How to run the city’s community venues has been a heated debate since covid forced Glasgow Life, the arms-length organisation charged with running the services, to shut the doors in March 2020 – and as residents prepare to go to the polls they all want to know what their candidates plan to do to get local venues re-opened and kept open.
Glasgow Life’s income was wiped out overnight by covid. In June last year, council finance director Martin Booth told councillors and campaign groups that earnings had “frankly fallen off a cliff at the start of the pandemic”.
“The assumption is that it will take three or four years to recover,” he said at the time.
Dr Bridget McConnell, then the chief executive of Glasgow Life, said the charitable organisation had become “increasingly dependent” on extra income to deliver public services.
“The austerity years have not been just a concept or a headline in a newspaper,” she added.
Today, with restrictions eased and life returning to a new kind of normal, many venues are still shut, including vital community centres such as the one in Ruchill. It has led to questions over whether the current Glasgow Life model is sustainable.
The city’s SNP group has rolled out the People Make Glasgow Communities (PMGC) programme, which gives charities and community groups an opportunity to take control of facilities in their area. It believes the scheme can “deliver better projects, services and results for communities”.
Ruairi Kelly, the SNP candidate for the North East ward, said the project is a “community empowerment programme which allows organisations to have greater control over assets and services in their neighbourhoods”. They can also often access funding pots which the council cannot.
One early example is the transfer of Stepford Football Complex to Easterhouse social enterprise FARE, which has plans to revamp the facility. Kelly, who has represented Easterhouse since his election in 2017, said the lease has been a “phenomenal success”, enabling FARE to “secure in excess of £1million funding to improve the facility, support local jobs and develop a much greater programme of activities than was previously on offer.”
He added: “PMGC applications are assessed on a case by case basis and we will continue to offer support to any organisation that wishes to have a greater stake in their local assets as long as it is of benefit to the local community, this has been and will continue to be the guiding principle of this initiative.”
However, campaigners and trade unions have called for a moratorium on transfers under the programme. They would prefer the services provided by Glasgow Life to be brought back in-house and delivered directly by the council, allowing for more democratic accountability.
Colin McGeoch is a member of the Save Whiteinch Library campaign, which formed when the facility didn’t re-open after the first lockdown, and Glasgow Against Closures, a group set up to unite those “fighting to save their vital cultural and sports resources”.
“We believe that community assets should be run by the local authority for the people,” he said, adding the PMGC scheme had been rolled out faster because venues were shut due to the pandemic. “Communities felt they had no choice but to try, some of them with no experience.”
“It’s not asset transfer, it’s liability transfer,” he said. The campaigners believe public venues should be properly funded by councils and not transferred to organisations “who are then left with the ongoing operational funding crisis and the cost of building maintenance”.
Colin said: “You’re running statutory services such as libraries and you’re basing that on the number of gym memberships. That’s an unsustainable model. Glasgow’s focus is getting tourism in, what they’ve done is taken their eye off the ball on providing essential, basic facilities.”
The city’s Green group also wants a conversation on reforming the arms-length body, which would include “returning some or all of its functions to direct council control”. Its manifesto supports a pause on the PMGC programme to allow a new approach, which “enables genuine community empowerment but does not confuse it with stripping of public assets”.
One of the arguments against bringing Glasgow Life back in-house is the organisation, as a registered charity, receives tax benefits. The Greens plan to lobby for tax changes so “decisions to bring services in-house do not come at an unfair cost”. They also pledge to guarantee funding for libraries for the whole council term and prioritise repairs to Carnegie and other heritage buildings.
At the group’s manifesto launch, Jon Molyneux, the Greens candidate for Pollokshields, said “real concerns” over Glasgow Life’s funding were highlighted during the pandemic. “The idea that you couldn’t open a library or community centre because we hadn’t sold tickets at the Concert Hall or haven’t been able to sell gym memberships, that’s not sustainable.”
He admitted there would be financial challenges to bringing the service in-house, with Glasgow Life benefitting from relief on VAT and non-domestic rates. However, he said: “These are public assets, they shouldn’t be rated on the same basis as a straightforward commercial asset.
“We would lobby the Scottish Government to look at that issue and look at how we could avoid being penalised financially for a decision to bring these services back in-house. Library provision is a statutory service, we shouldn’t have that uncertainty over its delivery.”
Sean McNamara, head of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland, said libraries are “a lifeline for many” which should be “consistently supported”.
“It has been welcome to hear all the main parties say they will do this but these words need to be followed by actions. We need a local government funding model that allows for robust backing for libraries.”
The SNP’s North East candidate, Kelly, said an assessment of Glasgow Life is already underway as part of a review of the “council family”, which has brought other arms-length organisations in-house. But, he warned: “Bringing Glasgow Life in-house wholesale would come with a number of challenges including a yearly £20 million tax bill and the loss of external funding which has been in the hundreds of millions over the years, so we will look at what model best serves the needs of Glasgow once the review has been completed.”
The SNP’s manifesto adds there is not a “one-size-fits-all” approach to the PMGC programme. “Some organisations will want to progress to a full community asset transfer, taking ownership of a venue or facility. Others will work to secure long-term leases or licences, whilst others may simply propose fresh and innovative approaches to how they work with local people.”
It pledges to continue re-opening “city venues that were closed due to the covid pandemic” and protect the “vital role of libraries in our communities”.
Labour has promised to reopen all closed community centres in its manifesto. “We support local communities being able to take on the running of local community facilities but this cannot be a means to get rid of a funding problem. Glasgow Labour will ensure that any transfers have community support, that buildings can be maintained, and that skills and support to deliver success are in place.”
At the launch, Malcolm Cunning, the group’s leader, said the review of Glasgow Life would report around August this year. “Labour would be open to potential alternative futures for Glasgow Life and restructuring,” he said.
“The biggest difficulty is that bringing back in-house loses certain tax advantages, particularly around non-domestic rates but also VAT. I’ve heard estimates as high as £50m as being the cost of losing those effectively tax privileges of being a charity. Unless you can replace the £50m, it is not as easy as ‘we will bring it back under democratic control’.”
He added his party had promised the trade unions “that we will actively look at the structure of Glasgow Life”.
Glasgow’s Conservatives also support re-opening all Glasgow Life venues as soon as possible and would retain all public libraries and community centres. The group’s manifesto states it would continue to explore community trusts taking over the care of sports pitches.
The Tories are in favour of a “full independent review of Glasgow Life to see if it is fit for purpose, including whether its functions should be brought back into the council”. They want to prevent the organisation from “offloading by leasing public buildings to community groups to manage when Glasgow Life itself has not been able to turn a profit/break even on the building”.