Politicians must end the blame game and save our steel
The future of the Scottish Steel industry currently hangs in the balance, with the deadline for consultations fast approaching, and the jobs of over 300 workers at Dalzell and Clydebridge works at stake.
The steel workers have been given high expectations that the Scottish Government and its Scottish Steel Task Force will deliver, but very little by way of evidence that it is serious about saving the steel industry in Scotland – whatever it takes.
I am concerned about the cloak and dagger approach. We have been given very little information about possible buyers. There’s an occasional hint from interested parties in the press but not even a proper government response to that, let alone concrete information.
Such is the secrecy surrounding what cards Fergus Ewing holds, that we don’t even know whether the Scottish Government has made preparations for a public/private consortium or public ownership. Ministers say they haven’t ruled out some form of public ownership, but there are few signs of work being undertaken to make that a realistic possibility.
That’s why I am calling on the Scottish Government to prove that the plants and their jobs are safe by being more open about what they are doing to prepare for all possible ways to save the steel industry. Delay in doing so means potential orders could be lost to other suppliers.
What have they done to attract a buyer, or partners, or to bring the industry into public ownership? Are they preparing to keep the plants operational during any transitional phase? Let’s see the evidence.
There are good reasons why the Scottish Government should step in to save our steel. Steel is a strategic asset, and the fate of the plants will have significant ramifications for the future of the Scottish economy.
The stakes are high for Scotland – and they are even higher for the constituency I represent, Motherwell and Wishaw, which also includes the brownfield site that was once the mighty steel plant of Ravenscraig. Along with the surrounding areas of North Lanarkshire, my constituency has more than its fair share of economic and other woes. Motherwell and Wishaw is high on the list of deprived areas.
The Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) splits Scotland into 6505 small areas, known as datazones, and analyses them on seven factors: Employment, Income, Health, Education, Crime, Access to Services, and Housing. The last two are not the worst in Scotland, but the others combine to ensure that “most of Motherwell and Wishaw’s datazones are found in the more deprived deciles”.
A third of Motherwell and Wishaw’s 92 datazones were found in the 15% most deprived, the highest proportion in Central Scotland, and the community of Craigneuk is listed as the 9th most deprived area in Scotland.
The constituency has high unemployment – at 4.4%, one of the highest claimant counts in Scotland (the Scottish average is 2.8%, and the UK 2.5%). A quarter of claimants have been unemployed for over a year. Over a quarter are young people aged 16 to 24.
The claimant count hides the full scale of the problem. If we look at everyone who is excluded from the Labour market, we find 18.1% were “employment deprived”, against 12.8% for Scotland as a whole. Similarly, 18.2% of the population of Motherwell and Wishaw are “income deprived”, against 13.4% for Scotland.
Many diseases and disorders have higher rates among poorer households. The health divide for cancer was highlighted this week. Despite, or perhaps because of lack of attention to this greater need, our local health services regularly feature in the worst performers.
The new Glasgow hospital may currently get the headlines for poor A&E waiting times, but Wishaw General is often close behind, and in some respects is worse – it frequently has more patients waiting over 12 hours for treatment than any other Scottish hospital.
These and issues such as the attainment gap in education are not isolated issues, nor are they separate in terms of how we can address our problems. They feed off each other. A hit for one has consequences for the others. Of course the other side of the coin is that measures to address some of the problems should have beneficial effects in respect of the others.
Unfortunately there is not much evidence that this is happening. And certainly not much evidence of any concerted attempt to get the big picture and address the problems collectively, which I believe needs to happen.
Where is the help for regeneration in our area? Ravenscraig has seen the local authority get Tax Incremental Funding (basically permission to borrow that is set against the hypothetical future increase in income resulting from the spending) to enable it to build infrastructure to attract investment, but the plans that took a long time to materialise have now been shelved with developers going back to the drawing board.
Where is Scottish Enterprise in all this? They have a Cities Strategy which sees them as the powerhouses of growth. That is fine for cities, but there isn’t much evidence of it having a big impact in driving investment for surrounding areas. In many ways the trickle-down theory that underpins the strategy reminds me of those who argue for the trickle down benefits of giving rich people more money.
We are left with areas such as Lanarkshire struggling to get the investment they need to stimulate growth and tackle social deprivation. Central government provides lots of sympathy and will even give a project such as Ravenscraig national status – but so far that has not translated into anything more concrete that a listing in the National Planning Framework.
We have to stop tinkering and pretending we can fix one part of the machine while ignoring the other parts. We need action to address the health and education inequalities alongside action that will achieve genuine regeneration rather the continued and unwanted distinction of having Europe’s largest brownfield site.
We need action to protect the jobs we have alongside action to create new jobs. But that is not what we are getting. Though still struggling to get back on its feet, this area is facing thousands of further job losses, from the steel industry to local government and all the other jobs that depend on them.
Frankly, that’s the last thing that we need. Responsibility for this situation is split, but I can tell you one thing – it’s not because of any lack of effort by the people of this area to rebuild our economy, and the reason we have to do so is most certainly not of our making.
This situation is partly the product of the long term decline of the manufacturing sector – but who is responsible for that? We have had decades of neglect by UK governments hooked on finance and services, and sometimes we have also had to contend with a deliberate strategy to weaken areas such as mining and steel, because they were a cornerstone of trade union strength, which Thatcherism dictated had to be wiped out.
But the causes do not lie just with Westminster. The Scottish Government could do much more through employment initiatives and education, but what we get is college cuts and worsening attainment gaps for children from poorer households.
While the Scottish Parliament has only been with us since 1999, the Scottish Government is increasingly responsible for how the Scottish economy fares, with powers gradually boosted over the first decade or so, followed by major expansions of its power through the Scotland Act 2012 and the current Scotland Bill – which will make it one of the most powerful devolved parliaments in the world.
The Scottish Government is responsible for how much money local government has to spend. While the Scottish budget has shrunk, the amount passed on to councils has shrunk even more, as was made clear by a recent publication from the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe).
This showed that since 2007, the overall Scottish Government budget fell by 3%, but council budgets were cut by 6% (and that includes the accounting trick of money held back, then released to “fully fund” the council tax freeze).
A big part of the bill for council services is wages, and after years of cuts, with Scottish Government passing on a disproportionate burden to councils, there are no easy options for making “savings”, and many services have already suffered significant cuts. We are now seeing the cumulative impact of Scottish Government cuts’ with the latest fears for massive job losses among North Lanarkshire Council employees.
All these factors are coming together to create the looming jobs crisis that starkly stares into the faces of those who live in Motherwell and Wishaw, crushing their hopes of a better future.
Both UK and Scottish Governments have contributed to the problem, but we should not allow either to avoid action by playing the blame game. We don’t need buck passing. We need governments that use all their powers and do everything they can to address our problems – and that has to start by saving the steel industry – through taking it into public ownership if necessary – and by finding the funding to protect council jobs and services, giving the people of Motherwell and Wishaw hope that things can still get better.