How becoming City of Culture could help Paisley tackle poverty

Written by Mark McLaughlin on 9 March 2017 in Inside Politics

Delegates at Holyrood's Tackling Poverty Locally event learned from Renfrewshire's experiences of fighting poverty

Holyrood's Tackling Poverty Locally event - Image credit: Alistair Kerr/Holyrood

The news that Paisley had applied to become UK City of Culture 2021 initially raised some eyebrows in some quarters.

First of all, it’s not a city – but that does not disqualify Scotland’s largest town as the prize is also open to large settlements.

Paisley has nearly twice the population of its nearest rival Perth, which was granted city status in 2012.

Secondly, it is home to Scotland’s poorest neighbourhood, Ferguslie Park, and a town centre in near terminal decline following decades of leeching by out-of-town shopping malls.


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In his famous hierarchy of needs, American psychologist Abraham Maslow put cultural activities at the top of his pyramid, to be prioritised only when lower foundations such as food, drink and shelter are fulfilled (although some social media addicts have since added a new bottom layer – wifi and a charger).

How can Paisley aspire to be City of Culture when so many of its citizens still struggle to meet their most basic needs?

Well, Renfrewshire’s leaders hope the award will be a catalyst for change, and showcase the best of the town including its medieval abbey, majestic Coats Memorial Church, Victorian town hall with its imposing clock tower and its textile history which spawned the world-renowned Paisley pattern.

And most of all they hope it will create jobs and lift its poorer citizens out of poverty.

Renfrewshire Council brought delegates from around Scotland to Paisley Town Hall to share their experience of tackling poverty and learn from others at a conference sponsored by Holyrood.

Council leader Mark MacMillan said: “We are one of eight local authorities in the Glasgow city region, and working together we will deliver more that £1 billion of city deal investment and jobs, infrastructure and skills.

“This investment has to reach all of our communities, whether it is improving employment opportunities, training and apprenticeships, access to education or better transport links.

“The city deal offers huge opportunities for economic transformation across Renfrewshire and we are determined that everyone is able to benefit from that.

“Tackling poverty also sits at the heart of our bid to become UK City of Culture 2021 – widening access to cultural activities. 

“Building on, and being proud of, our rich cultural heritage can have a massive impact on people’s confidence, health and wellbeing.”

The Labour councillor insists part of the problem is Scottish Government “cuts to council funding” and UK Government welfare reform.

But the conference also heard some innovative ways to tackle poverty with existing resources that won’t involve taking an angry placard or begging bowl to Holyrood or Westminster.

One of the biggest issues identified was a poor uptake of the benefits that already exist. Millions of pounds are lying dormant because people are either unaware that they are entitled them or afraid to claim because they fear they will lose other more lucrative benefits.

Dr Jim McCormick, Associate Director Scotland at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said Scotland could all but end pensioner poverty if every older person claimed what they were entitled to.

And Hanna McCulloch, Policy and Parliamentary Officer at Child Poverty Action Group Scotland, called for claimants to have the right to a mandatory “income maximisation test” to ensure they are receiving everything they are entitled to.

McCormick said: “To effectively eliminate poverty from older people, the most important thing that we can do is drive up take-up of entitlements, and I really welcome the Scottish Government’s announcement on this.

“If you could wave a magic wand and ensure every retired household in Scotland was claiming council tax reduction, attendance allowance and so on you have come very close to ending pensioner poverty.”

McCormick, a member of the Department of Work and Pension’s Social Security Advisory Committee, called for an end to the “triple lock” on pensions, which ensures they rise either in line with average earnings, the consumer price index, or 2.5 per cent.

This would free up resources for struggling children and young people, who are more at risk of ending up in poverty, he said. 

“Over the last twenty years or so, older people in the population in Scotland have experienced an unprecedented drop in the rate of poverty,” he said.

“We’re not there yet, but it’s come down from about a third twenty years ago, to between 12-15 percent – a huge drop which needs to be sustained.

“Children have seen some progress throughout that period, but that progress has stalled and it is set to go back up. Working age adults have seen very little change over that period.

“And although child poverty has come down in recent years, it has shifted to working households. About two thirds of children growing up in poverty are in working households, where at least one adult is in work.”

He said the image of poverty has changed in the last 20 years from “unemployed people living in vast housing estates” to “young adults struggling for security in the jobs and housing market”.

“Young working and renting is the new face of poverty in Scotland,” he said.

“There has been a big drop in poverty in the social rented sector…partly because of the fall in poverty in pensioner households, who are disproportionately more likely to live in social rented housing.

“It has been coming down a bit for owner-occupiers, but it has gone up in the private rented sector and has more than doubled in the last decade…particularly for working age households and especially young couples and their families – that should really concern us.”

Dr Paul Tyrer, head of social justice strategy at the Scottish Government, said: “One of the reasons that older people don’t claim benefits is that they feel that something might be taken away from them, perhaps, if they make a claim so there’s a need for reassurance.”

McCulloch said: “We hear from a lot of people who claim some DWP benefits who will not be told about other benefits they’re entitled to – they won’t be told when claiming Universal Credit that they might be entitled to a short-term benefits advance.

“Is there scope for the Child Poverty Bill and the Social Security Bill to include a right to an income maximisation check or a duty on public bodies to provide that?”

She said there has been a downward trend in child poverty, but that the trend is now “at the bottom of the curve”.

“The Institute for Fiscal Studies has predicted that we are about to see a pretty steep rise in child poverty – a 50 per cent increase before housing costs in the number of children living in poverty in the UK by 2020,” she said.

McCulloch outlined the shortfall in the proportion of people claiming benefits, with uptake of Jobseekers Allowance as low as 55 per cent, Working Tax Credit at 68 per cent, Income Support, Housing Benefit and Healthy Start vouchers at around 80 per cent and Child Benefit at 95 per cent.

People in receipt of Healthy Start vouchers are entitled to free vitamins, but just one in every 100 people claims them, and there were 5,407 school clothing grants unclaimed last year.

McCulloch said: “With around one million children in Scotland, five percent not getting £20 a week is about £52 million a year and that is just Child Benefit.

“With Child Tax Credit, for instance, where you’re talking about much bigger numbers, uptake is significantly lower.”

Dr Cynthia Fry, Campaign Manager at Business in the Community Scotland (BICS), said supporting more young people into work will grow the economy, generating more tax revenue which can then be fed back into benefits for children and pensioners.

She said: “Do we have to steal from the old to help young?

“Well, we can make the pie bigger, we can grow the cake, and in that way it’s not about everyone getting a little bit less of it, it’s about making it bigger so we all get enough.”

She added: “Getting into a good job isn’t nearly enough, as quite a few people who are in work are still living in poverty and quite often it is because they are stuck in low-paid, low-skilled jobs with no opportunities for progression.

“So if you get stuck in that cycle for too long, it is quite difficult to get out of it, so one of the things that BICS is looking at is how you create pathways for progression in every career and every sector so that the janitor can become the CEO.”

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