I've been in local politics for a long time.
Quite often I'm amazed by the actions of our parliamentarians in London and Edinburgh. More recently I'm astounded by continual imposition and intervention from Holyrood on what are properly local matters.
But seldom have I been so dispirited as I am by the current debate on the abhorrent Tory welfare reforms and in particular the bedroom tax.
Loading article content
I gave evidence to Holyrood's welfare reform committee last week. On several occasions I pleaded for party politics to be put aside. Sadly, others couldn't help themselves and ignored the basic truth that they are to represent the people of their communities.
This is where the magnifying glass of the independence debate is itself a cause of problems. In the rush to promise that, in an independent Scotland, we wouldn't be faced with these issues and to enforce that position by pledging a 'no evictions' policy from SNP-led councils, Alex Salmond tries to hoodwink people into believing that this is a simple problem with a simple solution. It is not.
Scottish Labour's proposition that the Scottish Government legislate to impose such a 'no evictions' policy is also simplistic. It does, however, have the attraction that the consequent costs for local authorities would be met by the Scottish Government. But this is a forlorn hope.
As is so often the case, politicians of whatever political persuasion in Holyrood believe they know best when it comes to local issues. As is so often the case, they don't have a clue.
It would be easy for me to announce that North Lanarkshire Council will not evict those who find themselves in arrears. Many would expect me to do so. But until I'm in possession of all the facts I won't.
Although the bedroom tax is the focus just now, there will be many more changes which will impact on people. If we say that we will not evict people who fall into arrears due to the bedroom tax, the tacit message is that we will also not evict for any rent arrears, because the people impacted by the bedroom tax will be many of the same people affected by other welfare reforms and the universal credit. How do we tell the difference?
The universal credit will mean that tenants will receive a cheque directly, from which they will be expected to pay rent. How do we distinguish between those who are in poverty because of the bedroom tax or any other benefit change and the few who receive their cheque and behave irresponsibly by choosing to spend money on anything but rent? And without the threat of eviction how do we deter that behaviour?
My council has no history of routine evictions. Aside from the social principles involved, the economics of eviction are for the madhouse. Why would we evict for a debt of a few hundred pounds when the costs involved in eviction and rehousing homeless families run into thousands? But there are instances – thankfully few – where eviction is the last and correct resort.
Neither the UK Government nor the Scottish Government has carried out any impact analysis. But, in North Lanarkshire, we will. Only once those impacts are clear will we adopt a policy position.
In the race for the easy soundbite, the SNP-led councils proclaiming their 'no-eviction' position hide an uncomfortable truth. Earlier this year, all councils set their rent levels for the year ahead. The average rent increase for six of the nine SNP-led authorities was 4%. In Midlothian it was 6% and in Dundee, first to announce no evictions, it was 4.8%.
In North Lanarkshire, we took the decision to restrict rent increases to a below-inflation 1.5%. Had we gone with a higher figure we may have been able to take in extra money and use that to bolster our finances when the rent arrears piled up. But we would only have been hitting the most vulnerable in another way.
You will hear these reforms described as a 'war on the poor'. Like the poll tax, however, they represent something much more dangerous –a deliberate attempt to undermine the fabric of our society.
In North Lanarkshire, 38% of our tenants are not in receipt of some kind of housing benefit and pay full rent. If arrears build up and rents consequentially have to rise it is these people, by no means rich, who will pay the heaviest price. And this is classic Tory thinking: set family against family, community against community, tear people apart, keep the plebs to heel.
That is the real fight here. Right now every politician's focus should be mitigating the effects of the bedroom tax and other welfare reforms. Not with easy politics and cheap soundbites but by working with our communities, by protecting them, and by letting local councils make the right decisions based on all the facts.
Councillor Jim McCabe is the leader of North Lanarkshire Council and leader of the Labour group at COSLA.