Comment: It’s time to tackle this divided nation

More than one in five of Scotland's children live in poverty, a level higher than in many other European countries. Picture: Getty
More than one in five of Scotland's children live in poverty, a level higher than in many other European countries. Picture: Getty
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CHILD poverty, women’s inequality … bold ideas are needed if Scotland is to become a fairer place for all, says Helen Chambers

As we move into the last 100 days before the General Election, debate and contention will get more frenzied, especially in the political and media classes, about the endless permutations of the victorious and vanquished. We are already well into the games of smoke and mirrors around the funding of public services from all sides. There is a great risk, as this occurs, that we forget the fundamentals of what we want for our communities and societies.

The level of engagement during the referendum was extraordinary and the debates explored were bold – over and above the questions concerning independence. It is time to hold onto this boldness as we continue to move to challenge poverty and disadvantage in our society and explore some of the ideas that we have lost over the last few years, that have become unfashionable, and that we have not been brave enough to drive forward.

When the debate moves into managerial discussion around how the UK should be run, we need to step back and consider what it is we are really trying to achieve. Scotland in the 21st century is still a tale of a divided nation. If you are able to do well, you are likely to do very well – the educational outcomes for our top-achieving children are world class; however if you are unlucky enough to be located in some of our toughest communities your life is likely to be shorter and significantly more unpleasant in terms of health and life experience than that of your peers across Scotland.

These inequalities can’t be looked at in isolation. Women’s inequality is linked to Scotland’s child poverty. More than one in five of Scotland’s children live in poverty – a level significantly higher than in many other European countries. This increased last year and forecasts project a massive increase in child poverty, with up to 100,000 more children living in poverty.

Women are still more likely than men to be badly paid, and to be excluded from the labour market at many stages of their life. They are still underrepresented, whether it be on the Board of FTSE 100 companies, or at Westminster. Women have taken the brunt of the impact of recent economic crisis, with a disproportionate number compared to men moving from full time to part-time work, moving onto zero hours contracts, and moving out of the labour market.

Where are the ideas to revolutionise these issues, rather than to managerially, incrementally, and tentatively change them? Is it time to look at the ideas rejected in the past as too challenging? Where are the solutions that are not so discomforting to the status quo that they are impossible to implement, yet still make significant and meaningful change?

Issues of community empowerment are currently going through Holyrood – how far are we really comfortable in taking this idea? What about exploring the compulsory purchase of brownfield sites in areas of deprivation and then transferring them to community development trusts for self-build housing – in one sweep providing assets to a community, affordable housing, skills building and building community capacity and cohesion?

Fuel poverty is a tremendous issue for Scotland’s poor communities – where are the bold ideas for communities to generate their own power? – thus avoiding the profit-orientated perspectives of the major power providers and the vagaries of gas and oil prices driven by geo-politics but played out by those choosing between being warm or eating.

The answers lie not in any one ideology, or in any one sector. We cannot move forward with solutions where economic growth increases inequality, or with social solutions that are antithetical to business. We need to find more spaces where we can debate the big issues – and more importantly, the big solutions – across Scotland’s civic, public and business communities. Our issues are too big, and our reduction in resources that we currently face too pressing, for mild, incremental change. We have to find space, time and mutual respect to develop constructive responses.

We owe this, and no less, to the hundreds of thousands of people in Scotland facing poverty, disadvantage, ill 
health and early death on a daily basis.

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• Helen Chambers is head of strategy and delivery at Inspiring Scotland – tackling challenging issues in an innovative way, 
inspiringscotland.org.uk