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.

Friday, 3 July 2020

Housing and the Pandemic

Social housing is an essential service. But you’ll find little mention of its role during the pandemic outside of the world of housing professionals.
Yet the benefits – the ‘social good’ - of publicly owned and run housing (i.e. council housing) and social housing (i.e. housing associations or RSLs, and housing cooperatives1) have shone through during this covid-crisis. Social landlords have played an outstanding role above and beyond in caring for the most vulnerable people, including those who are shielding with health conditions.
Take North Lanarkshire Council. It has the largest council housing stock in Scotland and provides homes to over 36,000 households. At the point of lockdown, on 23 March, a third of these households were shielding. Council staff proactively phoned them all. Overnight they set up a system, working shifts from 8am to 8pm, seven days a week, to make sure that tenants were safe and well. From this they began delivering ongoing support to 6,500 people: collecting medicines, delivering groceries, distributing food parcels, walking dogs, tidying gardens. As pupils were not at school, school meals staff began cooking and delivering meals to all of the council’s sheltered housing tenants.
Housing departments can meet these challenges most effectively because they can do things on the scale that’s required, combined with the ‘on the ground’ intelligence of housing officers located in communities. Because of the benefits of public ownership, during the lockdown, some councils were able to make use of resources they was saving in some areas and divert these to where they were urgently needed.
Housing associations and Co-operatives have performed a similar role, building upon their wider social remit within communities. Delivering food parcels, cooked meals, packed lunches, groceries and prescriptions for tenants and members, and providing pre-paid energy cards. Some have provided additional sources of support for those experiencing domestic abuse. Others have taken action to ensure people are digitally connected, or have provided online classes.
There couldn’t be a greater contrast with the private rented sector, which houses ever growing numbers of the poorest households. It is entirely ill-equipped, uncoordinated, and lacking in motive to respond to a crisis of this nature. New research by the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence supports all of this. It has looked at the social, economic, health and wellbeing impact of social housing and found that:
- Social housing and its lower rents appears to help explain Scotland’s better record on poverty compared with the rest of the UK;
- Social housing investment helps make rural communities more resilient, by providing low cost homes for younger people, so they can remain in the area, helping sustain vital public services and employment.
- Well designed social housing investment can contribute to reducing the fundamental causes of health inequalities. An estimated 53,000 more affordable homes are needed between 2021-26. We must ramp up the pressure for current levels of government funding for social house building to be continued, and for the target of 35,000 social homes for 2021 (which has suffered a set back because of the pandemic) to be achieved. There are few better ways to generate economic activity than building homes.
To sum up, the Covid crisis has underscored exactly why we must shift the balance back towards social housing. It has demonstrated the social value of councils, housing associations and housing cooperatives as ‘anchor’ organisations in our communities. They are a source of social resilience in a time of public health crisis, and also the key to building our way out of the current economic crisis.

Monday, 6 April 2020

Cleaners on the frontline - Coronavirus

They don’t usually get much thought or attention – but there isn’t a single list of essential workers doing the rounds that doesn’t include cleaners. Suddenly they find themselves on the front line of the worst disease outbreak in a century.

Their task, always vital, has taken on whole new levels of urgency in recent weeks, often in challenging circumstances. UNISON members report a wide variety of challenges that cleaners and domestics are dealing with, during the Coronavirus crisis in order that hospitals and care facilities can continue to function.

The struggle to keep places clean has intensified. Many places are now working flat out 24/7 – and rotas are having to be shifted to take account of that. More shifts and less rest are being demanded. Added to that is that the cleaners, like everyone else have families, have health conditions and can also catch the virus – so the numbers available for work are down as people self isolate, meaning this greater workload is being handled by fewer people. Some authorities are engaged in an effort to recruit and get more cleaners into the workplace – this is welcome and these efforts need to be stepped up.

It’s not just the workload of course – it’s the fear. A natural worry about being exposed to the virus is hugely increased by lack of information. Some have not been told when they have gone into rooms of patients with suspected CV. While changes and developments are made clear to medical staff – its often the case that these aren’t explained to the cleaners. 

In addition to this, particularly in larger facilities, cleaners are finding themselves deployed not in their usual areas – but anywhere they are needed. This in an environment where CV patients are being treated in many different places in the hospital. This is a particular issue at night where they will find themselves being bleeped to go anywhere in the building.  They worry they are going into places which are high risk, but which they haven’t been told about.

We were told by one member – who, like many cleaners, has two jobs. One of these jobs is in an environment much more concerned with treating virus patients than the other. She prefers going into the more virus facing job than the other because she is kept up to speed with what is happening there.
Cleaners – by definition , aren’t working at home. They need to travel to work just like other essential workers. Some, particularly outside the bigger cities are impacted on by the lockdown. Cleaners are low-paid workers and many are completely reliant on public transport. As bus services have been cut back there are many instances of this, mostly female, workforce finding that the early bus bringing them to work, or the late bus taking them home, are no longer running. Making an already difficult situation worse.

Without cleaners – none of the institutions and facilities we are relying on to contain the virus and keep the infected alive could function. They deserve respect, resources and reward – they are the front line.