From the start, it was viewed as a defining moment of the 2011 Scottish Election campaign. While attending a now-forgotten photo-opportunity in Glasgow Central Station, Ian Gray -- Labour's nominal leader in Scotland -- was unexpectedly confronted by angry anti-cuts campaigners, and was forced -- in front of the country's media -- to beat an ignoble retreat into a nearby sandwich shop. Although some commentators argue that Scottish Labour actually lost the plot years ago, few would disagree that this was the moment when the grey man of Scottish politics ran away from any chance of becoming Scotland's First Minister.
Given the sheer narrative power of the Labour party's unfolding defeat in its supposed Scottish heartlands, it's probably unsurprising that few in the media chose to pay much attention to the protestors themselves -- even though, coming from the city's impoverished East End, the members of "Citizens United" were the epitome of a lost working class vote being discreetly picked up by the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP). Nor have they gone away; indeed, they recently helped the East Carers Group (ECG) make a vocal protest during a recent Glasgow City Council (GCC) event in the city's George Square, intended to celebrate three years until the start of the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games.
At the heart of the ECG protest is the fate of the Accord Centre, a day care facility in Dalmarnock, part of the city's East End. For more than 20 years, the Centre has provided much needed support to disabled adults -- including those with learning difficulties and complex, multiple needs -- and their families and carers, but is set to be demolished to make way for a coach park serving the Commonwealth Games.
"Four years ago we were told they had £250,000 to build a new Accord Centre," one angry mother said during the recent protest in George Square. "That money's disappeared. We were then told there would a legacy from the Commonwealth Games instead, but after two years -- just before Christmas -- the organisers of the Games told us 'No legacy for learning disabilities'."
Initially, GCC offered to provide some rooms in the nearby Bambury Community Centre, as well as other more personalised forms of support, but the East Carers Group insisted from the start that only a 'like for like' replacement could provide the necessarily safe, educational environment its vulnerable users need. Although the Council has already stripped the Accord Centre of its sensory room and therapy equipment, in anticipation of its demolition, the Centre continues to be used.
It's fair to say that there's no love lost between the GCC, which claims it can't afford to build a new Accord Centre, even if it wanted to, and those carers seeing millions of pounds of investment going into the redevelopment of the city's East End with little obvious benefit to the people actually living there. There have been accusations of betrayal, of broken promises, of 'vicious' vendettas and discrimination against not just people with learning difficulties but the East End's impoverished working classes. GCC, in turn, has claimed the closure of the Accord centre is part of the long-term 'personalisation' of learning disability services, and that only a minority of parents and carers are unhappy with the alternative provision on offer. "The changes being implemented will see service users continue to receive appropriate and tailored levels of support while also providing greater scope and flexibility for individuals to follow their interests and aspirations," according to one Council spokesperson.
The ill-feelings have been strengthened thanks to the Accord Centre becoming something of a political football between Labour and the SNP. Nationalist leader Alex Salmond -- subsequently re-elected as Scotland's First Minister -- visited the Accord Centre on the eve of the election, speaking with both users and their families. As recently as July, SNP MSP John Mason, who represents the East End constituency of Glasgow Shettleston, offered to mediate between the two parties, although his criticisim of GCC for taking "such a harsh and confrontational attitude" probably did little to suggest any neutrality on the matter.
In July, a possible compromise was put on the table. The Tollcross Leisure Centre, also in the city's east end, is about to undergo a £14 million transformation into the Tollcross Aquatic Centre, one of the main venues for the Games. After 2014, however, it has been suggested that parts of the centre could be adapted to provide appropriate day care facilities for users of the Accord Centre. Some of the members of the East Carers Group have visited similar facilities already operating in South Lanarkshire and were impressed by what they saw -- in short, the Tollcross Aquatic Centre could provide exactly the facilities required, but integrated with the general public "in a way that was safe for the vulnerable users".
Clearly unable to resist, a GCC spokesperson subsequently welcomed the fact that "the carers have changed their position" regarding the usage of a community centre, even if the proposals for the Tollcross Aquatic Centre are far closer to a 'like for like' facility than the Council's original proposal of couple of rooms hired out in the Bambury Community Centre. The Tollcross proposal also has the support of the First Minister, who recently wrote to GCC leader, Councillor Gordon Matheson, suggesting that it would be "a suitable alternative for a community that deserves to reap the benefits of the 2014 Commonwealth Games".
Salmond went as far as offering the carers "advice and support... on the development of a feasibility (study)," and suggested very strongly that GCC should work with the carers to arrange alternative packages of care until a long-term solution could be determined. "I am sure it would provide a degree of reassurance to the carers if they were able to continue to use the Accord Centre while the long term solution at the Tollcross Aquatic Centre is properly explored," he wrote. "Unless there is a pressing reason to urgently close the Accord Centre it does not seem sensible to cause the service users and carers further upheaval until such time as the long term solution is settled."
Feasibility study notwithstanding, the East Carers Group are not holding their breaths. "Until everything's in writing and the money's there, we believe nothing, because we've been there before -- twice!" one mother said.
"There is no 'legacy' without an Accord Centre," added Ian, one of the group's supporters at the George Square protest. "That's why we're here today. We want a legacy, we want it in writing, and we want it now."