Financial gloom may leave a stronger society in its wake, says Douglas Yates
The economic downturn could be a blessing in disguise for hard-hit communities, according to one of local government’s new leading lights.
Douglas Yates, who has just become health and wellbeing spokesperson for COSLA, says the crunch will be a reality check for a society grown too dependent on the state.
“We expect councils or the Government to be able to provide a, b, c and d, and the reality is they won’t be able to do that in the future,” he says. “Maybe that won’t be a bad thing, if it turns people back to thinking about what they can do for themselves, what they can do for their families and what they can do for their neighbours, particularly those who are vulnerable or elderly.” Insularity is one of the curses of modern society, says Yates. “We don’t look out for one another the way we did a generation or two ago,” he says. “Maybe this time of austerity…will encourage us to look beyond the boundaries of our home and see how we can help one another out and become better neighbours [and] more considerate friends.” Idealistic, maybe, but there’s nothing Pollyanna-ish about Yates. Four decades of community work in his native East Renfrewshire, a long career in the police and his most recent incarnation in local politics convinced him of the power of the Big Society before it was a twinkle in David Cameron’s eye.
As a sergeant on the beat, he watched Linwood’s economy collapse with the decline of the Chrysler factory in the late seventies. The town, hit by rampant youth unemployment, became a tinder box. A far-sighted chief constable allowed Yates to train as a youth worker and begin organising diversionary activities in the stricken community.
“When others were worried about the potential for soaring crime rates in Linwood because of all these young people running around without much to do, we…had street football teams, with people coming together so it eliminated the gang mentality,” he says.
“I tried to harness young people’s energies and abilities and channel them in a productive way,” he says. “The motivation was seeing the outcomes of it, seeing young people develop into fine young individuals, settle down into good jobs and do well.” Some did spectacularly well: one of the young players to turn out for Linwood Police five-a-side was none other than former Scotland star Paul Lambert. Other youngsters picked up fitness and discipline at the boxing club Yates, a certificated boxing coach, ran for 20 years.
“If kids want to scrap, let them come down and get their energies out training, getting fit, and learn to have a disciplined mind so they can channel their energies and channel aggression so they don’t go out and fight in the streets,” he says.
Yates’ passion extended to older and disabled people and bringing different parts of the community, including diverse faiths, together.
When he retired from the police he became the inaugural chair of Barrhead and District Victim Support, now East Renfrewshire Victim Support, one of the first organisations of its kind in Scotland.
At that time, he was also drawn into local politics. He stood for the SNP at the last regional council elections and for Jim Murphy’s parliamentary seat of Eastwood in 1997. He was elected to East Renfrewshire Council in the last local elections, and immediately became part of the Labour/ SNP/Independent ruling coalition.
He describes his move into local politics as the extension of a lifetime’s career.
“When you’re a police officer, you’ve not just to be a police officer enforcing the law… you’re a whole range of different things,” he says. “It equips you to be involved in politics because you’re always having to play things off to get the right solution. You’re involved in social work, because it’s the police who find the children out in the street or who have to go into domestic violence situations.
You come across a lot of vulnerable people when you work in the police service and you rack your brains to see how best you can help.” His new role with COSLA is a perfect fit with the other hats he wears as non-executive director of Greater Glasgow and Clyde NHS and convener for social work and health in East Renfrewshire. So what will be his focus as he takes up the health and wellbeing brief nationally?
“How to deliver efficient and effective frontline services to our community at these times of austerity,” he says. “That’s the bigticket item. And how do we care for the growing number of older people within our communities, especially those over 85?” He is reluctant to speculate on what that means for the provision of universal services, specifically, free personal care, but says there can be no sacred cows.
“I don’t think anything can be sacrosanct,” he says. “I’d like to believe we can still deliver [free personal care]. I’d like to believe travel plans for older people can be preserved. I’d like to believe we could have free prescriptions and eye tests. But we’re boxing blind to a certain extent because we don’t know the results of the spending review. What seems clear is we’re going to have far less to go round. So all elected members have to be conscious of the need to make efficiencies wherever we can make efficiencies.” That means a new, leaner approach to the delivery of services, with the focus on pooled resources, shared services and adoption of best practice. And, of course, a reduced role for the state as individuals become more willing to help themselves and each other.
He gives an example of how attitudes need to change. “Last winter, people were phoning me up expecting the council to come and clear the roads of snow,” he says. “Well, if they’re physically able, why don’t they do it themselves?
“When I was younger, there were a lot of winters with deep snow, and my mother would send me round to the pensioners nearby to shovel the snow off their paths, put salt down, make sure they’re okay and run errands for them. There was a sense of belonging to that neighbourhood, taking a more liberal view of the family.” There is now a compelling economic argument to rediscover the strengths of that era, however sepia-tinted they may now appear. “No one wants to go through this period of austerity, but it’s not all darkness and gloom,” says Yates. “You’ve got to think, what opportunities might come out of this?
What kind of society might develop from this?” A silver lining, perhaps, that we can’t afford to ignore.