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As Glasgow prepares to host global leaders at COP26, the eyes of the world are turning towards the city for the first time since the 2014 Commonwealth Games.
The pressure is on, and Susan Aitken, the SNP council leader since 2017, is bearing the brunt of complaints about what critics say are dirty streets, the many gap sites and the authority’s troubled relationship with trade unions. In a recent, excruciating television interview, she was repeatedly challenged to admit the streets were “filthy”, finally admitting the place could do with a “spruce up”.
For the past year, as November’s COP26 summit has drawn nearer, Aitken has occupied an elevated status among her fellow regional and urban leaders. She has addressed the World Bank, formed close relationships with the mayors and administrations of many of the world’s great cities, and worked closely with England’s directly-elected mayors such as Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan. She has also held discussions with private investors, and would like the UK government to stand behind the multi-billion-pound borrowing Glasgow and others need to renew their municipal fabric and create green infrastructure. She sees COP26 as an unmissable opportunity to accelerate the city’s economic resurgence and improve its global profile.
Aitken admits Glasgow isn’t what it could be. Covid, economic challenges, and strained relationships with the unions have all had an impact. And in important ways her hands are tied, not by international institutions or the UK government, but by Nicola Sturgeon. It’s generally accepted that Scottish local government is among the most circumscribed in Europe. Devolution to Holyrood has not been accompanied by devolution from Holyrood, where instead the SNP administration has overseen centralisation of power to Edinburgh.
A council’s ability to raise funds is greatly restricted. Scottish council taxes have been frozen then capped by successive SNP governments, while non-domestic rates are set centrally, collected locally, sent back to the centre then redistributed. Local authorities face criticisms from local people for challenges and cuts they have little power to address.
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