In early November, Glasgow will be the focus of the world’s attention for COP26, the UN’s Climate Change Conference. For Boris Johnson, however, two major embarrassments await. First, an environmental conference aimed at weaning the developed world off fossil fuels looks set to take place in the middle of a British energy crisis, with gas supplies breaking down and drivers lining up at the pumps. Second, Glasgow — whose council is now run by the Scottish National Party for the first time — is a city in crisis whose streets are overflowing with trash.
Sidewalks strewn with household waste are a common sight. Residents routinely post social media images of the city center and its outer suburbs covered in detritus. Glasgow’s refuse collectors are appalled. They characterize the situation as a health and safety breach, and cite the risk of leptospirosis, a bacterial disease transmissible through rodent urine. So far this year three Glasgow trash collectors have been attacked by rats.
Collection rates, disposal charges and illegal dumping are all blamed for the waste scandal. In April, the SNP council switched collections from every two to every three weeks. Three months later, a £35 ($45) disposal charge was introduced for large electrical items or groups of items. Not surprisingly, illegal dumping has become more commonplace.
Glaswegians have given up waiting for the council to fix the problem and are rolling up their sleeves. Clean-up efforts have popped up throughout the city. There is a determination that Glasgow must not be seen looking ‘mockit’, or filthy, on the international stage.
Residents are angry too. The focus is mostly on Susan Aitken, who after decades of one-party rule swept Labour out of power to become Glasgow council’s first Nationalist leader in 2017. In a car-crash TV interview in September, she said that the city just needed a ‘spruce up’. Opponents called this a staggering understatement and proof she is out of touch.
When Labour’s leader, Sir Keir Starmer, visited Glasgow in August, he took part in a trade-union protest against the mess and called the crisis ‘a failure of leadership from the SNP council’. Aitken accused him of ‘scapegoating’ Glasgow and even suggested the union was echoing the language of the ‘far-right organizations’ that had blamed immigrants for previous waste problems in one part of the city.
‘We’ve become the fly-tipping [illegal dumping] capital of Britain and host the UK’s fourth-highest population of rats,’ says Thomas Kerr, the Conservative group leader on the council who represents one of the worst affected wards. ‘That’s the legacy of Glasgow’s first Nationalist council.’
It is also the legacy of Scotland’s Nationalist government, which has cut Glasgow City Council’s budget by 11 percent. Aitken won’t complain about the administration of Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, though. Sturgeon backs Aitken despite evidence that she is not up to the job, and Aitken remains loyal to the boss even though Sturgeon’s cuts have helped precipitate the current crisis. The SNP is first and foremost a movement for Scottish independence. Nothing — no matter the cause, no matter its gravity — takes priority over page one, section two of the SNP constitution: ‘The restoration of Scottish national sovereignty.’
The GMB trade union, which represents the refuse collectors, and others want more spending on cleaning services, a return to fortnightly household collections and the scrapping of the disposal charge. For its part, the council rejects charges of underfunding. Per capita, it says, Glasgow’s street-cleaning budget is twice the national average. It points to the ‘huge challenge’ posed by Covid and also raises the matter of personal responsibility. A spokesperson calls it ‘sadly a fundamental issue’ that ‘too many people do not dispose of their waste in an appropriate manner’.
That is a fair point, but unlikely to assuage anxieties, given that the prime minister, the pope and President Biden will be in town in just a few weeks. Bins spewing rubbish onto busy thoroughfares and mounds of refuse dotted across what is, at its best, a beautiful city threaten to negate Glasgow’s potential at the very moment when the world will be watching.
In the last two decades or so, Glasgow has undergone a transformation unimaginable a generation ago. The old Glasgow was dubbed ‘the murder capital of western Europe’. There were 39 cases of homicide in 2005, and the ghosts of gangland still haunted the city’s run-down East End. Sectarianism centered on the ‘Old Firm’ soccer rivalry between Celtic (Catholic fans) and Rangers (Protestant fans) was common, expected and culturally sanctioned.
The new Glasgow is a hub of riverside redevelopment and fashionable coffee shops. The South Side is the new West End. The homicide rate is barely one-third of what it was in 2005, and the city’s Violence Reduction Unit — which has been so successful at driving down knife crime that it is being replicated down south by London’s mayor Sadiq Khan — reports that last year Scotland saw ‘one of the lowest number of recorded homicide cases for a single 12-month period since 1976’.
Pockets of deep poverty and drug misuse remain, as do grimly Scottish health indicators, but none of this undercuts Glasgow’s reputation as the Comeback Kid of British and European cities. COP26 should be an opportunity for Glasgow to show the world how far it has come and demonstrate what hard work, innovative thinking and municipal patriotism can do for even the most troubled urban centers.
Glasgow’s waste crisis is about budget cuts and bin collections — but there’s much more than that at stake.
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