By Stuart Findlay
PACK up your belongings, leave the cracked streets behind and catch the 271 bus from Springburn to Lenzie for an extra 25 years on the planet. If only it was as easy as taking a 15-minute bus trip to improve your health, your job prospects and your standard of living.
As the battle lines between the SNP and the other anti-independence political parties are drawn, the issue of which side would be better able to tackle inequality and Scotland’s social problems remains unclear.
The SNP maintain that with a geographical share of North Sea oil Scotland would be a more prosperous nation overall while the opposition are warning that Scotland risks financial and social ruin by shaking off the security blanket of the union in such a difficult economic climate.
A study published by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2008 revealed the extent of the huge life expectancy gap within different areas of greater Glasgow and figures published earlier this month on child poverty suggest that positive change in Glasgow’s poorest areas is not forthcoming.
The WHO study revealed that a male in Lenzie, an affluent suburb six miles northeast of Glasgow city centre, could expect to live to an average age of 82. In Calton in Glasgow’s east end the average life expectancy for a man was only 54.
Figures published earlier this month by End Poverty Scotland revealed that in 37 council wards in Scotland more than 30% of children live in poverty.
Calton’s figure of 50% spared them from being the worst area; instead it was Springburn in north Glasgow which has taken on the unenviable accolade of being the most poverty-stricken part of Scotland with 52% of kids living below the bread line.
It should come as little surprise to see Springburn featuring at the wrong end of these tables. In 2002 a study by Child Poverty Action named the area as the second most deprived in the UK, behind only Shettleston in Glasgow’s east end.
In that particular study the picture was altogether bleak for Glasgow, with four the UK’s ten worst-hit areas in the city.
The reasons for Springburn’s struggles are not all obvious, but a lack of jobs would be the first reason many would suggest. Historically, it was a very industrial area which at one point held a 25% global market share for the manufacturing of locomotives.
That industry vanished, and with decaying housing and no major employer around to take the place of the rail yards things began to slip.
A large number of high-rise apartment blocks were constructed in the 60s and 70s, and the main road through the area was demolished to make way for part of the M8 motorway.
Mr Amjit, who has owned Azad Grocers and Sighthill Newsagents in north Glasgow for 26 years, is not surprised by the figures that highlight Springburn’s problems.
He said: “I have heard that we will see a lot of regeneration here, but so far all I am seeing is high-rise flats being demolished.
“There are no new houses, they just want to get people out and give no thought to the ones who are left.”
Politicians have long been at odds over the best way to tackle poverty and social deprivation in Scotland, and the latest debate about Scottish independence has only added another dimension to the issue.
Willie Bain, MP for Glasgow North East – which incorporates Springburn – says that major change is needed to help tackle the levels of deprivation within his constituency, but believes it can be done without breaking Scotland away from the rest of the UK.
Bain, who is Labour’s shadow minister for the Scotland Office, said: “In terms of the issues around poverty there is a lot we can do at a UK level through sharing risks, economies of scale, operating big benefits and things like pensions, without having two separate systems.
“I think that the constitution is a bit of a red herring when you look at poverty issues, because what actual policy are you going to introduce in Scotland? Are you making the most of the powers the Scottish parliament has now, for example, to deal with poverty?
“This is not about the constitution or about where those powers are. It’s about ensuring you have politicians with the political will to actually use those powers to get the progressive outcomes that cut poverty.”
While unemployment continues to rise on a national level, the latest poverty figures show that it is socially deprived areas like Springburn that usually suffer the most.
“On a local level, the key thing has to be employment,” Bain said. “There are 22 people chasing every post in Glasgow North East today. That shows that we have a shortage of jobs and we need to implement some short-term plans that would improve this.
“For instance, we have talked about having a tax on bank bonuses this year and next which would bring in £2.5billion across the UK.
“That would allow for 2,500 affordable homes to be built in Scotland which would employ young people and give them the opportunity to work. That’s something we could do that in the short-term to improve living standards.”
Glasgow MSP and Scottish Labour’s social justice spokesman Drew Smith said that the disappointing child poverty statistics should act as a “wake up call” to the SNP for “letting child poverty increase on their watch”.
The SNP, however, believe that they are restricted in their ability to tackle the issue, and an independent Scotland would be in a better position to fight the problem.
Jamie Hepburn, SNP MSP for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth, said: “It’s one of the reasons I believe in independence.
“If you look at some of our nearest neighbours, who are fairly comparable to Scotland in terms of geography and population size, they’re far more socially cohesive.
“I’m thinking of the Nordic countries in particular. They’re able to utilise their resources for the benefit of their people. So I do believe that it would allow us to tackle the problem of poverty far more radically and far more coherently than we’re able to do in the halfway house of devolution.”
Bain believes that with a more progressive approach to childcare the social issues in his constituency can be resolved.
He said: “For me this is something that the Scottish parliament could deal with right now with the powers that it has.
“It could look at moving investment in some areas into childcare, something which I am encouraging colleagues at Westminster to look at as well.
“A study carried out last month by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) which charted the increase in household incomes since 1968 found that the biggest driver in the increase of living standards was increased female participation in the jobs market.
“There is fantastic work being done by IPPR (Institute for Public Policy Research) and the Resolution Foundation at the moment.
“They have established that investing in a more universal childcare system – which helps women trying to get back into work – does a lot to cut poverty rates.
“Countries that have done this have seen the biggest fall in inequality over the last 50 years.”
A balanced system of wealth redistribution to give more money to those who really need it and investing in childcare to help more people get back into work are just two of the ideas that are being put forward by politicians in order to fight inequality.
The knock-on effects of these policies are not yet known but it seems that whether Scotland is with or without the union, there is still a lot of work to be done to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor.
For half of the kids who are growing up in Springburn without a hope it doesn’t matter who solves the problem, as long as someone does.