Today I spoke in the debate regarding the local government committee’s Inquiry into the Delivery of Regeneration in Scotland. I stated my belief that tackling poverty and regenerating in our communities will only be achieved if we invest in education, skills and jobs. I also stated that although there are many useful projects undertaken within regeneration I do not believe that small funding projects and tokenistic community engagement will make any significant change. I believe that we have to tackle the underlying issues which divide our communities and leave some in my constituency entrenched in poverty. The only way to do this is to be bold in our policy and committed with our funding. We must give those communities which are most deprived the most attention and we must deliver for them to restore a sense of purpose and ambition in these communities.
I, too, congratulate Kevin Stewart and the Local Government and Regeneration Committee on the report, which makes a useful contribution to the on-going discussion about community renewal and regeneration.
I draw the minister’s attention to some of the work of the Carnegie UK Trust. One area of regeneration is town centre regeneration—Boots UK kindly sent a briefing on that to members. Last year in Dunfermline, the Carnegie UK Trust launched a project called TestTown, which had some interesting results. The project has since been rolled out across the United Kingdom. One of the issues that it raised is the amount of rent that is being charged for some properties in town centres, which is a major barrier to people who want to try out new businesses.
I am big supporter of moving community planning forward, and it is moving apace. When the committee took evidence from local authority chief executives, the chief executive of Fife Council set out how it was progressing community planning at strategic level, and how local community plans were being established at a more area-based level. We have also heard evidence from elsewhere. Community planning is at different stages in different local authorities across Scotland, but it is an important development that will engage local communities in determining local priorities, and I welcome it.
We need joined-up policies, joined-up strategies and joined-up government at the local level. Priorities need to be agreed and moved forward, but the Scottish Government fails to do that in its response to the committee’s report. It does not look at how it can provide joined-up government.
I welcome the recognition that regeneration is not just about physical regeneration, but has to be about social and economic regeneration. I am old enough to remember that 30 years ago some areas in my constituency qualified for the old urban aid programmes, because of their levels of deprivation and poverty. If members went into those communities today, they would not recognise them, because of the physical regeneration that has taken place. However, the social and economic stats for those areas show that very little has changed over those 30 years and that is why we need to focus on economic regeneration if we are serious about tackling poverty and inequality across Scotland.
It has to be about jobs. I have said time and again that, throughout history, people have never marched for benefits or higher benefits; people have marched for jobs. The answer to getting people out of poverty is to give them the ability to earn a decent wage—earn a living—and to look after themselves and their families.
If we are going to do that, we need to tackle the skills agenda. We need to look at a much more radical approach to education. There is a general view from educationists that schools in areas of deprivation will perform at a lower level than schools in wealthier areas with better local economies. I have never believed that we should accept that. That problem needs bold Government policy to redistribute resources and focus more resources into areas of deprivation, and focus them on areas where they will make a difference. That needs to take place through the early years and through primary schools into secondary schools. Better links with colleges are needed so that young people have the opportunity to gain the skills and education that will set them up for the rest of their lives and enable them to access employment. That is not happening at present.
I mentioned joined-up Government policy. There has been a 54 per cent reduction in the number of students who attend Fife colleges. The number who were registered to attend who had no formal qualifications has fallen by a staggering 73 per cent. If we are serious about tackling inequality and deprivation and regenerating the communities that suffer from them the most, we need to invest in further and higher education. We need a national strategy across Scotland for numeracy, literacy and information technology skills—the three skills for life that people actually need if they are going to progress and get a job. We need to see investment going into those areas. We need a joined-up strategy that targets resources, is clear about the outcomes that it is trying to achieve and is bold enough to say that there has to be a redistribution of money.
I finish by drawing attention to a policy that the Scottish Government introduced recently: free school meals. Nobody has a problem with the idea that everybody could be given free school meals. However, at the top side of my constituency, which has the second-highest level of deprivation in Fife, more than 50 per cent of the children in one of the schools already qualified for free school meals based on the deprivation and poverty figures. At the bottom side of my constituency, which is a wealthier area, only 1 per cent of the children qualified for free school meals based on the deprivation and poverty figures. The reality is that, given that we have finite resources, if we are serious about tackling poverty and inequality and regenerating our communities, we need to be bold enough to target the resources at the communities that suffer the most. That is where this Government is failing at present.
You can also watch my submission here: http://youtu.be/R1gYyeVml8k