Calton: 28 years later

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It's time to explode the victim-blaming myth around poverty; they deflect attention from the real causes

NESTLING neatly in the lee of the Ochils hills, Lenzie has no urban sprawl, just an atmosphere of tranquillity and bucolic leafiness that is almost overpowering. Even the names of the streets clustered around the station contribute to the sense of civilised calm. There's Oak Drive, Juniper Court, Laburnam Grove, Alder Avenue and Walnut Drive. Look hard enough and you might even find Wisteria Lane.

No sooner has my train hit the green belt north of Glasgow than it slows to a halt at the station in this douce little Dunbartonshire commuter town just 11 minutes down the tracks from Queen Street. You immediately and instinctively know what sort of place it is. There's the row of grand, well-kept Victorian villas to your right, while the other passengers tell their own story: there's a smattering of pinstriped commuters who have bunked off work early, plus a gaggle of posh kids from Glasgow High School being picked up by an Audi-driving yummy mummy.

The place reeks of wealth, of class, of comfort. There's even a Peckham's deli next to the station. Just around the corner is a van belonging to Terry Bone, a classic MG dealer from Sussex: he's delivering two vintage sportsters to a beautiful sandstone mansion down a tree-lined road. Just down the road from MG man there's more evidence of rich boys' toys: a speedboat sporting a huge outboard sits on a trailer, ready for action.

Lenzie has been in the news this week. Few, if any, of the town's prosperous burghers are likely to have been overjoyed at the spotlight the World Health Organisation's report into life expectancy shone on their semi-rural idyll, where the town's menfolk live on average until the ripe old age of 82. Normally such longevity would be a cause for celebration were it not for the grotesque comparison with Calton – eight miles down the road but a world away – where male residents can expect to expire an incredible 28 years earlier, at just 54 years of age.

Having got the measure of Lenzie, I pointed my bike towards Glasgow's East End and my final destination, Calton. As you leave Lenzie, just before the Auchinloch Road leads you towards Stepps and then Glasgow, you can look across the fields and see the Red Road tower blocks in Springburn in the distance. From there on it is downhill all the way, both metaphorically and geographically.

Stepps soon hoves into view. It's like a slightly less posh version of Lenzie, a little less leafy and with Victorian villas that are slightly less imposing. But it still has a genteel air and as I pass the well-kept bowling green and tennis courts I find myself idly wondering how far the life expectancy has dropped since I left lovely Lenzie. The traffic picks up as I near the M8. The rugby pitches for St Aloysius College are on my right, Strathclyde University sports ground on my left, and there's a lake ahead where young mums push buggies and have toddlers in tow. It could be a scene from any suburb of any big town in the country.

It's when you cross the motorway that things begin to change, imperceptibly at first, but then picking up pace. Outside the Loudon Bar on Duke Street – "the most famous bar in the world" say the banners outside this diehard Rangers hangout – I run into a grizzled fella in his fifties with a vivid white scar from his forehead to his chin, who has an emaciated young woman trailing after him. I move on quickly.

In a matter of minutes I'm at my destination. A sign greets me: "Welcome to Calton" it says, only someone has added a line of graffiti so that it now reads "Welcome to Tongland". It's a souvenir of times past, since the infamous Tongs no longer exert the hold they once did. These days all the damage is done by poverty and its apocalyptic outriders: of drinks, drugs, violence and illness.

If the figure of a life expectancy for Calton men of 54 years of age has produced a stream of lurid headlines, it's also slightly misleading. The district is small, and since its tenements were largely replaced by lower-density housing, its population has plummeted. When the WHO figures were compiled four years ago, Calton had five homeless hostels (two have now shut) housing many of the city's worst alcoholics and junkies. This skewed already bad figures and made them look Third World.

The numbers need little embellishment. Local MSP Frank McAveety's Shettleston constituency is the poorest in Britain, where male life expectancy is 63 years, 30% of the population are officially designated as "deprived" and 25% are unemployed (five times the national average).

Local GP Robert Jamieson has been here for 21 years. There has always been grinding poverty, but drugs have pushed the community to breaking point, he says. McAveety acknowledges the problem but says that several "problem families" fuelling the epidemic have recently been taken out of the equation by police. While former Tory leader Iain Duncan-Smith's assertion that he has seen "thousands" of youngsters in this part of Glasgow injecting heroin seems far-fetched, in the last 10 years there have been 264 drug deaths – one a fortnight – in an area swamped by a tsunami of smack. A recent British Medical Journal study found that for men between the ages of 15 and 54 mortality rates in Scotland were 42% higher than in England, a phenomenon centred around Calton in particular and the East End in general and now officially defined by the BMJ as "the Scottish effect".

If the evidence of drugs was unmistakable in Calton, which is also one of Glasgow's chief red-light districts, so were signs of some equally intractable social problems. Take obesity, one of the keys to the dire life-expectancy figures. One way of tackling the problem should be a better diet, yet since Asda opened at The Forge near Parkhead, virtually all the shops in Calton selling fresh produce have closed. Yet only one in three residents has a car. The result? The junk food shops around the Barras market do a brisk business in coronary-inducing food.

Or what about exercise? There's a running track, two football pitches, several five-a-side pitches and a gym and crche at the shiny new East End Healthy Living Centre just off the Gallowgate. But, says Bruce White of the Glasgow Centre for Population Health, it's not that simple. The centre is opposite the infamous homeless hostel, the Belgrove Hotel, and many residents feel intimidated. "Of course we want people to get out and exercise," he says, "but in parts of Glasgow (like Calton] one in 10 people have experience of violent crime and don't necessarily feel safe in that environment."

Even weaning Calton off fags is complicated by the environment. "I sit patients down and tell them how much it's costing them to smoke," says Jamieson on a day when local shops are selling cigarettes at 6.50 for a pack of 20. "But it's doesn't work because they get contraband from the Barras or in a local pub for a fraction of the cost."

The scenario with alcohol is similar. Contraband booze is absurdly cheap, but even drinking in a pub here costs less than anywhere else in Glasgow, possibly even Scotland. One bar I visited had a special promotion of a half pint of lager and a whisky chaser for just 1.95.

There is, however, good news on sub-standard housing, long fingered as the prime source of Calton's endemic health problems. Where once all council housing was provided by the remote Glasgow Housing Association, the country's biggest landlord, small, local associations have sprung up in Calton. "That's been really important," says Jamieson, "because it's empowered the residents and given them a sense of control they didn't have before."

There has also been a spate of house building in the area, particularly near Glasgow Green where young professionals have been attracted by low prices and proximity to the city centre. The 2014 Commonwealth Games will bring further regeneration.

Underlying all of the area's ills is the hopelessness born of the poverty caused by unemployment. Poor levels of education and a cycle in which three generations have lived on benefits since the area's network of small industries failed mean that children in Calton are 10 times as likely to grow up in a workless household than those elsewhere in Scotland. Duncan-Smith's Centre for Social Justice recently classified 60% of Calton residents as "economically inactive".

Even those in work are in poorly paid employment or on short-term contracts. The recent WHO report found that 6% of workers in secure jobs have mental health problems compared to 27% of workers who have no contract of employment.

If few dispute the scale of the problems Calton faces, there is little consensus on solutions. Many, including John Dickie of the Child Poverty Action Group, see the remedy in primarily financial terms. "Poverty and inequality damage children's life chances," he said. "It's time to explode the victim-blaming myth around poverty and challenge the idea that families need to be pushed into work, change their lifestyles or take responsibility for their poverty. Such myths only serve to deflect attention away from the real causes of poverty and the stunted life chances that go with it – the low pay and lack of childcare that characterise our labour market; the unfair tax system that disproportionately takes more from those in poverty than those who can afford it, and the hopelessly inadequate benefits and tax credits safety net that leaves too many children impoverished. The Chancellor must invest the 3bn urgently needed to boost child benefits and tax credits."

In the background are people like Duncan-Smith, who is part of what McAveety refers to as "Tories trying to return us to the bad old days of Thatcherism". They believe that raising benefits to the levels advocated by Dickie would remove any incentive to seek work and further entrench the benefits culture.

Treading a middle path are pragmatists like Jamieson. They acknowledge that recent increases in child benefit, family credits and the minimum wage, plus extra investment in the Health Service, have all made a difference, as has the tobacco ban. Legislation to stop alcohol advertising would be his next move.

Encouraged by the relatively recent provision of a wide range of agencies, Jamieson is taking a holistic approach to health. He is, for instance, referring as many of the estimated 17% of his patients who have trouble reading or writing as he can. "If they can't read, they won't get a job, and if they can't get a job then they can't escape the poverty trap," he reasons.

And with that I'm off, freewheeling towards the station, leaving all Calton's problems behind me. The good folk of Lenzie don't know what they're missing.