A secret shame? Poverty in the west-end of Glasgow

Published

Iona Baker
Luke Newberry

For many, there seems to be a dissonance between appearance and reality when it comes to thinking about poverty and social exclusion in the west end of Glasgow. What might underlie this is the assumption that poverty is largely an issue of location, paired with the widespread impression that the west end is characterised by affluence, leafiness, and an amenity-rich urban landscape. Sometimes described as Glasgow’s bohemian district, the west end is dotted with green spaces and charming enclaves, containing all sorts of quirky, idiosyncratic haunts like Tchai-Ovna and the Hillhead Book Club. A possible result of this may be that in many people’s minds – even students whose daily business in the area tends to be almost wholly confined to academic or commercial activities – ‘poverty’ could well be a matter of statistical manipulation or ‘politically correct’ mythologising. But it is precisely because of the broadly affluent character of the west end that the real, existing poverty juxtaposing this glamorous surface is hidden, and consequently overlooked.

First, some facts need to be established. Whilst the Glasgow North constituency, which includes Maryhill as well as Hillhead, has child poverty of 30 per cent, Glasgow North West, which includes Drumchapel, Anniesland, Jordanhill and most of Partick, has 33 per cent according to a report recently published by the Campaign to End Child Poverty. Some basic deduction tells us that the presence of wealthier neighbourhoods and the increasingly gentrified character of these areas must dilute the statistics for locations including Maryhill in Glasgow North, or Drumchapel in Glasgow North West. Scottish Neighbourhood Statistics from 2009 tell us that while employment deprivation in Scotland stands at 12.9 per cent, Partick has 18.3 per cent out of work, Glasgow Harbour and Partick South, 17.1 per cent, Hillhead, 14.2 per cent and Partick West, 13.1 per cent.

WestGAP (West Glasgow Against Poverty), a volunteer-run grassroots community-based group located on Hyndland Street in Partick, is dedicated to dispelling the myth that the streets of the west end are ‘paved with gold’. Designed to assist people living in poverty and active in the area for the last 12 years, WestGAP stands as testimony to the fact of poverty in the west end. Open once a week – all it can afford in the current climate of fiscal austerity, with key sources of financial support drying up – WestGAP’s community advice and resource centre is regularly busy, supporting people from the area in their everyday struggles with debt, tax, rent, and so forth.

A report published by Kirsteen Paton, lecturer in sociology at Glasgow University, in collaboration with Oxfam and WestGAP entitled We are not removing: The everyday experiences of gentrification in Partick, establishes that the policy of urban regeneration has been largely detrimental to working-class residents in the Partick and Glasgow Harbour area. This has resulted in a weakened sense of community, cultural divisions, and displacement. Most of the residents interviewed for this report were living with debt, sometimes just because they feel strongly that their children should have the same stuff as middle-class kids. People living below the poverty line – what the government defines as a household income of less than 60 per cent of the median – are forced into debt, sometimes theft, and are often reliant on their community, friends and family for support. Problems with debt can cause and are often compounded by various mental health problems, including depression and anxiety, allowing the situation to spiral out of control. One interviewee spoke of the fear they regularly experienced: “The finance companies who phone you up when you owe them money, they put the fear of God into you”. Another conveyed the sense of inescapability: “It’s really hard trying to start your life – I mean, what have you got? Nothing. No job, no TV, and you’re left in this wee flat with your own thoughts.”

Increased levels of homeownership and the influx of middle-class ‘incomers’ has led to the pricing out and even displacement of much of the original working-class population. In increasingly popular areas, housing allocation to working-class tenants is becoming ever more restricted by the privatised nature of housing tenure, and some end up moving out of the neighbourhood that has been their home all their lives.

Indeed, part of the disadvantage experienced by working-class residents, especially in increasingly socially mixed areas like Partick, is a gap in funding. Funding is allocated to parts of the city where deprivation is more concentrated and conspicuous – such as Easterhouse, Drumchapel, and Maryhill. According to the report, residents reject the notion that they live in a ‘high amenities’ area. One aspect of this is growing concern over what facilities and resources are available to young people, the worry being that lack of youth services will push many towards drugs and delinquency. The fact that much of the regeneration effort, whilst very popular in principle, has gone on based on private initiative rather than community involvement or control has left many feeling alienated from and disillusioned with projects that were intended to benefit the neighbourhood. Local calls for more social housing have not been satisfactorily answered.

Part of the report highlights the cultural aspects of division within the community that have grown out of the increased presence of middle-class homes and businesses. Members of the local community in Partick often feel that either because of their constrained economic position (what the report terms ‘flawed consumers’) or class identity, they are not welcome at many of the more ‘up-market’ establishments in the neighbourhood. Such popular destinations as Café Zique are not open to many. The Rio Café, once a popular pub housing generations of working-class Partick natives, is no longer the same hub of community activity. As one resident in Dr Paton’s report says: “Every generation drank in there. We’re all spread out now.” Even the fortnightly farmer’s market attracted criticism, the price of produce being too expensive for a section of the local community: ‘west end types’. The point is that people do not have genuine access to many of the commercial establishments in the heart of their community, and as a result no longer feel at home. Where ‘fancy’ shops are unaffordable, an environment is created that effectively highlights people’s limited spending power and reinforces their sense of isolation. WestGAP has expressed their fear that Partick is becoming ‘too posh’. The report terms this ‘cultural displacement’, itself a prelude to the actual physical displacement.

Processes of change are going on all around us, and many of us are blissfully unaware of their frequently insidious nature and damaging impact on people in the very same communities in which we live and carry out our daily business. Glasgow provides us with a striking example of the close coexistence of fabulous wealth and unremitting deprivation – a common feature of the modern world – and in the west end this is accentuated. It’s not hard to remain ignorant of this sharp contrast since the former tends to be louder, more visible, and importantly, easier of the eye.