The UK is once again gearing up for a General Election, just 10 months after the referendum on European Union membership and only 11 months after the shake-up of the Scottish Parliament elections last May. Not to mention the issue of another referendum on Scottish Independence which was voted on in September 2014 and is now once again back on the table.
In the mix of these major events, but desperately overshadowed, are the local government elections taking place across Scotland (and other parts of the UK) on Thursday 4 May. If referenda draw the biggest crowds – 84.6% turnout for the independence referendum – sadly, when it comes to electing the 1,227 local councillors across Scotland, interest and engagement is traditionally low, with turnout in the 2012 local government elections just 39.6%.
And the question is: why? Councils are responsible for service delivery in their local areas – everything from education to emptying bins, health and social care integration to libraries, roads to planning: a large chunk of the public services we all rely on are delivered by our 32 local authorities in Scotland.
For Shelter Scotland the role of local authorities is absolutely critical to achieving the goal of a safe, warm and affordable home for everyone. Local councils have powers to build and manage affordable homes, set council tax, enforce landlord regulations, bring empty homes back into use and, critically, to deliver on Scotland’s world-leading homelessness legislation. So wherever you are on your housing journey, local government and the choices they make impact directly and indirectly on you.
That is why we held 4 housing debates in our 4 Community Hub cities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen to give service users, staff, the policy community and, most importantly, the public an opportunity to quiz local candidates on their housing priorities and what they bring to the table should they be elected. Of course, local government delivery is intrinsically linked to both Holyrood and Westminster policy, legislation and funding but local housing strategies control house-building priorities and the response to those in housing need is decided by each of Scotland’s 32 local authorities.
Each of our Housing debates brought to the fore the range of housing issues affecting people in their local areas: from repair in the private rented sector, to rent affordability, social housing allocation, the possibility of a land value tax and the response to those who are facing the crisis of homelessness. Shelter Scotland has produced a Local Government Manifesto for Homes 2017 laying out what we think should be the top priorities for all councillors and we will be taking these key asks to newly-elected members of all parties next month.
Big constitutional questions do of course need to be both asked and answered, but over the past few weeks I’ve seen that people also care, actually a great deal, about what is happening right on their doorstep. The length and breadth of this country people are angry that homelessness in this country is Far From Fixed , there is a clamouring for better terms and conditions for those who rent privately and the message came out loud and clear that whatever the political make-up of councils post-election, a top priority must be to build more homes.
That is why we’re urging people to get out and vote a week today. Local elections may not generate the tension and excitement of the big fish but they really do impact on every aspect of our lives and this is the chance to make sure your voice really is heard.