More empowerment of councils is needed to tackle poverty
Councillor Chris McEleny - Image credit: Inverclyde Council
As a local politician health inequalities and poverty are the most pressing issues that I am presented with every day.
It is widely known in Scotland for example that the wealthiest males can live up to seven years longer than those living in deprivation.
Scotland also has the lowest life expectancy for men and women in the UK and that gap is widening.
While we have robust equalities legislation to protect a number of key characteristics including disability, recent statistics show that progress on tackling all forms of inequality in Scotland has slowed, and is actually increasing in many areas – this despite the Scottish Government spending £500m in one year alone to mitigate the impacts of UK austerity.
The early introduction of the Scottish Government’s ‘Scottish Child Payment’ is a golden opportunity to make real progress in solving child poverty.
It will make 410,000 children better off and loosen the grip of poverty on 30,000.
A key priority for all Scottish councils is to close this equality gap, address health inequalities and invest in preventative spending.
But despite much progress and Scotland being the first in Europe to introduce legislation for integrated health and social care, we still too often prioritise immediate crisis intervention and crisis-based services.
Top down policymaking often comes at the expense of local government’s ability to be flexible and shift spending.
We are still too focussed on input measures, sometimes without a full appreciation of their effectiveness or whether they deliver outcomes for people.
Working together we need to shift the focus of resources from crisis management to the consequences of poverty, preventing it and tackling root causes.
While we are moving in the right direction, lifting more people out of poverty and breaking the cycle in many places, there remain some communities that continue to be characterised by poverty despite our best efforts.
There therefore needs to be a more holistic, cross-cutting approach, looking at the wider effects and contributors to poverty, covering health inequalities, employment and employability, learning and financial inclusion.
We can all recognise that focussing on one factor alone will not improve outcomes given the interconnections - poor physical or mental health is often a direct consequence of poverty.
We see it happening at local level in communities and when we talk with constituents.
Too many inflexible and top down targets and indicators, can disempower us as local system leaders and managers to be bold, innovative and to take appropriate risks in how and where we invest in improvement.
One in four children in Scotland live in poverty; this is still a national travesty.
Although the issue is a national one, the solutions are local ones.
National government should support the local considerations around the connections between inequalities, negative outcomes and failure demand and invest in local government as a means to address these.
Supporting people and communities to ensure that they have capacity, knowledge and skills to be resilient and take control of their own and their families’ circumstances and outcomes is a key component of a more equal and more sustainable Scotland.
Improving outcomes in the earliest years of life, in recognition of the effect this has on negative social outcomes in later life is paramount.
Giving local government real power and real resource to tackle child poverty is key.
The ability to create local taxation to fund local policy priorities would be transformative for communities across Scotland.
We are already seeing locally the positive impact of preventative spending and earlier intervention in our work to reduce the poverty related gap in attainment by transferring the power and the resource directly to communities.
If a more equal society is also our collective aim, all policy proposals and initiatives should be challenged as to the extent they address and target resources towards tackling inequality.
Evidence shows that there is a strong link between low skills, poor education, poor health, unemployment and poverty.
More attention needs to be given to the prevention of poverty and tackling root causes.
Ultimately, investment in local government will reduce demand for health and social care provision, it will reduce demand on the criminal justice system and it will reduce the number of children that live in poverty in our communities.
Local authorities are the sphere of democracy closest to communities.
Local councillors live and work in those communities.
We know best our local communities and strive to work with them to produce the best possible outcomes to improve the lives of the people we represent.
It is for that reason, as the Scottish Parliament reaches its 20th birthday, it is time for the boldest and most radical transfer of power in its history directly to local communities so that we can implement the policies best suited to our areas to lift children out of poverty.
Councillor Chris McEleny is the SNP group leader on Inverclyde Council