22% OF CHILDREN IN EDINBURGH live in poverty. In Leith ward it is 25% while in Leith Walk ward it is 26%. The wine bars, bistros, art galleries and bespoke delicatessens may speak of a Leith fast becoming a hot spot of gentrification - but between a quarter and a third of children in this part of the city live in poverty. Edinburgh has a population of 502,000 of which 79,550 live in poverty.
Astonishingly more than half of these (41,000) are working. In-work poverty impacts on 2,600 people in Leith Walk, 3,700 in Leith ward and 4,900 in Forth ward. This totals 11,200 - which is more than the 10,500 people unemployed in Edinburgh according to the Office for National Statistics. More than half of those unemployed are in the 16-21 age category. We have pensioner poverty too. Changeworks produced a map highlighting fuel poverty in Edinburgh and once again Leith and Forth ward feature prominently.
This information is essential when reading Poverty Safari by Darren McGarvey, aka Loki. Although he is writing about Pollok in Glasgow he could be writing about any so-called ‘sink estate’ dismissed as beyond the reach of civilised society. The book, an attempt to “understand the anger of Britain’s underclass”, does this with brutal honesty, humour, killer lines and a large dose of self criticism. It is an essential read for those who wish to understand/combat poverty.
His description of his environs will be recognised in Leith and other parts of the UK. Growing up surrounded by physical and verbal violence is the norm. Debt is incurred by “acting like we had more money than we did” as “the price of looking poor was always far higher.” Such routine experiences are rarely “represented, reported and discussed” within a media which often ‘others’ the poor. When the middle class gaze of the elites turn their way, it is often only to admonish the fecklessness and volatility of communities whose struggles they are wholly unfamiliar with.
The author’s direct experience of this life led to him being involved in BBC documentaries, but when he tried to bring a class perspective into discussions it was made clear that being descriptive of the symptoms was fine but analysis or prescriptions were neither necessary nor wanted. The way working class life is represented is desperately distorted, and must be remedied. It will not be easy but it needs to be done.
Decision makers exclude the community from the very decision making processes that decide on what is good for the community. That has failed, as the tower blocks in Pollok named ABC by the architects/planners (and ironically dubbed Alcatraz, Barlinnie and Carstairs by the residents and locals) have shown. Loki is aware that, “in the tension between the concerns of locals and the aspirations of the middle class there would only ever be one winner,” because “political participation was not about the community making its voice heard, but rather about corralling the herd to a pre-determined destination”. Grenfell stands as a bleak monument to equivalent differentials of class power.
The lands of Pollok Park, which were gifted to Glasgow as open space woodland, have the M77 running through them. This divided the community and led to the Silverburn shopping centre being built there. Benign patriarchy did not work in the 20th century and, in my lifetime, I have seen the houses of Fort, Grampian and Cairngorm built and demolished.
A good example of the type of change needed is the involvement of Fort residents in the design of what would replace Fort House. Working with residents led to the ‘colony style’ design by Malcolm Fraser being delivered by a joint partnership between the Port of Leith Housing Association and City of Edinburgh council. The density of housing is similar to that it replaces but working with people has led to a development that has seen over 5,000 bids for the 32 council homes here. A small step forward but more council homes need to be built if poverty is to be tackled effectively. It is the large-scale return of council housing that will break the grip of poverty and exploitation by landlords who now own 29% of all housing in Edinburgh, more than the council and housing associations put together.
Using the insights and anger in Poverty Safari and Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level can motivate and teach us that the bigger the gap between rich and poor, the worse our collective social experiences will be, including for the well off. Such insights can help us find positive solutions which work for the many not the few. That means we all have to face up to the fact that taxation is a public good and we need to pay more. We have the devolved power in Scotland to do this - what we need is the political will to use it. If you can’t afford to buy Poverty Safari ask your library to stock it. The statistics paint an ugly picture of recent political priorities, and we need to work together to halt and reverse them.
Councillor for Leith Walk ward and Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Edinburgh North and Leith in 2017.