Glasgow North East by-election: Decision time in a seat left to rack and ruin

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TOO scared to give her name, her eyes filling with tears, she tells of the fear that comes after nightfall. It is then that scavengers arrive, hoping to break into the dozens of empty flats alongside hers, so they can strip out the copper piping and the water tanks to sell on the black market.

"People are just wandering around at night trying to pull the doors down to get into the empty houses. I'm terrified," the woman declares.

She brought up three children in this flat in Sighthill, Glasgow. She loved it once. Then, three years ago, the area was ear-marked for demolition. Most residents moved out, but because she had bought her flat, she was told she was bottom of the queue to be re-housed. She says she's still waiting.

Now, within her three-storey block and the adjacent, identical one on Fountainhill Road, she is just one of five households continuing to eke out an existence amid the boarded-up windows, empty parking lots, and demolition trucks.

Down the corridor, John and Ruth Daly, 77 and 75 respectively, point out how every single glass frontage on the balconies has been smashed and replaced with plywood. They have been allocated a flat up the road, but don't want to go.

"We went to look at the place and the ground was filled with Buckfast bottles and neds hanging around. We don't want to move up there," Mr Daly, a retired builder, says.

In the set of flats next door, 46-year-old Margaret Gordon, a cleaner and now the huge block's sole resident, complains about how even the water supply cannot be relied upon.

"It used to be great here. But now it's just horrific. The water is terrible and it just keeps going off. The politicians haven't done good for this area. I don't feel safe here any more."

Today, the five remaining households of Fountainhill Road get the chance to vote for their new MP, as polling gets under way in the Glasgow North East by-election. But the families living here feel they have been left alone, with only the prospect of a wrecking ball to come.

"One councillor finally came this morning," says the mother. "He took my details. He said he didn't realise that people were still living here."

The demolition of this area will begin next month, bringing one of Scotland's most notorious high-rise estates crashing down. The nearby Red Road flats, visible from the M8, are also soon to be razed to the ground.

Talk of regeneration is everywhere: the local housing association boasts it has recently broken through the 100 million barrier. North Glasgow College has an impressive new campus, overlooked by the astro-turf pitches of a new sports club.

Labour is the overwhelming favourite to keep hold of a seat which it has held for more than 70 years. But to assume that the facelift in the seat and Labour's likely victory has led to a more optimistic mood here is entirely wrong. Glasgow North East still has some of the highest rates of unemployment in the country, confirmed by yesterday's jobless figures. Only six UK constituencies have more on benefits.

The contrast between it and Glasgow's plush city centre is dislocating. Fiona Houston, director of Social Justice Scotland, a Conservative-linked group, declares: "This is the debate we need to have in Scotland: why is it that despite massive amounts of money spent on the welfare state, we have greater levels of inequality than ever before?"

The problem is that the area has been beaten into submission by its own fatalist despair, say community workers. Up the road from the Sighthill flats, community workers, asylum seekers and volunteers are having lunch at St Rollox Kirk – a refuge amid the concrete jungle. Emma Watson, who works in the area for International Teams, a faith-based organisation, says: "People don't believe things can change. They are resigned to things. They all complain but there is no capacity to see a better future. If people do get on, then they move out."

It is unfair to blame the politicians, she adds. "The culture change comes from social entrepreneurs rather than politicians. Politicians can maybe facilitate it but I think there needs to be the enthusiasm in the community for it to really work."

The community needs to "get off their backsides" adds another community worker.

But belief that doing so would make a difference is fragile. Grandmother Anna O'Neill, 63, was a child when she moved into the new Sighthill flats in the Sixties. "The flats were fabulous. When I was a girl it was like walking into Buckingham Palace. You used to get your milk and there was a fruit van coming round. Then it all just went downhill." Will today's by-election change anything? She scoffs. "They haven't changed anything," she insists.

At the huge Red Road flats, pensioners are dancing at the Alive And Kicking community project. The staff are irritated by the downbeat media portrayal of the area. They are loyal to Michael Martin, the former Speaker. "He did a lot for the people and this area," says Eulalia Stewart, the deputy manager. But even here, people know of the struggle they face. The most recent figures show that the area has the highest rate for jobseekers' allowance in Scotland, at 7per cent of the working population. Among men it is much higher. "Male unemployment has had a terrible impact here. They've become lost people," says one local.

In a community whose spirit has been worn down by years of post-industrial decline, few think that one by-election will improve matters overnight. Consequently, there is widespread expectation of a record low turn-out for a Scottish by-election – with figures of as low as 25 per cent being mentioned. Whoever wins the by-election this evening will have a huge job not just to claim investment, but to restore hope to an area which has learnt not to trust in it.

Back at St Rollox church, Watson declares: "We need leadership and vision to make things change." But in Glasgow North East, they are not holding their breath.

• Read what the candidates have to say on The Steamie

How they line up for the poll


A university public law lecturer and the likely winner this evening. The 36-year-old made much of his claim to be the local candidate, beginning his campaign by walking out of the Springburn block of flats he shares with his mother and father.


Better known to most households as a BBC TV reporter, Kerr – also 36 – is fighting his second by-election, having taken on Labour in the Falkirk East campaign in 2000. He originally failed to win the party's nomination for the seat, only to get it after the original selection, James Dornan, quit over revelations about his finances.

RUTH DAVIDSON, Conservative

Also a former journalist with BBC and Real Radio, the 30-year-old candidate is standing in her first election. A self-confessed sports fanatic, she once broke her back while serving in the Territorial Army.

EILEEN BAXENDALE, Liberal Democrat

A local councillor who, for the past nine years, has helped to organise a church-run refugee centre. She is currently the deputy chair of social work in Glasgow. Originally from the north-west of England, she is married with grown-up children.


The former MSP, Big Brother contestant and poll tax protester is standing as the candidate of "experience" and has asked voters to try him "on a six-month contract" before he faces charges of perjury next year.


The electrical contractor from the south side of the city has campaigned against immigration and says he wishes the BNP will stay white-only. The BNP has been tipped to come third in the seat, ahead of the Tories and the Lib Dems.


The Glasgow airport baggage handler cum media celebrity is the self-proclaimed "voice of the people", promising to add an independent voice in parliament.

MIKEY HUGHES, Independent

Like Smeaton, the former Big Brother contestant and radio presenter is offering himself as an anti-sleaze independent. He tried to show off his credentials by greeting photographers with a tin of "Pledge", promising to clean up politics.

LOUISE McDAID, Socialist Labour

The party is led by Arthur Scargill and is attempting to take the left-wing vote away from Labour and the Scottish Socialists. McDaid is chairwoman of the Farepak victims group.

DAVID DOHERTY, Scottish Green Party

An environmental protection graduate, the 24-year-old is on the board of a housing regeneration charity in Glasgow and wants to improve sustainable transport in Glasgow.


Stands for The Individuals Labour and Tory, and claims to base itself on the idea of Keir Hardie, founder of the Labour Party. Campbell, 58, has worked in a variety of areas, including agriculture and teaching.