UNISON calls for urgent action to boost council street cleansing services

John StevensonNews that many areas in Edinburgh are not meeting cleanliness targets will come as no surprise to many, not least the workers who strive to provide – and incidentially take pride in – this front line service despite the problems they face. John Stevenson on STV website

So what’s the answer? We have to start by acknowledging that nothing is easy when councils are being hit by a failed government policy of austerity bringing unprecedented and unnecessary funding cuts. Cuts that don’t just affect our services but affect the whole local economy. Cuts that have succeeded only in making things worse by bringing the double-dip recession UNISON had warned about since day one.

On top of that, for two years the council’s efforts were diverted into a wasteful and costly privatisation exercise instead of concentrating on what really mattered – delivering the service. Millions spent on consultants would have been far better spent on front line services.

We now know that money spent on bringing in private contractors, while the ‘state of the city’ was assessed, has boosted only the pockets of those contractors and done nothing for the service.

Respect for our own communities would help with genuine consultation and involvement from those communities, unlike the process that saw them ignored and misled throughout the failed privatisation process.

Respect for the people who deliver the service. The council’s ‘modernising pay’ strategy saw many cleansing workers lose thousands a year in cuts to already low wages bringing a long, bitter and unnecessary dispute.

Respect for the service and the people its serves has already been shown by the workers who committed to keeping the service under the control of the people of Edinburgh. Despite low morale, they bought into efficiencies with the promise of greater involvement in developing a better service. We have yet to see that delivered in reality.

Ownership also matters if we want a cleaner, more sustainable Edinburgh. Not the kind of ownership that buys up a service with the sole purpose of making money out of it, but ownership by the council, communities and the workers who deliver the service.

Ownership that sees people take pride in their communities. Ownership that sees the council take responsibility for their duty to provide the service. That means education, prevention, investment and a real commitment to addressing the problem. By that we don’t mean setting daft targets for more fines but a real commitment to engaging communities.

Our members are fully committed to a better and more responsive service in Edinburgh. They do it on the front line and they know best how it can be done.

Cleansing workers have committed to that despite the lack of respect that wage cuts brought. They have cooperated fully with efficiency plans but much more needs to be done to involve them and the public.

Serious problems remain. Environmental Services in Edinburgh remain blighted by low pay, low morale and a history of underinvestment. The council has to address that urgently.

UNISON has been demanding an equal voice for workers and service users alongside those of managers in the design and delivery the service. It is an approach promised by the new administration and one we will hold them to. That needs a genuine three-way partnership between council, communities and workers if we are to improve cleanliness standards and participation in recycling to build the kind of Edinburgh we can be proud of.

Written by John Stevenson, Branch President, UNISON, City of Edinburgh Branch.