb" cover at residential homes, which could leave the elderly to fend for themselves.

Senior union officials have distanced themselves from such threats and argue that they are the work of extreme left-wing political activists.

Tommy Sheridan, a leading light in Militant Labour, and Ken Gibson of the Scottish National Party, led a 1,200-strong march on the council chamber, effectively blockading a critical budget meeting which finally set out the solutions to the city's financial problems.

Mr Sheridan, who is also a city councillor, was accused of encouraging the intimidation of his colleagues, who were jostled as they tried to enter the meeting. Despite the influence of the far left, however, there is palpable fury among the council's frontline workers.

Conservatives say the city has been a one-party state presiding over a long, slow slide into inefficiency. They argue that with a social work complement of 8,600, Glasgow was aiming to achieve one social worker for each Glaswegian. The city, they believe, is mentioned in the same breath as Liverpool.

Bill Atkin, the deputy Tory leader, points to extravagances. There is the pounds 500,000 donated towards celebrating the Scottish TUC's centenary, which includes dyeing the River Clyde red. Two inquiries are under way into expenditure on foreign trips for members, said to have cost pounds 80,000. And there was also the pounds 75,000 spent on a public Hogmanay party.

The seeds of the immediate financial problem were sown in local authority reorganisation last year, when the Government took an axe to the two-tier council structure.

The difficulty was that the money allocated to each city, town and local council to take over the duties of the big regional authorities did not match the responsibilities they were to undertake. Many Scottish councils suffered, but Glasgow suffered the worst. Scotland's second city was asked to take over an estimated 60 per cent of nursery schools that once came under the Strathclyde authority - but with only 40 per cent of the budget.

Unison, the main public service union, also argues that the meltdown of the Conservative vote in Scotland has taken its toll. When Tories had a substantial presence on councils they were able to bring pressure to bear on ministers to minimise cuts. Now, according to the union, the Government has adopted a "scorched earth" policy, depriving councils of resources with minimal dissent from Conservative colleagues.

That leaves the Labour councillors in Glasgow holding the baby. A recent delegation from the authority to Michael Forsyth, the Secretary of State for Scotland, came away empty-handed. And with the main public service unions determined to fight the redundancies, the city may soon grind to a halt again.