A call to action for Edinburgh which every one of us must heed

Photo by Joe Tree on Unsplash

‘This is not a set of recommendations, it’s a call to action’, said Jim McCormick introducing the final report of Edinburgh Poverty Commission’s report today.

With characteristic calm candour, McCormick, the commission’s chair, levelled with us. That call to action is not merely for officialdom. It is for all of us — the citizens of Edinburgh.

The report, A Just Capital: Actions to End Poverty in Edinburgh, is an outstanding piece of work and required reading for anyone who cares about the future of our city and its people.

As I listened to the commissioners and the city’s respondents speak at this afternoon’s event, I had to catch myself. This is my city, a place I moved to 17 years ago.

It was an audacious move. I could count the number of times I’d visited the city before on two hands. On the last but one visit, just eight months before, I had tried to take my own life.

Yet despite that, I had come away from my last trip having bought a flat without even viewing it — there wasn’t time — on a 125% mortgage from Northern Rock — a loan of last resort as I was newly self-employed.

After 21 years in the big smoke down south, I was done in. Something about this place had reeled me in. And as I joined up bits of Auld Reekie, in the months that followed I patched up my messy life too.

The place where my life could have ended became more of a home than I had ever known. I still pinch myself as I travel through this city — from the top of Blackford Hill to the shadows of the Cowgate.

Of all the places in the world, what luck to end up here. Today, that sense of good fortune was reinforced, of all things, by the publication of a report. I felt not just blessed to be here — but proud too. And yet at the same time, shamed by its contents.

For all its ups and downs, I enjoy a privileged life here. I muddled through lockdown in a spacious, comfortable Georgian flat with my husband. But because our West End home is on the main road out of the city centre, it is a great vantage place too.

It is as much a place people pass through as stay. Daily commuters and nightshift workers, weekend revellers, visitors and tourists — the people strolling passed who have come to enjoy the Athens of the North and those scurrying by who make it all possible.

As we crisscrossed the surrounding streets on one of our evening constitutionals recently — a pandemic forming habit — my husband, who moved here from the Borders nearly forty years ago turned to me.

In his daily work, he supports some of the city’s most disadvantaged citizens — people with learning disabilities living in the community.

‘Have you noticed something?’ he asked, and then paused. ‘Have you noticed how well off people seem to have come through this crisis okay? Looking around, you can just feel it can’t you?’

He was right. You can. I know these last few months have left none of us unscathed, but that well-heeled assurance is unmissable.

That’s why the publication of this report is more timely than its co-creators could ever have imagined when they embarked on their myriad conversations two years ago. Cometh the hour, cometh the commission.

I don’t want to rehearse the report’s findings and actions here because I want you to read them.

As Bridie Ashrowan, chief executive of Space and the Broomhouse Hub said today, the heavy lifting the commissioners have done is reflected in the scale of the report’s ambition.

This is not about ‘tackling or challenging poverty’, McCormick urged at the launch. This is about ending it — in 10 years.

Can we afford that? Really?

‘We can’t afford not to’, Sandy MacDonald, his fellow commissioner, told us. ‘The cost of inaction is too great.’

He’s right. Edinburgh is the most expensive place to buy a home in Scotland, with the fifth highest average house price in the UK. If the city’s poverty makes action essential, its wealth surely makes it possible. Poverty isn’t inevitable.

Delivering on this report’s aspiration is a task for every one of us. Structures and processes and funds will all come into play. But fundamentally it’s about our relationships with each other — and the necessity of reciprocity.

There is no magic wand though, Chris Kilkenny, commissioner and community campaigner, impressed on us. Echoing McCormick’s opening remarks, he wouldn’t single out one thing from the report because cherry-picking won’t do it.

Because every aspect of our lives is interdependent, so ending poverty is too.

I had to catch myself today. On many occasions when I have observed the commission’s endeavours these past two years, it is Kilkenny’s words that have stayed with me. And these will too:

‘It’s time to stop catching us out — and help us catch up.’

Spot on, Chris. Now let’s do it.

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