Published: 4th Jul 2016
Govanhill Baths were occupied by the community for five months in 2001

The silent crisis

Every post-industrial city has had its share of regeneration triumphs and blunders. What makes Glasgow stand out is what has become known as the ‘silent crisis’ – the fact that Scotland has the lowest levels of local democracy in the European Union. On every measure of local democracy – from turnout to ratio of councillors to citizens – Scotland comes bottom. Glaswegians die earlier than their counterparts in other post-industrial cities because their sense of control over their lives is so much lower, it is suggested. Trust in institutions is at rock bottom.

‘It’s a critical situation where local democracy is almost corrupt’ says Katie Gallogly-Swan, campaigns organiser at the Electoral Reform Society Scotland. ‘People are so disenfranchised. They feel completely powerless and apathetic to change.’

This sense of powerlessness has become normalised and can be felt more heavily in places like Govanhill, in the south of the city. Described by one commentator as the ‘Ellis Island of Scotland,’ Govanhill has been the landing spot for migrants to Scotland for centuries, from refugees from the Highland clearances to Irish immigrants in the 70s and eastern European and south Asians today. The most diverse area of the country, it is overcrowded, under-resourced and disenfranchised.

‘People are so disenfranchised. They feel

completely powerless and apathetic to change.’

When Glasgow council took the decision to close the local pool – Govanhill Baths – without consultation in 2001, the community fought back. The baths were occupied for five months, the longest occupation of a public building in British history. Now the building is run by the Govanhill Community Trust, which has recently been awarded heritage lottery funding to restore the baths to their former glory.

It was at Govanhill Baths that New Start, NEF and CLES held the final Activating Local Economic Alternatives event in May, bringing together local activists and practitioners in the city to discuss ways in which an alternative approach to the local economy could bear fruit and help communities like Govan and Govanhill, left behind in the dominant economic narrative, tell a different story about local success.

Telling a different story about the economy

The event was hosted by Small is Beautiful, an organisation set up to celebrate and discuss the growing ‘small’ economy of micro-businesses and sole traders, and how that fits with the pro-growth, ‘big’ narrative that dominates local economic development.

The struggle for any alternative vision of regeneration or local economics is how to tell its story and challenge the dominant narrative. The alternative economy – mapped through this Activating Alternative Local Economies project – is not a single idea but is made up of the small and the diverse, from artists to social enterprises, sole traders to community trusts, community cafés to digital start-ups. It also includes big anchor institutions like the NHS and progressive councils like Preston and Birmingham. How can all of these disparate people and organisations speak as one and set out a new narrative for our local economies?

Ben Wray from the Common Weal opened the event by setting out the challenge of the simplicity of the economic narratives that dominate – be that Tesco-isation or UKIP’s ‘local jobs for local people’.

‘Our story of local economies, of community spaces with dynamic innovative small businesses and the local multiplier effect has to be told within a bigger story of future of economy and the internet’, he said.