In parts of Edinburgh, unemployment was as high as 25 per cent or more in the 1980s, but booming numbers of tourists have brought jobs and helped reduce poverty, writes Donald Anderson.
A recent News article on Edinburgh’s City Plan caught my attention. Councillor Neil Gardiner, Edinburgh’s planning convenor, was quoted and had chosen to focus on Wester Hailes in the area he represents. He said unequivocally that the City Plan he was launching would only be successful if it made a difference for the people in Wester Hailes, where there were high levels of poverty. For people who are at times cynical about politicians, it was a timely reminder that most politicians in all political parties really do want to make a difference and are genuinely trying to take the right decisions for the people they represent.
What struck me about the article was that, whilst it mentioned poverty six times, it didn’t mention unemployment at all. Now I’m old. My younger years were dominated as a party activist and as a young councillor by the grinding problems caused by the mass unemployment of the 1980s. Back then unemployment in Wester Hailes was running at more than 20 per cent. Of those, half were long-term unemployed.
In other parts of Edinburgh, things were worse with the figure in Craigmillar peaking at over 25 per cent. Throughout the city there were nearly 9000 single parents – mostly women – and of those 70 per cent were on benefits. Mass unemployment destroyed and damaged the lives of more than one generation of Edinburgh residents.
We’ve won the battle on mass unemployment. This despite the longest economic downturn in modern history. Whilst our traditional strength in banking and finance faltered, tourism strengthened and created new jobs. It’s a huge change from the 1980s and those days of mass unemployment.
Back then, tourism jobs were seasonal and a deliberate strategy of building year-round tourism started that has delivered success. Amongst a range of initiatives, the Edinburgh International Conference Centre was built to attract year-round visitors and jobs. In those days, there weren’t enough hotel rooms and Scottish Enterprise offered incentives for business hotels. Hard to believe now but hotels attracted subsidies way back. Dynamic Earth was also built to widen the base of city attractions, and despite one of my former colleagues describing it as a “dynamic white elephant”, it’s been the most successful millennial attraction built outside London, and I think the only one still open.
Despite what many people think, the strategy was never designed around tourists, it was all about delivering wealth and work for residents. That’s paid off. The political debate today is around tackling poverty – and rightly so, but that’s relative poverty, those on below a third of average earnings. That word ‘relative’ usually gets missed out of the debate. I couldn’t find any figures for absolute poverty in Edinburgh. I’m not sure that means it’s gone completely, but if it has it’s passed without comment.
So, at least two cheers for the local politicians who want to make a difference. Absolute poverty and chronic unemployment have been banished from Edinburgh as it has become the strongest city economy in the UK outside London. Tackling relative poverty is now at the forefront of the political debate, and rightly so. Having a strong economy will be what helps to tackle relative poverty too. The fact that Edinburgh has largely resolved issues of mass unemployment and absolute poverty should give us confidence in tackling the problems, rightly highlighted by Councillor Gardner, in Wester Hailes.