In this insightful guest blog Bridie Ashrowan considers the ambitious cross sector initiatives to eliminate poverty in the city.

In late 2020, Edinburgh’s Poverty Commission reported to the city, live on-line. It felt like a powerful responsibility when I was invited to comment. At the time, I was leading the team at Space & Broomhouse Hub who, along with many other community organisations in the city, had not long finished providing meals – in their case 5,000 per week – to help people self-isolate or keep going till they got benefits as the COVID crisis and lock down bit into our lives and communities. My role now has shifted to a strategic one at EVOC, leading Edinburgh Voluntary Organisations Council.

As a high school kid in Northern Ireland whose dad had been laid off by his local employer, it was a great relief, and no shame really, when free school meals were confirmed for us four school kids, as we were treated the same as the kids in other families. The dinners were delicious, and there were often leftovers at the table of 8 at school, so I got used to a whole lemon meringue pie being for 3, 2, or even 1! I still enjoy it to this day – good memories. Mum became a dinner lady later, she loved that job. Dad got a place on a training course in welding that he treasured. They would have loved to go to university, mum to be a teacher and dad an engineer, but that option was not open to them. He made us a swing when practicing his welding skills and designed an early bike rack for his car.

These memories make me reflect on a key theme of the report – how does someone feel when they are in difficulty and have to ask for help? Are they treated with respect and with dignity, or are they passed with decreasing hope from pillar to post? When I look at the current culture, I remember that I have a pet hate of reports that sit on shelves, with good intentions. My sincere hope is that this report is one that drives forward, in all of us, a desire to do things differently in Edinburgh. To move beyond self-interest or organisational interest and to make the target of eliminating poverty by 2030 achievable.

In my experience of working with young people in Scotland, and with communities and groups who really stepped up to keep folk well in the months of the pandemic, I can see clearly as many can, that the larger anchor institutions – the Council, the local NHS, the Health and Social Care partnership, and the universities – need to trust people to be in the driving seat of key developments and change. Communities of place and communities of interest who have lived experience can help us with insights to support people in living their lives more fully. 

This is the spirit of the Edinburgh PACT, being taken forward by the Health and Social Care Partnership, and beyond that the Edinburgh Partnership. Both have made a commitment to build on the fact that local community and voluntary organisations have been at the heart of the response to COVID 19 by tackling these new issues. These community initiatives demonstrated an ability, beyond that of public services, to respond quickly and flexibly, to offer bespoke personalised support, which local communities have themselves identified.

One of the most interesting conversations I have seen recently ‘What next for Scotland’s places?’ and its emphasis on creative places: In the conversation Professor Duncan MacLennan and John Swinney MSP (Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Covid Recovery), discuss ‘building forward better’ post pandemic. Maclennan has launched a new report A Scotland of Better Places, commissioned by the David Hume Institute which highlights the central role Scotland’s Places will play in Covid recovery. It investigates actions for Scotland to ‘move faster towards a country that is more prosperous, sustainable, inclusive and fair’, engaging more than 4,500 people from across Scotland, bringing together a broad range of perspectives, myself included.

At EVOC, we are very interested in authentic place making, in what it means to have a ‘Thriving Local’ place, which brings together citizens, the community and voluntary sector, private sector employers and public services. Can these be empowering neighbourhoods, underpinned by the well-being of people and the environment, that also meet new challenges, community aspirations to tackle climate change? Many neighbourhoods already are very cohesive and collaborative, so much so that we can showcase community action for COP 26 in the city. COP 26 event is a Global United Nations summit about climate change and how countries are planning to tackle it, due to take place in Glasgow, 1 and 12 November 2021. Much innovation has already happened in Edinburgh in communities where is there is significant deprivation. Where local folk run pioneering community organisations such as shared gardens and electric bike schemes – we hope to showcase that later in the year, in partnership with the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce.

We are now hearing reference to an idea called Community Wealth Building where Edinburgh’s big anchor institutions, NHS, City Council, Universities, major businesses, invest in community organisations and social enterprises, and in small businesses. This is what will unlock community wealth, potential, innovation and opportunity, by channelling resources and employment opportunities and re-directing existing spend into local communities. We are interested in learning from successful models in the UK and internationally to create an Edinburgh approach.

On a very practical level, on a family-to-family basis, an analysis of funds at Edinburgh & Lothians Trust Fund, which we support at EVOC, helps us hear from families. It tells us that they need help with issues like escaping domestic abuse, homelessness, a move to permanent accommodation, damp public or private housing, or support on release from jail.

We need to get better at upstream partnership and structural work, helping a family get the right early support so their child does not need to go into care, or supporting a parent to develop new skills so they can earn more and avoid going back to prison. Where there are lovely new homes with access to green spaces with swings, and growing carrots in community gardens, that kids get to scrabble over, as the carrots are so sweet when not long picked.

The Commission challenges us on a confidence deficit that we can eliminate poverty in Edinburgh by 2030, I hope you share that ambition. I believe by investing in the creativity of local people we can get there.

Bridie Ashrowan, Chief Executive, EVOC