It’s Edinburgh’s secret shame. People hidden in doorways and alleys, pensioners frozen but from a generation too proud to ask for help behind closed doors, or hunger burning in the bellies of children too hungry to concentrate in class at school and too young to understand why. The curse is poverty. Inequality.
And it’s witnessed by many of us every day when we perhaps look away in guilt at the sight of beggars on some of the Capital’s busiest streets or question how parents could let their kids out so ragged, or late, or alone.
Everyone in the city must play their part in eliminating the hardships that large pockets of the city endure. That’s the call to arms by the deputy leader of the city council, who is fronting a major poverty commission to get to grips with Edinburgh’s increasing gap between rich and poor.
Edinburgh is one of the most affluent cities in the UK. But poverty, homelessness and inequality exists across the capital, points out Cllr Cammy Day, the council’s poverty champion, who is now calling on businesses, charities, public bodies and citizens to come together to make Edinburgh a fairer place to live.
The Edinburgh Poverty Commission will look at a range of priorities including reducing reliance on food banks, easier access to childcare and people’s own money and ultimately an attempt to lift people out of poverty.
More than 9,000 three-day emergency food supplies were handed out by a city food bank last year – an increase of 18.5 per cent in the space of 12 months. Around 22 per cent of Edinburgh’s children are living in poverty – in some areas it’s as high as 35 per cent, while men are paid on average 13 per cent more than women.
The estimated cost to the public sector of addressing the impacts of poverty in Edinburgh is around £408 million each year.
Cllr Day insisted the poverty commission would not be just another council initiative, but will instead mark a dramatic shift in efforts to bring together expertise from business, the third sector and those who have experienced poverty to establish real change.
He said: “Poverty and inequality in the city is still here. Whilst I accept that there are parts of the city that are doing fantastically well, and we should encourage that, we shouldn’t forget that some parts of the city have been left behind. This all started with us trying to address child poverty. There’s still 25 per cent or so of children in the city living in poverty – that needs to change.
“We want the whole city to get involved and try and address a wide range of issues, whether that’s child poverty, whether it’s doing something differently to address the issues around food banks, being able to heat your house and pay your rent – all these issues need to be looked at.”
The Edinburgh Poverty Commission, which will run for a year, will include business leaders, the NHS, police, charities and importantly, those who have experienced poverty in their day-to-day lives. It will respond directly to the personal experiences of people who struggle by on low incomes and make recommendations for action to reduce poverty and inequality. The team will also point out how the action plan can be implemented long term to make life-changing difference.
Cllr Day added: “The purpose of the commission is to look at what things can we try better. We know that one of the big issues is in-work poverty and that will be addressed by things like trying to bring in a living wage across the city.
“Whilst the council applies that, a number of large employers across the city don’t yet do it – so I’d call on businesses to play their part in addressing poverty by paying at least a living wage to their employees.
“I’m looking at things like affordable childcare and all the work we are doing about rent caps and affordable housing. In some of the poorest parts of the city, people were being asked to pay £1.50 every time they take their own money out. There are lots of simple things that we could try and do.”
School-leavers in areas of low deprivation achieve more highly than those living in high deprivation, while only 69 per cent of residents who have been in care secure a positive destination on leaving school. Reducing poverty is a key theme of the council’s new financial strategy, which aims to ensure all people across the capital can benefit from the economic success of the city. The strategy recognises that an improved jobs market has not done enough.
Cllr Kate Campbell, the city’s housing and economy convener, said: “Every aspect of our strategy has inclusion at its core. This is an important shift in the focus of our work and will help to ensure that all growth is accessible to everyone.
“When developing jobs and scaling up businesses we must make sure that all of our residents have access to opportunities being provided. We’ll also support socially responsible business wherever we can.
“We need to grow our economy so that it is fairer in terms of wages, working practices, access to housing, education and good careers.”
Commissioners will include people with backgrounds in education, health and housing – as well as charities and public services. Cllr Day said: “We need to engage with the business community. They play a huge part and we need them to be part of this discussion.”