EDINBURGH’S new housing and economy convener has described how working in a call centre sparked a determination to tackle poverty and inequality.
Kate Campbell, who took over the post last month, said her own experience of a no-guaranteed-hours contract and seeing her fellow workers struggling with the conditions had helped drive her to political activism.
And the SNP councillor says that mission to deal with the problem of poverty is at the heart of her new role, not just on the housing side but also when it comes to the Capital’s economy.
“There has been a policy shift in Edinburgh in terms of economic strategy – we’re not just talking about economic growth any more, we’re talking about inclusive growth, good growth, about making sure that as we are growing the economy that prosperity is reaching into every neighbourhood.
“As the SNP we’ve got a lot of priorities like closing the attainment gap, promoting well-being – but for me the first barrier to those things is poverty.”
Her own ward, Portobello/Craigmillar, has the highest percentage of households living in poverty in the city at 29 per cent. “And I have quite affluent areas too, so that begs the question about the actual levels of poverty in some areas. We are a wealthy city, but we’re not addressing the rising inequality.”
Cllr Campbell, elected at last year’s local elections, first became active in politics during the independence referendum in 2014.
“At the time I was doing bits of creative stuff but also working in a no-hours contract in a call centre, which in some ways I did partly out of choice because it suited me with the creative thing, but it was very difficult financially. And there were a lot of people who weren’t there by choice.”
“You could be working there 40 hours a week and then one week you go in and they say ‘We can give you three hours this week.’ It’s very arbitrary and you don’t have time to go and claim benefits for that week because by the time you’ve been processed you will be back to working 40 hours again.
“I was working alongside people with health conditions that shouldn’t have been going to work but couldn’t afford to lose the hours. That was part of what drove me in terms of independence and thinking we could and should have a better country but also in terms of my commitment to equality and tackling poverty and inequality.”
She cites the Fair Fringe campaign for festival employers to pay workers the real living wage, give them minimum hours contracts, rest breaks and equal pay for young workers.
She says the council can also promote skills and employment and points to the FUSE academy launched recently to link with the St James redevelopment, bridging skills gaps in the retail, leisure and hospitality sectors; and existing recruitment skills centres at Edinburgh Airport and Fort Kinnaird Retail Park.
And she would like to do more to make available affordable office or work space. “Cre8te, based in Craigmillar in the old Castlebrae school, is a good example of that. That’s the kind of project we should be looking at.”
Brexit remains a challenge, but Cllr Campbell says the council will continue to support the Capital’s key industries like tourism, finance and biotech, but also technology.
“Tech is a future industry for the city. It sits well with us as an Enlightenment city, it’s a growing industry. Edinburgh is number one tech start-up city in Europe. We are economically a strong city. We’ve just got the flight to China, that’s a really positive thing. So I think we’re in a good place to weather Brexit but there are many unknowns and it would be foolish to pretend otherwise.”
Last year Cllr Campbell was made the council’s homelessness champion – a role she will now combine with her new convenership. “I had lots of conversation with lots of different people about all the things we could do to try to prevent homelessness. But the reality is what we are seeing is the biggest increase in presentations for homeless is coming from the private rented sector and it’s because of affordability.
“Our homelessness service is supporting not just the people you would traditionally think of as being homeless – people who perhaps have mental health issues, addiction, complex needs. That’s still part of the issue, but we’re seeing this huge increase in people who just can’t afford their home anymore.
“That is taking a lot of the focus and funding of the service and that’s taking away some of the support we would want to give to people with more complex needs. We need more affordable houses. We have a huge commitment to do that, 10,000 in five years; 20,000 in ten years. It’s probably the most ambitious affordable house-building programme in the country.”