Paul Sweeney: The Case for Municipal Socialism

Paul Sweeney MP delves into the history of Glasgow and sets out the case for municipal socialism.

I recently had the pleasure of attending the launch of renovation works to a historic old primary school in my constituency. Derelict for several years, the school lies at the heart of the Parkhouse district of Glasgow North East, which I have represented in the UK Parliament since June last year. Long since disused for any pedagogic purpose, the Wheatley Group – the inheritor of Glasgow’s municipal housing stock – acquired it for conversion to new sheltered social housing. The name ‘Wheatley’ and the history of the school itself evoked a reflection on the long and proud heritage of municipal socialism in Glasgow, and what the prospects are for that tradition to re-emerge in the future.

Parkhouse was one of the first districts to be developed for municipal housing by Glasgow Corporation after the passing of the historic 1924 Housing Act during the first Labour Government, led by Glasgow Labour MP John Wheatley.

These state subsidies for house building, led directly to the creation of Glasgow's municipal housing department, and saw large scale building of some 57,000 new homes in Parkhouse and other new districts like Knightswood and Cardonald during the inter-war period.

Indeed, the pressure to develop suitable land for housing led to Glasgow more than doubling in size, from 5,251 to 12,159 hectares during the 1920s and 1930s, although it was not until after 1945 that new districts like Easterhouse, Drumchapel, Pollok and Castlemilk were fully developed.

The gas supply, water, electricity, subway, fever hospitals, the tramways and the telephones all were in direct municipal ownership during the early 20th century, and there was much talk of Glasgow as a European model for municipal socialism. Indeed, at the International Conference on Workers’ Dwelling Houses in Paris in 1900, a Glasgow Councillor, Daniel Macaulay Stevenson, after learning that municipal control of housing was regarded as impractical by delegates remarked that far from that being the case, it had been carried out to an ever-greater extent for twenty-nine years and elucidated the Corporation’s extensive portfolio of services under municipal ownership. The delegates felt that this was “nothing short of rank socialism”!

The impetus behind this interventionist model of civic government was the frenetic pace of population and economic growth. The rapid expansion of the city saw the population of districts like Govan increase more than tenfold: from 9,000 in 1864 to 95,000 by 1907. These pressures resulted in slum housing conditions as private tenement construction failed to keep up with demand, and political pressure increased throughout the early 20th century to address this chronic problem.

After the war, no less than 29 districts of the city were designated as 'comprehensive development areas' within which everything was to be demolished and rebuilt, including the road layout. 100,000 houses, a third of the city's entire stock, were demolished. The first such development area, the Gorbals, saw the complete destruction of that district and the population reduced from 26,000 to just 10,000.

The scale of this sort of intervention to address the city’s social problems is scarcely imaginable today. There is simply no capacity or scope within local government to undertake this sort of muscular intervention anymore – however misguided or hopelessly utopian it may have been with regards to mass slum clearance.

Today, Scotland, after nearly two decades of devolution, now has the most centralised system of government of any country in Europe. We now have the absurdity of the Glasgow City Region’s wealthiest suburbs carved up into self-contained enclaves, where the residents enjoy relatively low rates of council tax, while the urban core of the city itself is home to the poorest communities in the region, yet those residents must carry the burden for maintaining and operating all the core services and amenities that are enjoyed by its wealthier suburban ‘free riders’. Not only has Glasgow been stripped of its residential tax base through historic depopulation and relatively recent gerrymandering of its suburbs, but the advent of the Scottish Parliament has seen a continuing war of attrition against the power of local government.

A notable example of this centralisation of public has been the unaccountable and unelected Transport Scotland. Once Strathclyde operated one of the most advanced municipally operated integrated mass transit systems in Europe, however since centralisation of transport planning in 2008 we have seen no substantial infrastructure investment occur in the city region’s urban rail system; the most notable dormant project being the long-awaited Glasgow Crossrail scheme, which has been continually and arbitrarily frustrated by Transport Scotland.

Although laudable new programmes like the Transformational Regeneration Areas, which involves the construction of some 7,000 new homes within inner city districts as well as the infrastructure projects outlined in the Glasgow City Deal, offer some opportunity to reassert the role of local government, these programmes remain heavily dependent on the largesse of central government, which continues to control the vast majority of council budgets and has passed on amplified cuts to it over the last decade – half a billion pounds worth in Glasgow’s case.

Unless Scotland urgently addresses this issue of over-centralised governance from Edinburgh and rediscovers its radical tradition of municipal socialism, it is increasingly likely that Glasgow will fall further behind its peer cities in the UK, such as Manchester and Birmingham, as they establish new city region governments, centred around directly elected metro-mayors.

The constitutional debate has been preoccupied with nationalist questions over the distribution of powers between the British Parliament at Westminster and the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood. It is now incumbent upon us all to break this narcissistic duopoly of parliaments and strive to rediscover our radical tradition of municipal socialism. We in the Labour movement are not driven by nationalist sentiment when it comes to constitutional questions, but by how best to structure government to serve the interests of delivering socialist policy. The atrophy of municipal government in Scotland is therefore an urgent crisis that we must address boldly and with imagination.. As we consider plans for a constitutional convention in the near future, the question of a municipal as well as parliamentary route to socialism must be firmly embedded at the heart of it.

A longer version of this article appears in Shifting Power to the People, Red Paper Collective 2018:

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