Bin strikes are a symptom of a deeper ill

Edinburgh is filthy.

An overflowing bin outside Edinburgh’s Old College. Photo taken on Day 3 of the strikes. It’s since got much worse.

As I write, the city is in day 4 of a 12-day strike by waste collection staff, and the rubbish is rising. Public bins are overflowing, and there are papers, bottles, cans, take-away cups and cartons, and leftover food all over the street. There are piles of black bin bags collecting on corners, and neat little piles of dog poo accumulating under smelly bins.

All of Edinburgh’s waste disposal teams are on strike, meaning no waste collection from homes, no public bins emptied, and no street-cleaning. And you can’t just take your rubbish to the dump – recycling facilities are closed too.

Seagulls are thrilled. Everywhere, easy pickings. The city seems poised, ready for the mice and rats to emerge. It’s amazing how quickly our mess accumulates. Individual businesses are trying hard to keep the patches in front of their own cafes and shops tidy, but there’s an endless supply of human detritus to fill in behind each sweep of the broom.

Valuable yet undervalued workers

Here is a stark example of what a valuable service our council waste teams provide. And of how valuable, yet undervalued, the ‘essential workers’ of the pandemic really are.

These strikes, although they’ve begun in festival city, are coming to other corners of the country. Brace yourselves, Highland and Moray… it’s really not pleasant.

Of course, the situation might be resolved by the time you read this; such are my deadlines. A 5% pay offer was put to unions last Friday, and word is not yet through as to whether it will be accepted. Edinburgh City Council say they can’t afford a bigger increase than the 3.5% that was previously rejected; union leaders claim their members can’t afford to live on the offers made. The council has called upon the Scottish Government to release reserves to help it to afford a pay deal, but so far, no joy from Holyrood. Nicola Sturgeon claims ‘it’s not a bottomless purse’.

Our rich nation is broken

But what is the solution?

This latest mess is just another symptom of how broken our poor rich country is. It’s heart-breaking that decent people who are working full-time, can’t afford to live on the wages they are paid. With 10% inflation set to rise to 13% in coming months (over 18% next year, if you believe the FT), the country is on its knees. Add to that a broken, underfunded NHS, a care system full of underpaid staff, a joke of a public transport system with train strikes, missing busses, and broken-down ferries, and I am embarrassed to be British. How can it have got to this, and so quickly?

And yet look at the contrasts. The wages of the best paid are rising. The profits the banks and energy companies are making are obscene. Don’t start me on their CEO’s bonuses.

The FT predict inflation “entering the stratosphere”. 22nd August 2022

A living wage is a human right

I can’t see a solution. It’s a fundamental human right for people to be paid a living wage. I don’t mean the current £9.90 an hour, as with current rates of inflation, and predicted energy price hikes, that won’t keep the wolf – or the cold – from the door. I mean a wage that will allow people to pay rent or mortgage, and afford to travel to work, feed their families and heat their homes, with a little left over for fun. A wage that gives people dignity. That means not having to rely on foodbanks. That means children not going to school hungry, or in ill-fitting shoes, or without a winter coat.

That can’t be too much to ask in the UK in 2022.

But employers, either in the public or private sectors, simply can’t afford it. Councils are far too stretched to pay much more. So is the NHS. And in the private sector, to pay staff more, small business owners need to put their prices up. Which raises inflation. Which means wages need to go up again… it’s a vicious circle.

Where’s the leadership?

I’m no economist, but what I don’t see is any form of leadership at the helm of this ‘great’ country. And right now, I’m not seeing much from Holyrood either.

In Westminster, the choice between Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak is not one I have any say in – despite the media saturation of their desperate campaigns to undermine each other in the race for power. But I can’t hear either of them taking responsibility for, or coming up with any solutions to this bloody, desperate mess.

In Holyrood, the blaming of anyone but themselves for the shambles of our health and education – both devolved – means I’m losing faith.

The mess of our streets is merely a surface-level symptom of a much deeper ill. I simply don’t know what to do.

This column is published by Highland News and Media in newspapers across the north of Scotland. If you can, please support print media and the future of independent  journalism by buying a paper, or subscribing online. 

If you’d like to receive it by email every week, sign up free. Just pop your email address into the widget on my home page here. And feel free to share!