What's Happened to Glasgow's 'Most Notorious' Housing Scheme?
Millions of pounds have been pumped into Easterhouse, but has any of it really made a difference?
Easterhouse is one of the most notorious – and notoriously misunderstood – of Glasgow's many estates. Partially, this stems from its physical isolation. It lies six miles east of the city centre, and the sense of being an area apart from the city proper is exacerbated by creaking, expensive transport links and the M8 motorway that runs along its periphery.
Built in the 1950s as part of the ambitious post-war slum clearances that so radically transformed the social and physical character of the city, it has experienced many of the problems that took root in similar developments across Glasgow. Poverty, poor infrastructure, shoddily built and maintained housing and a lack of local investment and employment opportunities have all contributed towards its ill repute.
In the council ward that contains Easterhouse, over 40 percent of children live in poverty. The UK-wide figure is 28 percent. Health inequality (a key component of the so-called "Glasgow Effect") is also stark. The average life expectancy for men in Easterhouse is 69.9. In the more affluent west of the city, it's 80.1. Around 27 percent of Easterhouse residents are registered as having a disability.
Easterhouse came to national prominence as the site of Iain Duncan Smith's cringingly dubbed "poverty epiphany" in 2002. Duncan Smith visited the estate during his time as Conservative leader.
His visit was supposed to inaugurate the beginning of "compassionate Conservatism", long before his rebirth as the scourge of the welfare "scrounger". There are, famously, stark photographs of Duncan Smith close to tears standing outside a dilapidated block of flats, apparently experiencing a conversion to modern conservatism. But in fairness, he wasn't even the first. Tony Blair, Princess Diana and the former French President Jacques Chirac have all visited for fleeting, hand-wringing looks at how the destitute subsist on this most notorious of "sink-estates".
On the surface, there have been several eye-catching physical changes to Easterhouse in the years since Duncan Smith's heavily publicised Road to Damascus moment. A visitor to the area now, who came armed only with poverty statistics, would be surprised to discover an ordinary looking suburb, full of neat new build houses, a pristine college building and a busy, well stocked local community hub called The Bridge, which contains a swimming pool, computer facilities, exhibition spaces and a bustling library. These buildings are the physical manifestation of a regeneration scheme drawn up by the last Labour government that began in 2002.
It's no simple tale of rebirth. Critics have referred to the changes as a sticking plaster, masking deep rooted problems with superficial sheen and gloss. One elderly man I spoke to outside the centre, who tells me he's lived on the estate since he was 11, says that his new build has problems with heat retention and sound proofing. In an area that has seen poverty levels remain stagnant despite investment, it is a crucial point: many people here, despite their new homes, suffer from issues such as fuel poverty. Though the council run an "affordable fuel dividend" initiative, this is only available to those 80 and over, leaving younger families adrift.
One of the ironies attached to Duncan Smith's "Easterhouse Epiphany" is the fact that his decimation of the welfare system has made life considerably harder for those living, working and merely getting by in the area. The surrealist brutality of the sanctions system has left many materially worse off. The combined difficulties of travel and the harsher assessments have left those working low-paid and precarious jobs in a difficult, perhaps impossible position. Earning just enough – or not being quite disabled enough in the eyes of the DWP – has meant that those who previously relied on the state to top-up their earnings (the median wage in Easterhouse is lower than that in the rest of Scotland and the UK) have lost out. And while new badminton courts and the like are obviously positive things, they do little to redress the underlying income imbalance.
It's not just the brutal sanctions and surreal fit for work tests that have hit so many on the estate. There's little general evidence to support the idea that the fabric of people's lives has improved in the years that regeneration money has poured into the area, and the statistical indicators also show little improvement over those 13 years.
The 2016 figures collated for the SIMD (Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation) still have Easterhouse firmly in the most deprived 15 percent for every indicator apart from geographic access – including education, income and employment. So there is a valid question to be asked: is systemic change glacial, or is it happening at all?
This is why the recently announced "transformation" of Easterhouse is a much more complicated issue than reports have generally acknowledged. Last month it was announced that over £400 million of both public and private sector investment is to be funnelled into the area over the next 20 years. The bulk of it is to be spent on 6,000 new homes and "improved infrastructure and public spaces" as part of a report approved by Glasgow City Council.
The announcement has been accompanied by little official fanfare, bar council leader Frank McAveety being quoted in the local Glasgow press describing the plans as "thrilling" and saying they are a chance to "build on the successes of recent years to complete the regeneration of Easterhouse, to deliver an area of Glasgow that is attractive as a place to live, work, invest and visit".
Yet, many local people I spoke to expressed their reservations about the proposed developments, and reservations about how widespread those "successes" had been. The theme that ran throughout wasn't of opposition to the plans, but rather a scepticism that they would be as far reaching and as comprehensive as promised. There is a sense that it's all been heard before. Natalie McGarry, the SNP MP for Glasgow East, has expressed this succinctly in the past, saying, "It's all window dressing. You can put people in new homes but you can still see the deprivation in their faces."
Yasin – who runs a shop in the town centre plaza – expressed his ambivalence to me. Having lived in the area for several years, he tells me he's recently relocated to the southside of the city, despite keeping the business in Easterhouse. Having heard about the incoming investment, he signed for another ten years at the same location, but he says he's not holding his breath.
"We've heard the centre is getting a boost for the last ten years, but nothing has happened," he said. "It's been talked about for a long time." I asked him where he'd ideally like to see the money go in the area. "Well, the college could do with a wee upgrade. I was there doing Social Studies and it looks nice, and the teaching is no bad, but it could do with more equipment and that, really."
Walking back up to The Bridge, past the college building, a few young boys were loitering, kicking a football against a wall. Back in the warmth of the library, we heard a slightly more cheery prognosis for the proposed investment. Guiding me around a photo exhibition that details the physical changes in the area over the past 50 years was David, an employee at The Bridge, who believes the improvements since the first onset of regeneration money in the early 2000s have provided a lasting benefit.
"You notice things are getting more cosmopolitan – there are people coming in that would never have come before; artists running workshops, the facilities here, all that sort of thing," he said. "That's a surprise for people, you know. I'd like to see it become known as an ordinary, average part of east-end Glasgow. I think it's on its way, which is smashing. I love working here – it's got a bit of everything, and that's because of the money coming in."
Most people I spoke to didn't necessarily share David's optimism about the plans. One youth worker, who didn't want to be named, was highly skeptical.
"It's the same old. I'm in my forties; I've heard it all before. There might be a few photos for some politicians, but it's the same old east end. We get nothing. There's some pubs, some bookies and that's it."
Rather than just more housing development, she told me she'd like to see more money poured into properly funded youth services and community projects that have suffered heavily over the past six years under both the coalition and the Tories. But funding is scarce, she said: "I'd like to see more money to the Youth Access Fund – they'd do better things than the council anyway."
Despite the physical improvements, she was clear on the fundamental issue: "There just isn't enough to do. We need somewhere for young people to feel safe, somewhere for older people to go so they aren't isolated." It's not enough, she says, for better transport links alone, as many don't feel confident leaving the area, or simply don't have the money to experience all of the opportunities in the city centre.
Her colleague, Marie, told me that "there's a lot of talent in Easterhouse. I work with a few local music groups and the issue is a lack of funding. We're living in a digital age and you have to progress with the times. So much has changed in the last 100 years, but it sometimes feels that education is the only place where we've stagnated. If we could invest in that sort of education, kids would be much more engaged."
If anything is obvious, it's that the challenges facing Easterhouse and similar estates around the country have no easy, miracle solutions. Decades of neglect; the absence of real, sustained political will; isolation; and the PR-hungry machinations of some politicians has led to a climate of justified scepticism. As we've seen across the country, regeneration can mean little more than prettification and, in some cases, aggressive displacement. From Elephant and Castle to the east end of Glasgow, there is a familiar pattern to be discerned. Without the active engagement and consultation of the communities that the investment is supposed to benefit, and without any real evidence of improvement in the daily fabric of people's lives, the question has to be asked: who is it all for?
That's not to say that Easterhouse is the next area in danger of yuppy-fication: that would be absurd. The gains that have been made are welcome, but they are small. There is still much to be done, as those who live and work in the community will tell you. Improved housing and marquee building projects clearly have not been enough. A gleaming college is little use without adequate facilities; improved transport links to the economic and social benefits of the city centre are little use if you can't afford the train fare.
Easterhouse has been promised many new dawns. It remains to be seen if this one lasts longer than the others.
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