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Aw That Seizing agency: local or global, we have the power

Reflecting on the evolution of local governance in Scotland and how the nation kept its water in public hands, MATT KERR reminds us that grassroots movements can win — and are winning now

AS I sat through a motion on local democracy and funding at council on Thursday in which opposition members were denied the right to speak, I had some time to think about the state of the place.

I heard fine words about sexy subjects like “powers of general competence” being given to local authorities, and I remembered how when these powers being given to councils was last suggested some 10 years ago by the then Labour administration, the SNP opposition claimed we already had them.

If you hang about on the riverbank long enough, I suppose…

What is it that has changed over that decade to turn the idea of councils in Scotland having the same powers as just about any other equivalent body in Europe from an absurd demand into one that has the backing of the parties of the Scottish government?

Follow the money, as they say. Weeks after councils across the land have slashed budgets and jobs in essential public services, it’s clearly beginning to dawn on some that councils shouldn’t just be arm-length cuts machines any more — they can do that and tax too.

These powers would negate the need for individual pieces of legislation to create things like tourism levies, congestion charging and the like. On a matter of principle, I think that that is the way to go. Councils could then justify whichever levies they impose by pointing to how the cash is spent, and the electorate can judge the fairness and kick them out if necessary.

I listened with fascination to one colleague telling us it would return “agency” to local government.

The council I sit in spends half a billion a year less every year than it did a decade ago. No levy on hotel beds is going to undo that damage.

The tragedy is that should the shift of those powers ever make it out of rhetoric and into some form of reality, it will come for all the wrong reasons.

It’s not resurfaced on the agenda because of some great urge to reinvigorate local democracy, but because even Scottish government ministers cannot help but see the damage they have wrought as they gaze out of their office windows.

It’s easy to blame ministers, north and south of the border, Tory, SNP and Green, for the state we’re in — the evidence of their failure is abundant after all — but councils have to shoulder some blame. Agency, you see, isn’t something to be conferred on you by a higher power, it is something to be realised — to be taken.

This month marks the 30th anniversary of just such an act.

The pre-devolution Scotland of 1994 still had two tiers of local authorities — regions and districts — but they faced extinction in the Local Government Bill. Not only did the Tory secretary of state Ian Laing propose to abolish regional councils, but he also planned to take water out of their hands and privatise it as his government had done elsewhere in Britain a few years earlier.

What happened next was a remarkable demonstration of political will, combined with sheer audacity. That year Strathclyde Regional Council sent out its council tax bills as usual, but it also sent something else to the people of the region.

A public body with no power conferred upon it to do any such thing sent out ballot papers to the households of Strathclyde, asking 1.2 million people if they agreed with water and sewerage services being sold off. What could have died a death as mere “gesture politics” instead launched a massive campaign to defend public ownership and encourage people to return their ballots.

The result was clear and the case to abandon the proposals became unanswerable when 97 per cent voted to retain their ownership on a 71 per cent turnout.

The regional councils might not have survived the 1994 Local Government etc (Scotland) Act, but publicly owned water did.

While Scottish Water has sadly and undoubtedly since become contaminated with the same sort of corporate culture that has spread across myriad public services — from further and higher education to health and, yes, councils — it nonetheless remains in public hands and has avoided the obscene levels of asset-stripping and profiteering experienced elsewhere on this island, and all because a council seized the power to say No.

It is far from the only example of that realisation of agency.

The women who organised the rent strike on the Clyde during the first world war which went on to change the law of the land for generations didn’t stop to ask permission for their actions or abandon all hope because they had yet to win the right to vote. Instead, they seized power and changed the law of the land benefitting generations of working-class people in the process.

The reason these events, and countless others, are rarely talked about, or are patronised out of relevance by a school of thought that insists that these were quaint exercises that have no place in the grown-up 21st century, is because they still work.

After years of campaigning and the hard graft of genuine community organising, tenants’ union Living Rent is on the verge of changing the law of the land too. After years of obfuscation, excuses and bizarre defences of landlords’ human rights, the Scottish government has finally published its proposals for permanent rent controls.

No-one is under any illusions that it will end the disaster-capitalism of rampant landlordism, or solve Scotland’s housing crisis overnight, but neither of these things are possible without this vital first step.

There is no doubt whatsoever that without the Living Rent, a parliament as packed with landlords as Holyrood would never have had to come face to face with the realities of being a tenant, or have had any sort of inclination to act.

It’s as true today as ever it was that nothing is ever truly gifted to our class, but conceded, as Living Rent’s seizure of the agenda on the housing crisis, its causes and solutions is yet another demonstration.

Those work too. Demonstrations, I mean.

When the UN security council backed a ceasefire, it didn’t just fall from the sky. While the positions of Joe Biden, Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer have not shifted by anything like enough, at least they are no longer playing ludicrous word games to avoid saying “ceasefire.”

This hasn’t happened because they have suddenly developed consciences, but because we live in an age when the images and reports of the horrors being perpetrated in Gaza cannot be hidden or ignored.

This week a Palestinian surgeon, Gassan Abu Sitta, who worked for 40 days to save lives in Gaza as the Israelis pounded hospitals, won 80 per cent of the votes to become the next rector of the University of Glasgow, just days before the council passed a motion to cut ties with companies in the occupied territories.

All of these shafts of light come not from the political classes, but from the millions who have marched week after week across the globe, demonstrating not only their disgust at the genocide in Gaza but also their opposition to building economic growth on the back of a war economy that can only end in calamity and bloodshed.

It may seem like a long way from a water referendum in a small patch of north-west Europe to the hell of war in Gaza, but wherever we are, whatever the cause on the path to peace and socialism, we must know our own strength.

Call it agency, if you like.

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