Build back better to tackle poverty

Edinburgh must build back better by tackling poverty, says Susan Rae

Edinburgh is battling the effects of the current coronavirus crisis with everything it can. The city’s services, volunteers, key workers and citizens have done us proud. But as we start to look towards the future, competing forces are at play: those who desperate seek a return to how things were; and an increasing number who realise that the status quo was no longer working.

This urgency is presented clearly within our twin priorities of sustainability and poverty. The city’s status as Scotland’s economic inequality capital is a badge of shame and there is a huge amount of work to do to meet our target of achieving zero carbon status by 2030. Clearly, the status quo cannot hold.

Some claim these twin priorities are diametrically opposed to each other but the opposite is true. To improve the life-chances of those with the least in Edinburgh without also embracing a greener future is to condemn them, and millions in poverty globally to a bleak future of drought, famine and resource wars.

That’s why last week’s Edinburgh Poverty Commission’s interim report is so important. Not yet a full picture, that will come in late summer, it offers a snapshot of exactly how difficult it is for those struggling on the lowest incomes during a global pandemic.

Some themes are familiar. After all, this isn’t the first report about poverty and inequality in our city: Edinburgh TUC’s March report on child poverty pre-dates coronavirus and is a helpful resource. Food poverty, high housing costs, concern around pay and benefits, anxieties about the impact on children – these are all well-trailed. What is new is the speed, the suddenness, the shock of the unprecedented change in circumstance and the uneven way that it impacts on people in Edinburgh.

As unemployment doubled overnight, applications to the Scottish welfare fund for emergency help trebled. And if you are a renter, are on a low income or are younger, you are more likely to be in the firing line. Two-thirds of those facing severe financial difficulty rent their home. People on lower incomes are more likely to be in jobs which are shut down. But for those still working, the divide remains: higher-paid professionals with access to laptop and spare rooms, may be able to work at home. For some – supermarket staff, care assistants, delivery drivers and a host of others, working conditions are much as they were. However, worryingly, for the most vulnerable at home, there is the non-financial toll: isolation, stress, addictions, the threat and reality of abuse within the home.

There have been positives too, of course. Homeless families moved out of unsuitable accommodation like B&B hostels into suitable homes and rough sleepers with roofs over their heads. An astonishing effort by neighbours, voluntary groups and public bodies – means most people are receiving the food and medical supplies they need.

So, as we look ahead, how can Edinburgh build back better?

The Commission says there can be no return to previous levels of homelessness. Redoubling efforts to build more socially-rented homes can go hand-in-hand with serious discussions about making using of newly-empty private lets and former holiday properties and tackling high rents and housing debt. There is huge potential for new thinking on food poverty, linking people most affected to local produce, neighbourhood hubs and community growing. Short term, improvement to Universal Credit and Local Housing Allowance and the use of the job furlough scheme can give way to new commitments on a real Living Wage and the radical prospect of a Universal Basic Income.

Edinburgh can build back better: fairer as well as greener. It is now all about the ambition and will to make that happen.