Inequality and Social Mobility

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:25 pm on 12th June 2019.

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Photo of Paul Sweeney Paul Sweeney Shadow Minister (Scotland) 6:25 pm, 12th June 2019

It is a pleasure to follow so many other considered and thoughtful contributions on the complex issue of inequalities and structural poverty in this country.

While the impacts of the Tory party’s austerity agenda over the last decade are well documented and have been well discussed, there is a broader issue to be considered, particularly when looking at a city such as Glasgow: the economic geography of the city. Madam Deputy Speaker, you are no stranger to the city of Glasgow. I was brought up in a part of the city called Milton. I was speaking about Milton just yesterday to David Begg, who was involved recently in undertaking a study into connectivity around Glasgow and how the transport system could better join up the city and make improvements on equality. We were talking about Milton and how cut off it is from the city. That got me on to thinking about the story of how I uttered my first word.

My first word was, oddly, someone’s name, “Brian”. I was always curious about why my first word might be Brian, and it was the name on the fruit and veg van that used to go around the housing scheme of Milton. There was no grocery shop in Milton at that time as the housing scheme was built in the post-war period as a way to relieve slum housing conditions in the city and overcrowding, but many of the amenities were never built properly and the legacy of that persisted. That speaks in many ways to the broader issues of structural poverty and inequality in Glasgow.

Research based on the historical development of Glasgow, particularly in the post-war period, suggests that Glaswegians’ higher risk of premature death was caused by that structural inequality created through the planning system. Some researchers have labelled this the “Glasgow effect”: excess mortality that cannot be accounted for by poverty and deprivation alone. It impacts on everyone in the city.

Glaswegians have a 30% higher risk of dying before they are 65—which is considered a premature death— than people in comparable deindustrialised cities such as Liverpool and Manchester. They die from the big killers—cancer, heart disease and strokes—as well as the “despair diseases” of drugs, alcohol and suicide. Although they have a higher chance of dying prematurely in Glasgow, if they are poor, deaths across all ages and social classes are 15% greater. So it is clear that economic advancement alone and mobility will not improve overall life expectancy.

The mystery of the Glasgow effect has been studied for many years. Recent research by the Glasgow Centre for Population Health has shed new light on the situation. In explaining excess mortality, it confirmed that in many cases the combination of the historical effects of overcrowding, poor planning decisions in previous decades and a democratic deficit in local communities is among the reasons that drive premature deaths in Glasgow.

The issue of what was described by one researcher as “skimming the cream” of the city’s population to rehouse its best citizens in new towns is particularly striking. The research is based on Scottish Office documents. It discovered that towns such as Cumbernauld, East Kilbride and Irvine were populated by Glasgow’s skilled workforce and young families, while the city was left with

“the old, the very poor and the almost unemployable,” which severely harmed the city’s tax base and distorted the population of the city region as a whole.

Clearly this legacy needs to be addressed in the city of Glasgow through repopulation, re-densifying and increasing the diversity of incomes and social class into the city to address that structural effect and improve social mobility. This is a long-term strategy. It needs to be gripped at all levels of Government to address these long-term structural problems.

The issues in my constituency are clear. Although efforts were made, with great intentions, to improve social housing in the cities, such as the construction of Red Road in Sighthill, the impact of Thatcherite policies in the 1980s led to slum conditions emerging in those areas, particularly when drug dealers moved in, problems with antisocial behaviour and despair were apparent and the housing quality was reduced. Efforts have been made to improve those situations, most notably in 2003 with the writing off of the City of Glasgow’s £1 billion social housing debt, which has allowed an unprecedented expansion and renovation of the city’s housing stock, but there is still a structural problem with that issue in Glasgow. In Springburn, 91% of the population still live within 500 metres of vacant and derelict land.

I welcome Labour’s social justice commission proposal because it will delve into the structural and complex factors that drive structural inequality and social mobility issues in cities such as Glasgow. There needs to be much more research into, for example, understanding the comparative differences between Glasgow and other deindustrialized cities in Britain to understand what can be done, particularly when looking at the role of the physical environment as a component of deprivation. That is a major issue, and that is something the Government and the Opposition should consider as they consider solving this problem.