Page last updated at 23:16 GMT, Saturday, 15 May 2010 00:16 UK

Glasgow City Council 'has its voice back'

By Jamie McIvor
BBC Scotland local government correspondent

Councillor Gordon Matheson
Gordon Matheson was elected at a meeting of the ruling Labour Group

The new leader of Glasgow City Council is facing difficult decisions at a difficult time.

Difficult for both his own council and for local authorities across the country.

Since last Monday Labour councillor Gordon Matheson has been, arguably, the most important person in local government in Scotland.

As the leader of Scotland's largest council he is in charge of 24,000 staff and an annual budget of £2.5bn.

He will also be faced with some of the toughest choices since the council was created after the abolition of Strathclyde Region in 1996.

The ornate splendour of the council's Victorian headquarters on George Square are a reminder of the city's heritage and status. Days when money may not have been a problem for the City Fathers keen to demonstrate the prestige of the Second City of the Empire.

Now the biggest challenges for the council concern money.

Like every council in Scotland, Glasgow is facing several years of difficult budget decisions.

There is a sense in which we haven't lost our way in Glasgow - the bins have been emptied, the children have been taught - but there is a sense we had temporarily lost our voice
Gordon Matheson
Council leader

2,800 jobs are going over the next three years, although there will be no compulsory redundancies.

But Mr Matheson will also have to play a part in restoring Glasgow City Council's public reputation which, inevitably, has taken a knock from the Purcell affair.

Previous council leader Steven Purcell stood down as leader in March.

He initially cited "stress and exhaustion", but later admitted having used cocaine and problems with alcohol.

Many in the Labour Party would like to portray it simply as a personal tragedy but the impact has been much wider.

"I'm not going to pretend the last few weeks have not been difficult," Mr Matheson told BBC Scotland in his first full interview since taking the post.

"There is a sense in which we haven't lost our way in Glasgow - the bins have been emptied, the children have been taught - but there is a sense we had temporarily lost our voice.

"We've got our voice back again."

'Clear priorities'

However coping with tight public spending will be the biggest challenge.

"I think what is critical is that we continue to focus on what is important. When times get tough you need to know what your priorities are," he said.

"Glasgow has three which we are clear about. Education and early years; skills and the economy; and targeted support for the vulnerable."

The city council has frozen council tax for five years running. It began the freeze in 2006, two years before a national freeze agreed between councils and the SNP government.

Glasgow City Chambers
The City Chambers are a reminder of more 'splendid' times

This has led to the council becoming more reliant on funding from the Scottish government, which supplies more than 80p of every pound the local authority has. Glasgow City Council argues it does not get its fair share of funding from Holyrood compared to some other councils, a charge the government strongly denies pointing to an objective funding formula.

Mr Matheson said: "Clearly as we go forward we need to look at what the overall settlement that Glasgow receives is and compare that to what our requirements are.

"Glasgow last year received the smallest (percentage) increase of any council in Scotland. Now that is unjustifiable."

Another area of tension between the council and the Scottish government was education. Glasgow was frequently criticised by the government for failing to make enough progress cutting primary school class sizes but Mr Matheson believes relations have improved since Mike Russell succeeded Fiona Hyslop as education secretary.

"I think there has been an improvement in the relationship in the education area," Mr Matheson said.

"Glasgow will not go out of its way to pick fights with government at any level but I will always stand up for Glasgow."


Glasgow will not go out of its way to pick fights with government at any level but I will always stand up for Glasgow
Gordon Matheson
Council leader

One pressing problem is an ongoing industrial dispute at Culture and Sport Glasgow, the charity which runs museums, libraries and sports centres - facilities which were run by the council itself until three years ago.

Culture and Sport Glasgow gets most of its money from the council and has had to take its share of tough choices.

But the staff work for the charity - not the council - which means they are not tied to council pay deals.

Mr Matheson says it is up to Culture and Sport Glasgow to manage its industrial relations.

Unions claim many staff would be happier if they were still working for the council directly.

'Murky corridors'

But with budgets under pressure, the council may well have to look at other ways of delivering its services - potentially with the private sector or voluntary organisations playing a greater role.

"There will inevitably be some services that we deliver in a particular way - which we might like and prefer to deliver in that way - but that may not be possible," Mr Matheson accepted.

"And what we need to do is look at alternative ways of delivering services."

Mr Matheson's election ended a two month interim period for the council, after the dramatic resignation of Steven Purcell - widely viewed before his downfall as a highly talented man who was eventually destined for great things at Holyrood or Westminster.

Steven Purcell
Steven Purcell admitted taking drugs while council leader

Strathclyde Police are currently investigating allegations about the way the council handed out some contracts and some councillors have been interviewed.

Critics have called for a full independent inquiry into the council.

Deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon told the SNP Conference in March it was "time to shine some light" into its "murky corridors".

Asked for his view of the calls for an independent inquiry, Mr Matheson said: "There are no bodies more independent than (public spending watchdog) Audit Scotland and the police."

Challenging times lie ahead for Glasgow City Council which will probably find itself under scrutiny as never before.



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