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Council Leader calls for 'action not words' in latest column

Posted on 31 Aug 2020

From early on in the Covid pandemic, I have spoken about the impending economic crisis that the country faces from the virus. And we are now reaching a pivotal period that will determine whether we do indeed, as the new mantra goes, “build back better” or whether the old, extractive, business as usual economy is restarted.

In the coming weeks, the UK Government’s Job Retention Scheme is due to close, an extremely worrying scenario when new figures have revealed 17,600 workers in North Ayrshire had been furloughed by their employer by 31st July, an increase of 1,100 since 30th June.

That the number of local workers on furlough increased at a time when the UK Government had started the process of closing the scheme down is a sign of the tsunami of redundancies that we could be facing unless the scheme is extended in some form.

It is absolutely critical that the UK Government do not move from a “Job Retention Scheme” to a Job Redundancy policy and they only have a matter of weeks to reverse their previous decision and ensure continued government intervention to prevent job losses.

But it is also a pivotal period as the Scottish Government gets set to announce its Programme for Government.

This year's Programme for Government must rise to the challenge of Covid, ensuring that the full power of Scotland’s devolved settlement is used to drive a fair and sustainable recovery for Scotland and its people.

The Scottish Government would do well to use the report published last week by two members of our North Ayrshire Community Wealth Building expert panel, Miriam Brett and Laurie Macfarlane, as their starting reference for a truly transformative post-Covid Programme for Government.

The report published by the think-tank Common Wealth, sets out a plan to transform Scotland’s economy. Amongst its proposals are a host of actions to deliver a Green New Deal, support tenants struggling as a result of Covid-19 and the promotion of democratic ownership of the economy.

I am particularly pleased that Miriam and Laurie have used North Ayrshire’s Community Wealth Building strategy as a model to create a new economy from the bottom up.

North Ayrshire is leading the way in rethinking how we do economic development. Our Community Wealth Building strategy is pioneering, and has triggered considerable interest since its launch, whilst we recently became the first Scottish Council to join the global network, the Wellbeing Economy Alliance, recognising that our future will not be found in the old economic model that seeks “growth” at all costs, that measures success solely through GDP, but rather our future will be secured through a new economy, that seeks to improve things for people and planet.

That leading economists like Miriam and Laurie believe our Community Wealth Building model can be the catalyst for the transformation of Scotland’s economy is heartening. They recommend that Scotland introduce a Community Wealth Building Act to build on our work, which I fully support. Such an Act would remove any barriers to local authorities pursuing Community Wealth Building and deliver an integrated strategy to grow and retain local wealth, with the wider national aim of reducing inequality.

That would be transformational, and I hope to see that level of ambition in the Programme for Government. Because, the time for action is now. For too long, areas like North Ayrshire have been let down by economic policies and investment decisions. The fact the Scottish Government have included £3m towards Community Wealth Building as part of the Ayrshire Growth Deal, is a welcome start. However the Growth Deal is still not signed, let alone any Government monies paid or any CWB pilot evaluated. The time for action is now.

You only need to look at decisions over recent years where we have been snubbed for the Social Security Agency HQ and the Medicine Manufacturing and Innovation Centre (MMIC), despite government policy on ‘inclusive growth’.

North Ayrshire’s economy is fragile. In fact, recent analysis from the Scottish Government showed we have the least resilient economy in the whole of Scotland. The government therefore cannot continue to ignore the vast regional inequality that permeates across Scotland.

The fact is, unless we get serious about tackling that regional inequality then we are on track to mirror the deep inequality that exists between London, the South East of England and the rest of the UK.

Statistics last week showed the continued trend of depopulation across the West Coast of Scotland. What is currently happening is the East Coast is ‘overheating’, with all the challenges that presents in areas such as housing, whilst the West Coast is withering on the vine.

So, we need urgent action to halt this trend. That action can start with a transformational Programme for Government but it must continue with ongoing support for the weakest regional economies.

Even before we face the impending tsunami of redundancies when the furlough scheme ends, North Ayrshire has been hit by the blow of redundancies announced at GSK in Irvine and the end date for Hunterston B station. Given the situation we face, the normal lip service of support will be unacceptable. We need action not words this time.