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Labour let down Glasgow's poor. Nicola Sturgeon must not do the same.

Comment: Kevin McKenna on the Glasgow Effect and why it damns politicians and policy makers.

By STV News

Published 23 May 2016.

In John Carpenter's cult 1981 film Escape from New York, the Big Apple has become, effectively, a penal colony for the country's worst criminals.

They are left to fend for themselves in a dog-eat-dog fashion while armed guards patrol the surrounding walls to ensure no-one who goes in ever gets out.

Then one evening Air Force One is hijacked by anarchists and the escape pod of the President of the United States crash lands in the middle of the city, to be quickly taken into custody by the crazies who run this jungle city. Snake Plissken, a highly-decorated Vietnam veteran gone bad, and memorably played by Kurt Russell, is fetched from jail and told by the government he has less than 24 hours to go in, locate The Chief and return him to safety.

The film is set in the not-too-distant future of 1997 and it has since been accorded all manner of interpretations and analogies. Carpenter had written it in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal when, he said, "there was a high degree of cynicism about the presidency". Others have said that by portraying New York as a jungle Carpenter was effectively describing the authentic nature of US politics.

Some of those who dwell in New York's edgier districts might even have reasonably claimed that their own neighbourhoods resembled the dystopian bleakness of Carpenter's film. Generally, though, it was seen as an enjoyable romp which deployed exaggerated levels of violence and feral anarchy to create the desired effect.

None of the critics perceived anything prophetic in the film's message. "It's just a fantasy; the product of a film director's vivid imagination," they all seemed to be saying. How could the government of a civilised and affluent nation ever think that in this lay the solution to violent crime?

If Carpenter, though, had set his film in Glasgow at any point in the last 50 years it would have been more difficult to dismiss his efforts as mere fantasy. During this time the unique pattern of deprivation, poverty and health inequality which has come to disfigure Scotland's biggest city has led to something called 'The Glasgow Effect'.

This involves a complex and still evolving set of indicators but it can be broadly described thus: the effect by which Glaswegians tend to die earlier and encounter more serious health problems than other UK industrial cities such as Liverpool, Manchester and Belfast who have suffered similar levels of de-industrialisation and poverty.

Politicians, health specialists and social scientists have all tried to explain this anomaly. Why does Glasgow suffer earlier mortality rates than these other cities? The report, published last week by the respected Glasgow Centre for Population Health, has in its 328 pages offered the best explanation yet. The University of the West of Scotland, NHS Scotland and University College London also provided research in support of the report's findings.

Principal among these was that the Scottish Office effectively and wilfully imposed a grotesque policy of social engineering in Glasgow, the results of which led to a gerrymandering of the city's health and wellbeing. Among the many conclusions and the causes identified for each of them a few stand out from the rest. Researchers examined 40 different theories for the Glasgow Effect including several which had been assumed for many years.

One that stands out though is that urban planning, accompanied by selective manipulation of population movements in the 1960s and 70s, all of it designed to engender economic growth, made many Glaswegians much more vulnerable to the effects of deprivation and bad housing. The statistics of the Glasgow Effect are grim and a national scandal. The city's mortality rate is 15% higher across all social classes and ages, while premature mortality (dying under 65) is 30% higher. This rises sharply among the city's poorest.

Three paragraphs in the report stand out for me. "The pattern of development in Glasgow, and the problems it created, can be seen, at least in part, to derive from this set of circumstances -- large quantities of poor quality housing, often built in remote and unattractive peripheral locations, and with a large emphasis on high-rise, still with a tendency to be overcrowded, suffering from low levels of expenditure on repairs and other investment, and inhabited by a population affected by an adverse and policy-induced socio-demographic skew.

"It is highly plausible, then, that the precise nature of the processes of urban change in Glasgow in the post-war decades combined to increase the relative vulnerability of Glasgow's population to subsequent stressful impacts (such as further rapid deindustrialisation, unemployment and poverty, after 1979, together with reduced central funding for council housing, the 'right to buy' council housing, and, more recently, changes to local authority boundaries - all of which meant Glasgow had to deal with a greater level of need on the basis of inadequate budgets) and to consequent adverse health outcomes.

"In this light, the processes of urban change in the post-war decades would be seen to be making a contribution (albeit one that is not easily quantifiable in the strictest epidemiological terms) to the city's excess levels of poor health."

Effectively, the Westminster government, aided and abetted by the city's own feckless and complacent council officers, emptied the city of its healthiest and most upwardly mobile citizens (young families in work) and moved them into the emerging new towns and leafier suburbs. They then locked up those who were left behind: the sick, the elderly and those they deemed to be unemployable; and threw away the key to future prosperity and improvement in their health.

One Scottish Office document sourced by the report's author's used the phrase "skimming off the cream" of Glasgow to be re-located to more desirable dormitory towns. Successive Labour administrations acquiesced in this crime against Glasgow's poorest and embedded it further by pouring all their resources into creating a Disneyworld city centre shopping emporium underpinned by the fatuous slogan Glasgow's Miles Better. Clearly though, Glasgow was getting miles worse for those hapless families shunted out to purpose-built, kit settlements such Easterhouse and Drumchapel to live in brick units so cheaply constructed that they barely deserved to be called houses.

When the inevitable repairs became apparent they were undertaken with great reluctance and for as little money as could be spared. These people were not thought to be worth having money wasted on them for swimming pools and play-parks. In fact by constructing tower-blocks as high as they could get away with, they could cram as many of their citizens as was humanly possible into small spaces.

In recent years the people of Glasgow have wrought a revenge of sorts on the party that allowed them to be used as social experiments. Glasgow voted Yes in the referendum on Scottish independence not because they were all suddenly SNP supporters but because anything must be better than that which they and three generations of their families had been made to endure.

When it became apparent that Labour had failed to acknowledge, far less admit its own crimes against the city, the citizens went further by throwing them out of their grace and favour Westminster seats, followed quickly by all their Holyrood ones. Next May it is virtually certain that they will expel them from the city chambers too.

The SNP have now been entrusted with the task of reversing the decades of wilful neglect of Glasgow's poor and vulnerable multitudes. Not that you would know it by their insipid, vapid and insulting response to The Herald: "Scottish Government measures such as driving investment in affordable housing, increasing free school meals and continuing the commitments like free prescriptions, concessionary travel and free personal care, are the right approach to take.

"This is coupled with decisive action to address alcohol consumption, reduce smoking rates, encourage active living, healthy eating, and investment to improve mental health services."

This is the same party which has cut Glasgow's block grant from Holyrood every year since it gained power in 2007. You will need to do far better than that Ms Sturgeon and, if you don't, this city will never forgive you.

Comment by Kevin McKenna, writer and broadcaster. Kevin is a former deputy editor of the Herald and executive editor of the Scottish Daily Mail. His journalism regularly appears in the Observer and the National.

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