The number of poor people in prosperous Shetland has rocketed by 55 per cent in five years, according to new figures which reveal that more than one in 10 of the islands’ population is now officially classed as income-deprived.
The rise in poverty is being experienced across Shetland but particular pockets of Lerwick are now shown to be as poor as places anywhere in Scotland after the national figures were modified to include people receiving child and working tax credit.
One “zone” in the south of town is among the 26 per cent most income-deprived areas in the country, according to the latest figures from the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation. Of the 717 people living there, 170 adults and children get state benefits – a rate of 24 per cent of the population which is not far removed from the extreme of 27 per cent seen in Scotland’s worst urban zones in Glasgow and central Scotland.
Lerwick South councillor Gussie Angus, who chairs the services committee, said this week he was concerned but not surprised by the figures, given that the zone, which forms part of his ward, has the highest concentration of social housing in the islands. “If there is income deprivation, that’s where it would be,” he said.
However, the south Lerwick zone is not the overall most deprived part of Shetland. That unwanted tag goes to one of the zones in north Lerwick where the 521 inhabitants have the worst health and highest crime rate in Shetland along with the second-highest rate of income deprivation, which affects 105 of its people (20 per cent). The health of people in that zone is in fact so bad it ranks down among the 18 per cent of places in Scotland with the poorest health.
Outside the town, a zone in the North Mainland has 18 per cent of its people with income deprivation, making it the third zone in Shetland that is worse-off than the Scottish average rate of 17 per cent.
In stark contrast to these ghettoes of poverty is Shetland’s richest zone – unsurprisingly Gulberwick and Quarff – which has just five people (1 per cent) classed as income-deprived.
The picture emerging of a growing underclass in Shetland is entirely at odds with the islands’ proud image as one the wealthiest communities in the UK and its boast of using its oil riches to protect the vulnerable. The latest figures based on benefits data show 2,315 people are income-deprived in Shetland, a rate of 10.6 per cent of the population, which is up dramatically from 1,492 in 2004 and 1,934 in 2006. The increase seems all the worse when many other parts of Scotland are stable or heading in the other direction, albeit mostly from a lower starting-off point than Shetland.
The deterioration in Shetland since 2006 is not just limited to people’s income; it applies in housing conditions, lack of qualifications, poor health and unemployment, according to Shetland Islands Council policy manager Emma Perring who has been monitoring deprivation and social exclusion in Shetland for five years as part of community efforts to make it a fairer place. She has recently been updating the old research with the aim of refocusing attention on deprivation in Shetland and redoubling efforts to tackle it.
One stark figure from the new data relates to health. Shetland now has three zones which fall into the worst 20-30 per cent in Scotland for poor health with a north Lerwick zone ranking 1,191 out of the 6,505 zones in Scotland.
Shetland’s slide further into poverty is an elbow in the ribs for the public agencies which declared war on social deprivation three years ago. Then they vowed that the first in-depth report on tackling inequality would not be allowed to lie on a shelf and be forgotten about. Yet the problem is accelerating before their eyes.
Councillor Angus told The Shetland Times he had been aware of the seriousness of the problem since Ms Perring’s previous study into rural poverty, pointing to the high cost of living in Shetland as one of the causes. “State benefit levels are barely adequate to keep body and soul together anywhere in the UK but in Shetland with the high cost of domestic heating and daily living it means folk are doubly disadvantaged.”
He is not convinced that the problem is getting worse in Shetland, saying that from his experience as a former deputy director of social work he knew there was always a minority living in poverty but they rarely received publicity. “All my time in social work you were gritting your teeth about the headlines saying ‘Oil-rich Shetland’,” he said.
He said the council could not do much directly about the level of people’s income and benefits but it could help in providing opportunities for those who are most disadvantaged.
“The answer principally is jobs and job opportunities. But in Lerwick we do have the largest concentration within Shetland of folk with social difficulties and that is also a factor.”
Those who are suffering are not just the old or those who are difficult to employ for reasons such as criminal background, a drink or drugs problem, behavioural issues or mental health difficulties. It extends to the many that, like the nation itself, have overstretched themselves with their borrowings, landing in trouble. Debt problems are escalating in Shetland with the average person who sought help from the Citizens Advice Bureau in Lerwick last year owing £17,630, which is £2,594 higher than seen by bureaux in Scotland as a whole.
It brings a mountain of problems which are damaging for any self-respecting community, including: • people who do not feel part of the community they live in; • low self-esteem and poor mental health, such as depression and anxiety, often as result of negative experiences or the daily pressures of trying to make ends meet; • drug and alcohol abuse passing down the generations; Emma said Shetland was getting better at tackling its poverty but despite that the situation is getting worse. “We’re becoming worse relative to the rest of Scotland which could either be because we are better at claiming benefits and what people are entitled to … or it could be that other places have been better at tackling deprivation. It’s probably a combination of the two.”
As part of the work to update local agencies about the apparently worsening problem and start agreeing action to tackle it, a workshop was held last month in the Sound Hall, attended by 46 people.
Despite the worsening figures, Emma does not believe that the efforts in 2006 to face up to the problem have been in vain. She thinks people have been influenced and there are changes taking place in the way services are being provided in a bid to provide help more effectively. “It has made people more aware of the issues and I do think it achieved a certain amount, that’s why it’s good now to come back to it again and refresh it and give it a bit more impetus.”
The earlier work has also been instrumental in attracting funding and making the Scottish government realise there is deprivation in rural parts of the country, not just the towns and cities, Emma reckoned. “I would hope it has influenced national policy.” Councillors and other people who shape decisions in the community still refer to the original 2006 report, she said, which shows its influence lives on.
While lack of income and spiralling debt are the most obvious ways of assessing poverty and deprivation there are other indicators such as being cut off from basic services and all the other aspects of community life which many take for granted. This is the measure of deprivation by which Shetland and the other island groups fail most of all – people’s lack of access to work, recreation and services such as health care. All parts except Lerwick and Scalloway are among the top five per cent most deprived in Scotland.
People with ready access to a car will scarcely conceive of the extra layers of difficulty and frustration heaped on someone’s life by having to rely on buses, especially for those in rural areas who are not near a main bus route. Even for a worker or student in a sizeable village like Hillswick it can take a whopping hour and a half to get into Lerwick each day, swallowing up three hours of a person’s day, plus the waiting around in wet and windy bus stops.
Poorer people and those with no transport, particularly families, are effectively locked out of many of the simple social pleasures open to others like musical events, sports centres or shows.
In her report to go before community planning partners next month, Emma states: “It can be particularly isolating and demoralising when people can see others around them enjoying these living standards and high-quality infrastructure. There is little opportunity for social contact and support from others experiencing a similar situation.”
Despite all the talk of getting more public service jobs out to rural areas, the continuing trend towards centralisation of work and services in Lerwick is causing increasing problems for rural islanders. Nearly two-thirds of full-time jobs on offer during 2007 were in Lerwick or Scalloway. Emma believes the message about decentralisation is getting across and will be seen to be transferred into action in the near future.
Shetland still has a low rate of unemployment but it is rising and, in some groups, rocketing. Among 18-24 year olds it shot up 400 per cent between summer 2008 and 2009, according to Jobcentre Plus figures, due in part to qualified apprentices not being taken on full-time by hard-pressed employers.
The wealth divide in Shetland is itself leading to extra problems for the poor and socially excluded, who often try to hide their circumstances. It can mean not claiming free school meals for fear of children being spoken about or picked on.
The islands bristle with the symbols of consumer wealth – the fancy houses, flashy cars and boats, gigantic TVs, even the sun tans from luxury holidays – putting the poor under pressure to try to keep up appearances, burying themselves further in debt and the threat of legal action or bankruptcy due to credit cards, store cards and loans used to provide what they cannot really afford.
Last week the Citizens Advice Bureau in Shetland urged politicians to act to help the growing number of local people drowning in debt, which has soared as the UK economy has nose-dived. Last year two-thirds (621 new cases) of the £3.3 million of debt dealt with by the bureau related to spending on consumer goods.
As Mr Angus said, making ends meet can be more difficult in a place like Shetland where the cost of basics like food, fuel and keeping a house warm is generally higher than the mainland yet benefits and minimum wages are set the same as down south. The cost of living is rising too, particularly fuel and electricity prices, while the real value of many people’s benefits and wages is eroding.
The queue of people classed as homeless has grown and private rented accommodation is expensive. Those who live in houses in poor condition often lack the money to improve or heat them. A study this year by Bobby Macaulay showed 49 per cent of households in Unst suffer from fuel poverty.
As well as problems for the poor, the elderly, disabled, sick and young, there are some more unusual groups in Shetland which, Ms Perring’s evidence suggests, are suffering social exclusion. These are said to include ethnic minority individuals, migrant workers and “white incomers” which suggests a worrying new phenomenon that begs further investigation.