Welcome to the Public Works blog.

Public Works is UNISON Scotland's campaign for jobs, services, fair taxation and the Living Wage. This blog will provide news and analysis on the delivery of public services in Scotland. We welcome comments and if you would like to contribute to this blog, please contact Kay Sillars k.sillars@unison.co.uk - For other information on what's happening in UNISON Scotland please visit our website.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Sharing or Merging?

Richmond upon Thames Borough Council has walked away from a plan to share services with Kingston-Upon-Thames Royal Borough Council. It appears that the governance issues, that UNISON frequently highlights as a problem in these deals could not be resolved despite 6 months of talks. Richmond is now moving to merge staffing structures with Wandsworth Borough Council.
The new plan starts with merging management structures, saving money through cutting senior posts then moving towards a single staffing structure by 2017. Richmond’s chief executive retires next year and the Wansdworth chief executive would then head up both councils. The plan includes joint commissioning of services. Curiously the figure given for savings in the local government chronicle is only £10m which doesn’t seem much given the disruption and the size of the cuts in budgets overall.
The plans have yet to go to the elected members and they claim that the job cut figures have yet to be worked through. The claim that residents will enjoy the same levels of key services also seems shall we say optimistic. If governance issues were impossible to resolve with Richmond it will be interesting to see how they can be resolved with 2 sets of councillors and only one set of staff.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Potholes indicate a crumbling infrastructure

Potholes have cost Scottish councils £228,000 in compensation claims in just one year. That's the equivalent of over £600 a day.

50,000 drivers across the UK made a claim. This is the equivalent of roughly one claim being submitted every eleven minutes day and night, 365 days a year and an increase on the 2012/13 figure of 46,139 claims. It also costs councils £109 to administer each claim.

Professor Stephen Glaister, director of the RAC Foundation, said the figures were likely to be “the tip of the iceberg” as many drivers are put off by the time and effort involved in making a claim. He said: “The fundamental problem lies with central ­government. They are simply not giving councils enough money to keep their road networks up to scratch.”

The Scottish data for each council can be viewed here.

Potholes are just the latest example of the impact of cuts on council services. As they go into the 2015 budget setting process, most are trying to balance the books through the salami slicing of services. You can get away with poor maintenance for a year or two, but eventually it catches up. By making councils bear the brunt of austerity cuts in Scotland we are presiding over a crumbling infrastructure.

This was also highlighted in Audit Scotland’s overview of local government spending last year.

Health Inequalities - We need an end to austerity

Austerity and what is wrong with it has been leading the news thanks to the Syriza victory in the Greek elections.

This blog regularly highlights our opposition to austerity and the damage being done to families and particularly young people and the most vulnerable members of our society.

One of the cruel scandals of the wide and unfair health impacts is that too often people in poverty struggling with ill-health are attacked for unhealthy lifestyles by the wealthy and the powerful suggesting these problems are simply self-inflicted.

But in New Scientist magazine Scotland’s former chief medical officer Dr Harry Burns has reiterated that job loss and social breakdown, NOT smoking and bad diet, is at the root of the country’s infamously high rate of premature death.

He points out that from 1950-1970 Scotland had one of the lowest rates of death from alcoholic liver disease, but by 2005 it had the highest.

Dr Burns said: “It may be that what we are seeing in Scotland is the consequence of austerity in the 1970s and 80s, when social change and joblessness led to a breakdown in family life and a cycle of alienation...What we have seen in Glasgow may become evident in southern Europe over the next two decades.”

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Today's economic data hides an unbalanced recovery

Today’s GDP figures look good on an annual basis, but they hide a slowdown in the last two quarters that starts to look like a trend.

GDP, grew 0.5% in the fourth quarter of the year, compared with 0.7% in the third and a recent peak of 0.8% in the second. A big concern is that growth is being driven by retail and consumer spending - not the balanced recovery that is really needed. Manufacturing and investment is petering out.

As the TUC has pointed out today, the Treasury has fallen back on that old statistical trick of recalibrating its data back to 2014, rather than the much less favourable 2010, when the ConDems took over. The UK now languishes well down the OECD growth league table. We should also not forget that this is the slowest recovery in history.  

Many have argued that Britain's economy before the 2008 crash was too reliant on debt-fuelled consumer spending. We know from the OBR analysis of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement that he is relying on households going heavily into debt to drive his economic recovery. When what Britain really needs is a pay rise.

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls said the slowdown in fourth-quarter growth was a concern, and that, "Tory claims that the economy is fixed will ring hollow with working people" whose "wages are down by £1,600 a year since 2010". Indeed!

The fall in gas and petrol prices will help the inflation figures, but unless wages increase this will provide only a temporary fillip and not the sustainable growth we need. It could also provide a further knock to our unsustainably large current account deficit.

The other question we should ask is who has paid most for the recovery? The JRF and others have published the final papers in a series of detailed academic reports that show how poorer and vulnerable groups have been disproportionately hurt by austerity economics. Tax credits and cash benefits took more away from those in the bottom half of the income spectrum than they gained from increases to tax allowances. Savings made from rebalancing of benefits and tax allowances were wiped out by cuts in income tax for the better off. 

As this chart shows the changes to direct taxes and benefits have had no real effect overall on the public finances. Almost all of the savings achieved by cutting benefits were offset by gains for richer groups. 

It is also interesting to look at the impact on different groups. As this chart shows pensioners have been protected (because they vote?), while the working poor, and latterly children, have suffered more.

Overall, while there may be a limited recovery for some, even that is faltering, and it is workers and the vulnerable who continue to pay the price. 

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

We knew it anyway but now there's proof: Unions make you happy

We generally highlight the more material benefits of joining an union but a US study has found that being a union member actually makes you happy.
The study of happiness or life satisfaction is becoming increasingly popular: even the Tories are measuring it. Studies measure both how people say they feel, things they do like laugh and smile and some include asking participants' friends and family to rate the subjects happiness as well as professional and clinical assessments. UNISON has joined others like Oxfam in campaigning for wider of use of these types of measures rather than for example GDP as a measure of a country’s success.
Two American academics have used data from a range of life satisfaction studies to see whether membership of a trade union “contributes to a higher quality of life”. They found that union members are more satisfied with their lives than non members and that the effect of union membership “rivals other common predictors of quality of life” The effect was found regardless of age, income, gender or level of education.

We spend a great deal of time at work so how we experience that time has a massive impact on our well being. The researchers give four suggestions as to why unions are so effective in creasing our happiness:
Unions give members a route to influencing how their workplace operates, they have routes to appeal management decisions and processes to deal with group or individual problems. This makes work life more satisfactory
Union members are generally better paid and have more secure employment especially in the US. Unemployment and worry about unemployment are major predictors of poor mental and physical health. Union membership can therefore reduce this type of stress and anxiety.
Unions provide lots of opportunities to for social interaction both formally through meetings and through working together to achieve goals. This reduces loneliness and social isolation. Having professional networks both formal and informal also helps reduce job stress and improves your ability to do your job.
Unions promote active citizenship, there is a growing body of evidence that being active in a community and achieving things through this activity improves how we feel about ourselves and the communities in which we live
So as well as gaining better terms and conditions at work , lots of services like cheaper car insurance joining a union will make you happy. Who could say no to that?

Monday, 19 January 2015

Protecting information rights from damage caused by outsourcing

Immediate steps must be taken to protect freedom of information (FOI) rights from the damage caused by the outsourcing of important public services.

That's the message in a special report from The Scottish Information Commissioner, Rosemary Agnew to the Scottish Parliament.   The Report explains that the provision to extend FOI to non-public sector organisations delivering public functions has been “woefully underused” in the ten years since FOI law came into effect, with the consequence that some public functions are no longer open to full public scrutiny.

The Commissioner’s report reflects growing concern about the impact of changes in public sector delivery on information rights, something that UNISON Scotland has highlighted many times.  Since 2005, over 15,000 Scottish households have lost FOI rights following the transfer of local authority housing stock to housing associations and many more as services, particularly in the care sector, have been outsourced.  While the Scottish Government has the power to extend FOI to third parties that provide public services, this power has only been used once in the last decade.  This was in 2013 for the designation of local authority leisure and culture trusts.

Commissioner Rosemary Agnew said:

“The first decade of FOI in Scotland is a real success story.  Over 60,000 requests were made last year alone, and recent research revealed that 95% of the public believe that the right of access to the information held by public bodies is important. Worryingly though, our right to information is being slowly eroded. Rights have been gradually lost over the last 10 years as the responsibility for public service delivery is passed to third parties.  These rights are fundamental to ensuring public services are open, cost-effective and accountable to the public.  As the models for the delivery of public functions evolve and change, it is vitally important that the public’s right to the information held about the services that deliver them are protected and strengthened”.

The Commissioner’s Special Report, FOI 10 Years On: are the right organisations covered? contains a number of recommendations for action by Scottish Government Ministers to address her concerns.  The recommendations include:

• adopting a policy to ensure FOI rights are migrated whenever a body delivering public functions or services changes
• carrying out a review to identify where FOI rights have been lost over the past decade, and reinstate them
• taking steps to ensure that FOI rights apply to those bodies responsible for social housing and private prisons and
• adopting a factor based approach to wider FOI designation, to ensure that FOI rights apply to bodies which are considered to be delivering functions of a public nature.

The Commissioner’s Special Report is available on her website at: www.itspublicknowledge.info/reports.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Metropoles: France's New City Regions

Across Europe the twin challenges of demographics and the recession caused by the financial crisis mean public sector reform is high on the political agenda.
France has moved quickly to make substantial changes to local government. They are reducing the number of regions from 22 to 13 and on January 1st 10 new city Regions were set up. Two more will follow a year later. It is claimed that this is the "first major reorganisation since Napoleon".

While the previous Sarkozy government also looked at reform nothing actually changed the present government has moved quickly to implement change. The French President, Francois Hollande, claims this new system will save €12.2B. Local communes do continue to exist, the new city regions (Metropoles) provide a way for them to work together to provide services for the entire Metropole area. Over the next few years further powers will be devolved to these authorities. These include economic development, housing, water and skills. The three biggest cities will also gain powers over tourism, culture , agriculture and international relations. The two “super metroples” which come into place next year are Grand Paris and Aix-Marseille-Provence. Grand Paris will include at least three of the current suburban department s and possibly more. It is hoped this will increase investment in these suburban areas.

The plans weren't universally welcomed when first announced, for example those in relatively rich Alsace didn't appear keen to merge with Lorraine, where the decline of steel and mining industries has had a severe impact on the economy. The plans for new regions were though passed in December so the merger will go ahead.

Interestingly while many in Scotland highlight the strengths of the localism of countries like France the French are actually are becoming more centralised. Still a long way from our increasingly centralised system though

Monday, 12 January 2015

Scottish Government 'must do better' on preventative spending

The Scottish Parliament Finance Committee today warned that nothing like enough is being done in Scotland on preventative spending.

It is widely agreed that in key areas of public services the focus needs to shift from tackling symptoms of disadvantage and inequality to addressing root causes, with what the Committee described as a “decisive shift to prevention.”

However, today’s report from the Committee on the Scottish Government’s Draft Budget 2015-16 makes clear that “there is little evidence of the essential shift in resources taking place to support a preventative approach.”

This is damning, but UNISON welcomes the Committee recognising the reality of the situation.

As the report shows, radical changes in shifting resources to prevention are hampered by the scale of the financial challenges facing public services.

We are urging politicians from all parties to act now to put fairness and tackling inequality at the heart of economic policy and to look at the vast amount of evidence in favour of this.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Fat Cat Tuesday

By the end of today, Britain’s top bosses will have made more money in 2015 than the average UK worker earns in an entire year.

The High Pay Centre's calculations show that earnings for company executives returning to work this Monday will pass the UK average salary of £27,200 by late afternoon on ‘fatcat Tuesday.’ Yes, that really is less than two days work!

FTSE 100 Chief Executives are paid an average £4.72 million, this is equivalent to hourly pay of nearly £1,200. When the High Pay Centre made the same calculation last year, the think-tank estimated that top bosses would have to wait until the first working Wednesday of 2014 to surpass the earnings of the average worker. But while pay realised by FTSE 100 Chief Executives has risen by nearly £500,000 since last year, the annual pay of the average UK worker has increased by just £200, from £27,000 to £27,200.

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: "It’s a stark reminder that while the average worker is £50 a week worse off than in 2010, boardroom pay gets bigger and bigger every year. We urgently need a change of course to put wage growth for all workers at the heart of Britain’s economic plan – if not then people’s living standards will not recover and the economy will remain in the danger zone."