Practical and pragmatic socialism in action benefiting communities in North Ayrshire


“North Ayrshire has pursued a radical, visionary policy agenda. They have introduced Scotland’s first Community Wealth Building strategy and they have refused to accept SNP cuts.”

By Tommy Kane

Not that you would know it from the silence of the mainstream media and centrist political class but there Is something very important going on in local government in North Ayrshire. Unashamedly socialist in outlook and producing benefits and results for the people and communities there, North Ayrshire is practicing a socialism made not for cheap headlines, the debating society or the student union. It is instead socialism of a practical nature that is committed to putting ideas into action and delivering benefits for the people they represent.

It would be easy for socialists and others to put North Ayrshire Council and this year’s Scottish council elections down their list of priorities. The horrors of war in Ukraine, the consequent geopolitical uncertainty and the double standards and hypocrisy it exposes; the relentless continuation of the pandemic; the cost-of-living crisis; the attacks on workers by far too many bad employers emboldened by a political class they know will not challenge their economic power are understandably provoking anxiety and exercising minds.

While the dire timidity of a Labour leadership that deceived its own membership and is now more concerned with attacking socialists within its own membership (including some of those duped into voting for the current ‘leader’) than attacking the structural inequalities that have resulted in the cost-of-living crisis and the laws that enable bad employers is angering people and encouraging the old cliché and mantra amongst voters of how ‘they are all the same’.

But its exactly because of all those things that the example being set by North Ayrshire and the hope they are providing is so important. People need hope and they need it demonstrated that alternatives exist to free market dogma, that challenge the idea that economic prosperity is only to be found in private property relations and on the backs of exploited workers. And that challenges the preposterous idea that fundamental human needs such as energy and housing can only be provided by the private sector and the motivation of profit.

For socialists, inside and outside the Labour Party, North Ayrshire demonstrates that socialism works. It also gives us the example of how, in the absence of any vision from the current political class at the Scottish and UK levels, that socialism can, and should, be built locally. North Ayrshire Council, under the leadership of Joe Cullinane, is a beacon of hope set against a wider political context, where the leadership of all the main parties accept, and have no intention of challenging, the current economic orthodoxy.      

North Ayrshire Council, in First Minister Nicola Sturgeons backyard, is helping working class people by creating a new kind of local economy. One that creates jobs, develops publicly owned renewable energy schemes, builds, per head of population, the most amount of council houses in Scotland and invests the surplus it makes from community wealth building into communities that need investment the most after over a decade of austerity and before that from decades of neo-liberal deindustrialisation. All of this despite the relentless year on year council cuts passed by the SNP Government at Holyrood.

But this is a Labour Council in Scotland and isn’t Scottish Labour in the doldrums and isn’t Scottish politics in a state of suspended constitutional paralysis? Well, yes, both are true, but with a political vision and a rejection of managerialism that infects most of local government in Scotland, North Ayrshire Council Labour group under the leadership of Joe Cullinane is bucking both trends. He is showing how practical socialism improves the lives of working-class people when socialists intervene in the economy with a view to sharing the proceeds equally. If they were to look and listen, he is also offering a guide to the, electorally stagnating Scottish Labour leadership.

North Ayrshire has pursued a radical, visionary policy agenda. They have introduced Scotland’s first Community Wealth Building strategy and they have refused to accept SNP cuts, by refinancing loans and adopting a fiscal policy of maintaining reserves at 2%, releasing funds for investment and consequently growing the Councils workforce whilst others shed jobs by accepting the SNP cuts orthodoxy.

They have implemented the most ambitious house building programme in Scotland with 1625 new council houses. Taken together with the few hundred social houses being built by local housing associations, North Ayrshire house building programme is double the SNP Government’s target. But it doesn’t stop there they are looking after their elderly residents by investing £25million to upgrade every sheltered housing complex in North Ayrshire. To address fuel poverty and take climate action they are installing solar panels on more than 6000 council houses to reduce energy bills and cut carbon emissions.

North Ayrshire is leading the way on climate action and akin to the national Labour manifesto’s of 2017 and 2019 they are focused on taking action that also delivers local economic opportunities by taking energy back into public control. Instead of ceding to private investors and privatising renewable energy schemes, North Ayrshire is keeping their schemes in public ownership, with big plans for more, thus keeping accruing surplus to reinvest for the benefit of the people in North Ayrshire.

They are transforming two former landfill sites into Council-owned solar farms. These will provide almost two-thirds of the Council’s energy needs, cut carbon emissions by 850 tonnes per year and deliver a financial return of £25million – all of which will be reinvested in North Ayrshire, including 15% of the financial return that will be made available to community groups through their community benefit policy

North Ayrshire’s impressive vision on Community Wealth Building helps guide their actions. They are Scotland’s first Community Wealth Building Council and seeking to use every resource at their disposal – finances, physical assets, and people—to repurpose the local economy so that it works for local people and protects the environment

The thinking is quite simple. The public sector across Ayrshire spends £1billion a year procuring goods and services – they are imaginatively and deliberately spending existing budgets with local businesses but also co-operatives, worker owned businesses, social enterprises etc

They are using their power as the largest local and regional employer to influence the local labour market, driving up pay and terms and conditions and targeting recruitment and training policies towards disadvantaged groups like single parents and those with disabilities

They are stopping the sell-off of public land and buildings by repurposing them and retaining them in public or community ownership. While tackling privately owned derelict sites, bringing them back into productive use and into council ownership where possible

It doesn’t stop there they are working on the divestment of the regional pension fund, Strathclyde Pension Fund, and towards the creation of a mutual bank to be sued to invest in the local economy in a progressive and proactive way. Using local pension funds to bring socially beneficial outcomes.

Since Joe Cullinane became Council Leader, North Ayrshire Council has paid its own staff the new rate of the Living Wage five months early. They are insourcing contracts, including social care contracts with over 80% of our care at home services now back in council control, improving the pay and conditions of workers in the process. Against the most challenging cuts being made to councils they have consistently budgeted for a fair pay deal for local government workers.

People in North Ayrshire, Scotland and across the UK are literally going hungry because of Government economy policies. Some talk about Good Food Nation’s and National food strategies but without any firm policies to help feed people. Warm words don’t feed empty stomachs, nor do the flags flown by Sturgeon on one side and Johnston and Starmer on the other side. North Ayrshire however is getting on with the job of feeding people.

They been tackling the ‘holiday hunger’ of schoolchildren for years with a holiday meal club “Wrap, Run and Fun”. During the first lockdown, they distributed 1.5million meals to local families with packages filled with fresh meat, fruit and veg from local suppliers. Throughout the pandemic they provided families entitled to free school meals with support of £4 per day per child, the highest spend per child of any council in Scotland. This necessitated a commitment of over £700,000 of Council funding as the Scottish Government support only equated to £2.50 per child.

They are also the first Council to provide free sanitary products, the first Council to install dedicated mental health counsellors in secondary schools, the first Scottish Council to exempt care experienced young people from Council Tax, and the first to offer a birth to potty free reusable nappy scheme.

Impressive as this record of achievement is, this is only the start of the work of Scotland’s socialist council. North Ayrshire Labour under the leadership of Councillor Joe Cullinane has much more that they want to do. To help them we must work toward their re-election in May’s local elections.

Given this quite remarkable record, which is worth saying again has been achieved against a context of year-on-year council cuts, it is imperative Joe Cullinane is returned as leader in May. There is some hope this can be done, after all in Salford and Preston, the local Labour Party bucked the national trend at last year’s elections by offering socialist solutions to the problems faced by families in their area.

However, Unlike in Salford and Preston, North Ayrshire’s socialist programme will be up against the nationalism of the SNP and the Scottish Tories, a political environment comparable only to the hostility around Brexit in 2019. That’s why it is so vitally important that Joe Cullinane and North Ayrshire Labour get the support of socialists from across the UK.

If you can donate to the crowd funder please do so, if you can share supportive social media content then please do so and if you can at the time of the short campaign get yourself up to North Ayrshire to campaign. A very warm welcome awaits you!

The Labour Party leadership may be ignoring rather than promoting the success story of Labour in power in North Ayrshire but we as socialists across the whole of the UK can do our bit by showing solidarity and unity with Scotland’s socialist council. In the run up to May’s election let’s talk about North Ayrshire and help them continue with the amazing work they have done up until now.

North Ayrshire council leader Joe Cullinane. Photo credit: Irvine Herald

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