Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

The other social distance – James Corbett


As Scotland begins to emerge from lockdown, we can expect big policy ideas from many quarters. What I’d like to contribute here are some thoughts from the perspective of one of Scotland’s more deprived and less talked about corners – the South West. 

During the pandemic, we’ve all been learning new phrases, but few have become as ubiquitous as “social distancing”. But there’s another kind of “social distance” which, in the aftermath of COVID, could be anything but good for the health of the nation, medical and economic.

It’s the distance between Scotland’s most affluent areas, and the worst of its socio-economic deprivation. When so much of current discussion is around challenges “for Scotland”, I want to think local.

I’ve lived in South West Scotland all my life, and now work there, in a job that has introduced me to many community bodies and businesses. From that, some ideas emerge. First, though, some basic facts.

South West Scotland – Ayrshire in particular – includes some of Scotland’s most deprived communities. Communities from which the traditional industries like mining, and the associated businesses and manufacturing, have disappeared, to be replaced by – nothing.

Coronavirus, we know, takes its heaviest toll in deprived areas. For example, decades of the health issues associated with poverty has left Inverclyde with more COVID deaths than New Zealand.

National Records of Scotland data shows that someone living in Scotland’s most deprived areas is more than twice as likely to die of COVID-19 as someone in the least deprived areas, and you’d find similar stats for any number of other conditions. Post-industrial communities across the South West have some of the worst levels of health inequality and deprivation of anywhere in Scotland.

The general view, and it’s hard to disagree, is that the UK is heading for a massive recession. So with job and business losses likely to hit those least able to withstand it the hardest, what hope is there for places like Ayrshire?

The south west, particularly Ayrshire, has never benefitted, at least until very recently, from any concerted national regeneration programme.

Its transport infrastructure is sorely neglected. The M77/A77 is the main route through South Ayrshire and the principal road link between Scotland and Ireland, via the ferry terminals at Loch Ryan. Despite that, the southern part of the route is a single carriageway, with a succession of 30mph and even 20mph speed limits. Rail is little better and rural bus services are sparse and slow.

There is hope, however, that the Ayrshire Growth Deal, signed last year, offers the area an opportunity to reshape itself.

That deal will be delivered through local authorities. Local government arrangements around here though may, on the face of it, not be best set up to deliver maximum bang for your buck.

What’s still commonly referred to as Ayrshire, is actually three separate council areas (North, East and South Ayrshire). These, despite covering an aggregate area of slightly over 1100 square miles, are headquartered within 15 miles of each other. Cooperation on the Growth Deal aside, they are broadly autonomous from each other. Efforts to overcome competition between councils for investment, etc. have met limited success.

Money is good, clearly, but the real hope may lie in the ambition and initiative in Ayrshire’s business and third sectors.

Based in Kilmarnock, the charity “Centrestage” aims to bring communities together through the creative arts, tackling food poverty and opening up opportunities for everyone. Its latest venture is “Centrestage Village”, which will bring all its services together under one roof – that of a former Kilmarnock school, transferred from East Ayrshire Council. The project, made possible substantial government and other grant funding, will be a purpose-designed hub, open to all.

On a smaller scale, two villages have taken the idea of a community hub and gone in very different, but equally successful, directions.

When the last pub in Dunlop came up for sale, local residents banded together and secured funding from various grants to buy it. It now operates (suspended, naturally, by coronavirus) successfully as a café / pub / restaurant with its profits reinvested in the village. Plans are well underway to convert unused parts of the building into a space for the whole community.

In Ochiltree, when the council marked the village hall for closure, residents did a deal with the council for the site and proceeded to raise close to £2million through a combination of local fundraising and national grants to create a purpose built hub with a hall, café, and meeting space. Since opening last year, it’s rapidly become the heart of the community.

These are just a few examples of the increasing number of local initiatives using public and private funding to turn around local lives and communities.

In the private sector too, there are success stories that deserve greater recognition than they receive.

One small manufacturer in Mauchline, Kays Curling, is responsible for almost every Olympic grade curling stone in the world.

Wherever you are in the UK, there’s a reasonable chance your local fire service has a fire engine that came off the production line of Emergency One in Cumnock.

Even the Harry Potter fanatics among you may not know that the Hogwarts uniforms worn by the cast in all the films were made by Lochaven International in Stewarton. They still make licensed versions that are sold around the world.

These examples were news to me, and would be to much of the local population. That seems wrong, and represents a failure of imagination, if not pride, by those responsible for keeping Ayrshire in the public, and commercial, consciousness. There is, bluntly, more to Ayrshire than “Rabbie Burns was here”.

My final example is a unique third sector project, which (more or less) has it all. Charitable conservation, education, environmental initiatives, private sector investment – and royalty.

Situated just outside Cumnock, the Dumfries House Estate, famously saved from sale by Prince Charles, is now the home of his Prince’s Foundation. Its operations combine heritage, education, teaching traditional skills, health and wellbeing to transform the fortunes of the area. The restored estate has created jobs and training opportunities for locals and attracted tourists to the area. Over time, the project expanded to include the neighbouring town of New Cumnock, restoring the town hall and the town’s outdoor pool, which now attracts swimmers from the local area and as far afield as Glasgow.

Even if few other communities in Scotland are likely to have the good fortune to have the support of a member of the Royal Family, or access to the financial doors that such support opens, Dumfries House demonstrates what’s achievable through innovative thinking and making the most of local assets.

So what does the future look like for somewhere like Ayrshire post-COVID?

Personally, I suspect that for most of us, the new normal will look a lot like the old normal.  That said, we should be rather more sceptical of those who say “it’ll never work”. It wasn’t that long ago that we were told that remote consultations with clients, or patients, wasn’t practical. Employers who clung onto the culture of “if you aren’t in the office at your desk then you aren’t working” were proved wrong.

For our rural and/ or less thought of communities though, many of the big ideas sound optimistic, even glib. Calls to make use of local shops and services contrast with the reality of hollowed out high streets and local services centralised in the biggest towns. Working from home may be an option – as long as you have a desk-based job, a decent internet connection and good mobile signal. It also assumes that you have the technical skills and access to suitable IT in your home – probably a given for more affluent households but far less so elsewhere.

Put simply, the long-term challenges of poor health, education and housing in rural Ayrshire will not benefit from the introduction of e-scooters.

So, while COVID has shone the light on this other social distance, the way to do something about it isn’t necessarily grand ideas “for Scotland”. We should learn the lessons of our local success stories, and bring together public funds and private initiatives, to support communities finding their own solutions for their particular challenges.

This is true, I suggest for many parts of Scotland. The pandemic has shown us new ways of doing things, and demonstrated the (literally) deadly consequences of continuing neglect.

For all that “We’re a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns”, that’s not an argument for assuming that one size fit all. The opportunities for local solutions are clear.

James Corbett is Communications Manager for a Member of the Scottish Parliament. He is writing in a personal capacity.