Sometimes, something happens that restores your faith in activism, and humanity in general. This week, I had one of those moments at a public meeting for Save Our Services East Edinburgh.

I’ve been to a lot of meetings since the Coalition government came to power, and not all of them have been terribly interesting or productive. If I’m honest, I wasn’t expecting anything special from this one, but I wanted to make the effort to go to this one, because it had been organised by a small, unaffiliated group of residents, rather than a trade union, political party, or activist organisation. They invited their local councillors, printed some flyers, and booked a room with what they thought was a rather over-optimistic capacity of 60 chairs, but by the time the meeting was due to start, every one of those chairs was taken. Five minutes later, most of the standing room was gone too.

For those who don’t follow Edinburgh local politics – and to be fair, you would need to have been following them fairly closely to have heard about this – the Lib Dem-SNP coalition that makes up the main group in the City Council want to introduce something called the “Alternative Business Models Programme”. Basically, it’s privatisation with a friendly-sounding name, but it’s privatisation on a scale that’s never been seen before in Scotland. The Council are proposing to open up corporate and transactional services, environmental services, and facilities management, to bids from private contractors. This means that services as diverse as council tax collection, benefits services, waste and recycling, park maintenance, buildings maintenance, catering and cleaning could be operated by corporations instead of the democratically controlled council. This wasn’t on any party’s manifesto, and reactions have been overwhelmingly negative in the token attempt at public consultation, but the first contracts could be awarded as early as August or September this year. And this doesn’t just affect Edinburgh, because if privatisation goes ahead here, it will soon be rolled out across the rest of Scotland.

The meeting was held in Meadowbank, so the three councillors for that particular ward were invited*, but only two parties sent anyone to speak on their behalf. Gary Peacock of the Liberal Democrats attended, the Labour councillor Ewan Aitken was on holiday, so his colleague Cammy Day came in his place, and the SNP didn’t send anyone. The councillors’ contributions to the meeting were more or less what you would expect: a lot of excuses from the party in power, who claim that they don’t have all of the relevant information and haven’t made a decision yet, while the opposition provided a well-founded criticism, despite the fact that the same party is supporting privatisation in other local authority areas, and had introduced disastrous PFI projects in Edinburgh under the previous administration. Peter Hunter from Unison also spoke as a representative of Council staff – up to 4000 of whom could see their jobs moved into the private sector or lost altogether under the ABM programme – describing the shambles we can expect from privatised services, and the inadequate vetting procedures that have already allowed companies with convictions for price fixing and unsafe working practices to enter bids to run services in Edinburgh.

But it was the contributions from the floor that really brought this meeting to life. Most of the people in that room weren’t dedicated activists, very few of them were council employees, almost none were students, and, shockingly, a lot of them weren’t even middle class. They were ordinary residents who had heard what was happening, and they were angry. When they were given an opportunity to speak to their elected representatives, they didn’t hold back. They asked questions, then made sarcastic interjections when they didn’t like the answers – and the two councillors gave us a lot of answers that weren’t terribly popular. At the end of the meeting, the councillors were asked whether they would vote “yes” or “no” on privatisation, but neither of them was willing to give us a straight answer. Gary Peacock’s response was particularly damning, because he described how he would have to discuss it with his fellow Lib Dem councillors before he could make a decision. Remember, this is a man who was elected to represent the people in that room, but he needs to ask for permission before he can vote according to the views of his constituents.

If you live in Edinburgh, there are a few things you can do to help keep our public services in the public sector. Find out who your councillors are, and tell them that you are opposed to the Alternative Businesses Models Programme. In fact, you should probably do this if you live anywhere in Scotland – our Council have been quietly planning this for at least eighteen months, so your’s has probably been looking into it too. If you want to be more involved, there will be another meeting at Meadowbank Sports Centre on Tuesday 2nd August at 7pm to start planning a campaign against privatisation. It doesn’t matter if you don’t live in East Edinburgh because there will be people there from all across the city, some of whom are trying to set up groups like this in their own areas. The more people come, the louder the message we send to the Council.

This is a real, live, grassroots fight. Pass the message on.


*Scottish councils have multi-member wards, where three or four representatives are elected by single transferable vote.