Ferguslie Park – Feegie to those who sneer and thank the housing gods they ended up elsewhere – is in pugilistic form. While Paisley strives to become UK City of Culture 2021, the town’s least-loved suburb has, for the second successive time, claimed the country’s least-desired accolade: the most deprived neighbourhood in Scotland.
By rights, the repeated blows to its pride should have left it punch-drunk. But if there’s one thing Ferguslie is not short of, it’s fighting spirit. So, as journalists tour the scheme in search of its meanest streets, its residents mount a passionate defence of the place they call home.
“It’s disgusting,” says Barbara Brown, who has brought her youngest son, Marshall, three, to Thumbs Up Thursday, a toddlers’ group at St Ninian’s Church. “Every place has good areas and bad areas, but they focus on our weakest points. They show old pictures of boarded-up properties, not the nice new housing association homes. If it was really as bad as it’s being painted, I wouldn’t let my children leave the house, but they go out and meet their friends. I have lived here all my life and never thought of myself as deprived.”
Outside, enjoying one last cigarette before the school pick-up, sits mother of six Angela Chivers, who moved to Ferguslie Park from Fort William. “When I told people I was taking a house here, they said: ‘You don’t want to do that – it’s really rough.’ But I live in a small cul-de-sac and have no problems. I have a job at TK Maxx and my eldest is studying forensic science at university. It can be a struggle, but it’s not as bad as people make out and there’s a real sense of community.”
The latest slight to Ferguslie Park’s standing comes courtesy of the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD), which every four years rates 7,000 localities according to income, employment, health, education and other criteria. A vital tool for the targeting of limited public resources, it is a double-edged sword. Often poorly understood, it can stigmatise those areas which find themselves in the “top 10”, fuelling their decline and undermining regeneration programmes.
In fact, as Renfrewshire Council points out, Ferguslie Park is made up of several localities, each just a handful of streets. The one named “Scotland’s most deprived” in this year’s index is Tannahill, home to the last of the estate’s post-war housing stock and bracing itself for demolition. This is not the same Ferguslie Park zone that topped the last SIMD in 2012. Overall, Renfrewshire’s share of the 20 per cent most deprived areas has dropped slightly.
No amount of contextualising softens the poverty on show in Tannahill itself; in the shadow of St Mirren Park, its two-storey blocks reek of damp and desolation. Many windows are boarded up with sheet metal – or “Feegie curtains” – and it’s eerily quiet.
Close by, on Ferguslie Park Avenue, a single shop stands, like a wary sentinel, over a stretch of wasteground. A pathway takes you past a series of landmarks. On your left, discarded tyres; on your right, coils of rusted metal on scorched grass. Children’s pull-along toys, their dolly mixture colours keeking through the dirt, lie close to stacks of asbestos roof tiles. Every so often, a roar of engines signals another plane taking off from Glasgow Airport, and in the distance, cars flash by on the M8. Despite low car ownership, only two bus services run through the estate.
Even in Tannahill, there are pockets of brightness: one house, its garden lush with flowers and a Ford Mondeo outside, chides those tempted to generalise. In other parts of the scheme, the atmosphere is markedly more upbeat. There are streets lined with housing association homes – each with its own front door and garden – and clusters of private properties give the impression Ferguslie Park is on the up.
At the heart of the scheme is the Tannahill Centre – a thriving hub which houses a doctors’ surgery, a pharmacy, a library, a café, a learning centre and a community hall. At the offices of Engage Renfrewshire, chief executive Alan McNiven and third sector development officer Iain Cunningham, rhyme off some of the many activities open to Ferguslie Park residents: an angling club, taekwondo, a dance group, the Street Stuff youth diversionary scheme run by St Mirren FC, as well as a nursery.
There are also initiatives aimed at tackling specific problems: No Substitute for Life, which raises awareness of male suicide through football, for example, and the Environmental Training Team (ETT), which encourages groups of the long-term unemployed to get involved in neighbourhood clean-ups.
“The thing about the SIMD is the margins are very small,” says McNiven. “Possilpark, the second most deprived area in Scotland, also has significant issues, but it won’t be getting the torchlight shone on it. If you’re number one everybody is pointing the finger at you.”
Renfrewshire Council points out that the rating doesn’t take into account the impact of a £6m anti-poverty programme started last year and says a recent survey showed 47 per cent of people rated the area as a very good place to live. The new Glencoats Primary opened in 2007 and the new St Fergus Primary is already under construction.
“Over a third of Ferguslie Park’s population is families: it’s mum and dad both working, with their own house, one or two cars, a couple of kids. The kids go to school, they attain, they go on two holidays a year – that exists here,” says Cunningham.
If Ferguslie Park finds it hard to shake off its notoriety, it’s because it was hard- earned; in the late 1940s to early 1950s, houses here were much sought-after. But as “undesirable” families were moved out from the Glasgow slums – and the Chrysler car factory closed – it began to go downhill.
Like most schemes, it produced its luminaries: Gerry Rafferty and Joe Egan, John Byrne and Fred Goodwin. But by the 1990s it was in the grip of a drugs-related gang war. “People were taking out contracts on each other and businesses were being used as fronts for money-laundering,” says Fiona, a Paisley “buddy”, who works in the third sector. She recalls the kitchens of new houses having to be fitted two or three times because they kept getting ripped out by thieves, and tales of rustled sheep being butchered in baths.
Today, the old gangsters are past it and no young pretenders have staked a claim as their successors, though there’s no shortage of duckers and divers. Life expectancy is still low – “You can’t buy 80th or 90th birthday cards round here,” Fiona says – but physically the place has changed beyond recognition. “Lots of money has been ploughed in, but everyone still gets tarred with the same big black brush.”
A former strongman, training alongside Geoff Capes and John Pall Sigmarsson, Ian Williams once hauled a plane 100 yards at Glasgow Airport. A torn shoulder muscle forced him to give up competing, but now – at 59 – he continues to bear the community’s problems on his shoulders.
Originally from Tannahill, he remembers “the concrete jungle” (the part of Ferguslie Park where the sports centre now stands) and the nightly torchings of vacant buildings. “It was like a ghetto. They did away with all the gardens because naebody would look after them. Building houses with their own front door and garden brought a sense of ownership, a different mindset.”
Williams worked at the Ciba chemicals factory until he was forced to retire on medical grounds; at a loose end, he started a men’s health club because men are “silly and stubborn and won’t go to the doctors”.
He has a pitted, craggy face, its ridges and gullies doubtless carved out by his former 60-a-day habit, and he suffers from diabetes. But he is confident things are improving. “It’s no all big bags of chips now. People are thinking more about what they eat.”
In 2012, Williams set up the Environmental Training Team, picking up litter and clearing large tracts of overgrown land. The scheme builds up the confidence of the long-term unemployed (25 of those involved have found paid work in the past 18 months), encourages others not to litter and, Williams insists, even contributes to a reduction in crime.
“If there’s an area Police Scotland thinks is bad, we’ll go in and clear it so there’s nae hiding places,” he says. “Two years back, the Barskiven roundabout was totally overgrown so we decimated it and suddenly the people on one side could see the people on the other.
“It was an Aladdin’s cave. People would steal stuff, leave it there and then pick it up three days later. The afternoon we finished the clean-up, some people decided to break into the offices at the Phoenix Centre, but there was no cover, they were totally exposed. The police moved in on either side of them and they were lifted.”
It is not only those who live in Ferguslie Park who fret about the impact the SIMD index has on failing communities. Dr Peter Matthews, senior lecturer in social policy at the University of Stirling, has consistently highlighted the way careless reporting can help fuel a cycle of decline.
Housing policies since the 1970s, particularly right-to-buy, mean social housing is now “the tenure of last resort”, he says. “Within those many thousands of social housing properties, you have particular neighbourhoods like Ferguslie Park which, through no fault of their own, have been stigmatised to such a degree that if people have a choice, they will reject a house there.
“When those deprived neighbourhoods become places that are very isolated, places where residents are excluded from local labour markets, and have very few basic services, that’s when people’s life chances are affected.”
This pattern of inequality could be changed, Matthews says, if we were prepared to knock down houses in more affluent areas, such as Lower Whitecraigs – Scotland’s least deprived neighbourhood, just eight miles from Paisley – and build social housing there. But such a radical approach will never be politically acceptable, so inequality will prevail.
The point of the SIMD is to ensure resources are targeted at places like Ferguslie Park, to prevent them becoming isolated or to turn them into “elevator” communities, where residents are supported to get their lives back on track and move on. It also helps mitigate middle-class activism – otherwise known as “sharp elbows” syndrome – which results in those from affluent areas securing a disproportionate share of resources.
Jean Cameron, project director of Paisley’s 2021 UK City of Culture bid, is another Ferguslie Park native; her first home was in Tannahill Road, named, she points out, after Paisley’s cultural icon: Robert Tannahill, the weaver poet.
“I hope I blossomed through growing up there,” she says. “It really was about having good love. There was always a really strong sense of identity. Nobody ever said to me: ‘Culture isn’t for you.’ My family, the teachers at school, the churches, they all fed into a sense of community.”
It wasn’t until Cameron went to secondary school, with a catchment that took in pupils from Giffnock and Newton Mearns, that she encountered any stigma; but by then she had the self-confidence to go out and be what she wanted.
Cameron accepts there are ongoing problems in Ferguslie Park, but has faith in the power of culture to alleviate them. “The first time the UK City of Culture was awarded it was to Derry. There was a place with a stigma, both in terms of the stories the residents told to themselves, and the perception in newspapers and beyond.
“The title allowed people to assert their identity strongly and proudly, but also – remarkably – it meant that, in 2013, when Derry hosted the event, The Lonely Planet guide voted the city one of the four top places to visit.”
At St Ninian’s Church, a group from the ETT, back from the latest clean-up, is enjoying a well-earned cuppa. Williams is chuffed that a story about five Syrians winning Saltire Awards for getting involved made it into the local paper. “It’s good the people in the community see them putting something back in,” he says.
Like many other “Feegies”, Williams worries the negative perceptions of the estate will become a self-fulfilling prophecy; that it will be forever hauling its reputation behind it on a harness. “If people say: ‘Oh, you come from Ferguslie, you are up to nae good, you’ll never amount to anything,’ then the mindset may be: ‘If this is what you expect me to be, this is how I’m going to act,’” he says.
His mission is to prevent that happening; to make sure those from Ferguslie Park understand they have the same potential as everyone else. “I’m a positive person and I think that has a knock-on effect,” he says. “Even when things are bad, there is always something good to be got out of them.”