Bill Munsie: SIMD, Ferguslie Park and the persistence of poverty

Bill Munsie argues that no one should be surprised at the continuation of Ferguslie Park in Paisley as the most deprived community in Scotland, and says that the persistence of poverty in particular localities in Scotland will not be rectified without both effective community empowerment and a proper national strategy to tackle poverty and inequality

THE mainstream media and the political parties seem to be responding to the latest Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) figures as if it is some kind of a surprise that Ferguslie Park in Paisley has come out top both in the most current figures and also in the rankings from four years ago. There has been no coverage (that I have seen) that highlights that Ferguslie Park has had this dubious distinction (or close to it) since we started collecting poverty data at a very local level in the early 1970's.

In the early 70's, Ferguslie Park was the only locality in Scotland that was the base for one of the twelve original Community Development Projects set up in response to the data only then beginning to become available that highlighted the very geographically concentrated nature of poverty across the UK (and especially so in Scotland mainly due to the geographical concentration of public housing). Ferguslie Park has featured in any and all the many initiatives since to tackle poverty and deprivation at a local level.

Not only that, but the vast majority of all the areas that appear in the current stats have also been regularly appearing in both the original rankings forty years ago and in all the subsequent versions we have had since then measuring locally based urban deprivation in Scotland. Some of the work that The Glasgow Centre for Population Health has been undertaking seems to indicate that in some cases (like the inner east end of Glasgow) the same areas have been in poverty since Scotland first became heavily industrialised in the early 19th century.

So, you would think that this might lead to politicians and the media to ask themselves if all this locality stuff is a waste of time and money, or is something else going on?

“Some of the work that The Glasgow Centre for Population Health has been undertaking seems to indicate that in some cases (like the inner east end of Glasgow) the same areas have been in poverty since Scotland first became heavily industrialised in the early 19th century.”

I don't for a second think locality based approaches are a waste of time and money. Ferguslie Park (and the other areas highlighted) are without a doubt very much better than they were. And without all the programmes from the original CDP they would have been considerably worse that they now actually are.

But I do think a couple of interesting questions need to be asked around this.

First, this really does highlight the structural nature of poverty and deprivation in Scotland and how difficult it is to shift problems of this nature. Why no acknowledgment of this in the current commentary? Is it now just too challenging to say that poverty, even when very locally concentrated, can never be eradicated without wider radical action to address the growing levels of inequality evident in Scotland today? Why apparently, is this link now missing in the current analysis?

It certainly should come as no surprise to anyone. The deep structural nature of poverty and inequality and the need to tackle this not just through local initiatives but with wider programmes designed to comprehensively redistribute income, wealth and influence at a national level is not a new idea. This was pretty much the conclusion the 12 original CDP's across the UK came to by the mid '70's. The programme was terminated early because the Labour Government at the time thought it was too marxist in its analysis.

Given events since, marxist or not, they seem to have been on to something in saying that the problems of Ferguslie Park can never be resolved in Ferguslie Park alone. We seem to be focussing all the attention on local initiatives. Is it not time to again point to the elephant in the corner and say that we also need to be actively working to significantly reduce poverty and inequality nationally? The alternative is that 40 years from now we will still be wondering why these same areas suffer from these same problems.

“I do believe that the impact of all these programmes could have been significantly increased if the central importance of letting local people direct the activity had been better understood. I am not for a second suggesting that this is simple or easy.”

Second, even given the structural nature of poverty and inequality, have such initiatives made as much of a difference as they could? A definitive answer to this is extremely difficult. Quite rightly, there is not an urban community anywhere in Scotland suffering from severe poverty and deprivation that had not had considerable resources targeted at it over the past forty years. So, no comparison is possible to give us a clear and definitive answer. Although, looking at Detroit it is quite clear what the impact is on local communities of abandoning them to the ravages of market forces.

I do believe (and think there is a fair bit of evidence to support this view) that the impact of all these programmes could have been significantly increased if the central importance of letting local people direct the activity had been better understood. I am not for a second suggesting that this is simple or easy. Designing effective programmes to reduce poverty and inequality is difficult enough. Doing this in a way that works with local networks, and is based around giving real control of decision making and resources to local residents much more so. However, far too often, the action we see seems to consist of (at worst) doing things to people or (at best) for or with people. Giving people control of decision making and resources still seems to be the exception, rather than the rule.

I know that this is challenging, but in the end, if people are not trusted, they will know they are seen as a problem to be fixed and not a solution to be resourced. In far too many cases the public authorities still seem not to trust local communities with having real control over their own destiny and continue to think of them as a problem that can be solved with the right technical approach.

Bill Munsie, now retired, worked from the mid ‘70’s until recently for a number of councils and voluntary organisations in the west of Scotland on locality based programmes to reduce deprivation.