2007 - 2022

Community Interest Incorporated: The Business of Managing Poverty

gorbalsThe Barn, with historical roots in the Gorbals for over 30 years, has experienced a 30% cut in its budget over the last 6 years. A ballooning poverty industry booms on the backs of the poor. Darren ‘’Loki’’ McGarvey reports.

“To many people youth work is either a great mystery, or a luxury, or a bit of a waste of time.”

As the low evening sun dips behind the high rise flats of Norfolk Court – tower blocks once pitched as New York style sky scrapers – now waiting to be condemned – a long shadow is cast on the strip of derelict land where her structural sibling, Stirlingfauld Place – now demolished – once stood.  There is something futile about the two remaining towers as they leer, like two middle fingers, in stubborn isolation from the surrounding scenery.  The post-modern buildings growing up around them, with their confident, trend ridden facades, seem perfectly normal by day.  But like everything else in the Gorbals, they take on a new, shifty character depending on which way the dwindling day light hits them.

Gathered neatly on the tarmac in the foreground, a group of around 15 children wait patiently outside a local community centre.  They seem cheerful for a Monday evening. As they rub their hands together, one may assume it’s to ward off the creeping winter chill, but it’s far more likely in anticipation of the imminent arrival of the youth workers who will soon open the doors of The Barn.

“Coming to The Barn geez me peace as it gets me oot the hoose” says Benji, with a precocious self-awareness unbefitting of a working class 12-year-old.

As the doors swing open and young people pour inside, a youth worker smiles before saying:  “They’re at the door all the time.  They come here right after school. But we don’t have the staff to keep the place open.”

Life in the Gorbals is in state of consistent transition.  But unlike other parts of Glasgow, where progress occurs more incrementally – if at all – here on the quiet south bank of the River Clyde, change is far more palpable and dramatic.  Here, regeneration has become a by-word for business and represents a ceaseless and lucrative commercial enterprise over which local people have very little authentic influence.

Like the shrill birds that hover above, scouting the area while shitting from a high height, before flying off with whatever scraps they can find; decision-making in the Gorbals is also a messy business.  And one all too often conducted well over the heads of the people who live here.

In the Gorbals it’s created a fertile bed of resentment from which cynicism and apathy have grown.
Outsiders interpret that anger as self-defeating and futile; insiders DO NOT GIVE A FUCK what outsiders think.

Even the name, Gorbals, seems at odds with itself.

First, there’s the common street myth perpetuated by Glaswegians themselves, that it simply means Gory-Bells; symbolic of bells the lepers used to carry to warn off the uninfected.  This may actually ring true, some believing Gorbals derives from the Lowland Scots word ‘garbel’ – meaning unfledged bird – perhaps reference to lepers once permitted to beg in the area in medieval times.

Alternatively, Gorbals may be rooted in Gaelic phrase, ‘Gort a’ bhaile‘; meaning ”the town’s field” or garden of the town.  Most people only drive past the place, or through it.  But to live there is to know poverty at a visceral level.

The young people in the Gorbals represent the silver lining on this most ominous cloud.  So, what is being done to nurture their community spirit and thus change the fortunes of this former leper colony?  Or. ‘New Leper Colony’ as it has been so graciously renamed.

The interior of The Barn is brightly lit and colourfully decorated.  Life affirming slogans adorn the walls.  One reads:  “Don’t aim for success if you want it; just do what you love and believe in, and it will come naturally.”  Situated in the middle on the main hall are brightly coloured couches where teenagers – who recently constituted their own youth committee –  chat while the younger kids dart around between air hockey, table tennis, pool, snooker, baking, football and even a sectioned off computer room for X Box enthusiasts and soon to be social recluses.

In The Barn, local young people of all ages and abilities learn how to play, share and express themselves in a safe and affirming environment where being yourself is more than enough.  But even something as simple and vital as this needs to be paid for.  Which means all this good will and joy needs to be quantified, measured and justified every 12 months or it may become subject to ‘efficiency savings’.

Joe McConnell, the democratically recognised leader (not manager) of The Barn, is unusually frank in his assessment of the various interests operating in the area.  According to him, top-down, micro-managed, target orientated, community economics can lead to potentially life changing work falling out of sync with grassroots needs and aspirations.

“We are working to combat the effects that inequality and poverty has on the lives of young people; the cycle of insecurity, miss-trust, lack of resilience, low self-esteem and confidence etc. It is holistic, long term, and multi-faceted work.”

He believes the opportunity for meaningful and lasting progress is often hindered – and even undermined – by the very organisations and institutions financed to empower deprived communities.

On the day-to-day hustle of cultivating personal self-esteem and a sense of community spirit in this ever-changing urban expanse, Joe said:  “It can have a profound and positive effect on young people and it is a challenging and hugely rewarding job. But I think we are a long way from this being understood or accepted by a fairly large element of funding bodies and the public sector.”

The third sector – or at least the cross-section of the sector which is regulated – is comprised of over 45,000 voluntary organisations, employing 138,000 people while drawing on the altruism of over 1.3 million unpaid volunteers.  Volunteers I’d be happy to guess, somewhat hazardously, likely reside in the area in where these services are being provided.

In short, the only labour many people have to offer their community is the act of helping other paid managers and employees deliver services.  But, in many cases, volunteers have no real influence over the projects themselves.

The sector is industrial in scale with an annual turnover of £4.9bn; equal to the entire Scottish Creative Industries and four times that of the recession proof food and drink sector.  Third Sector annual income has doubled over the last decade and rose by £300million in 2013.  That rise alone is enough to fund The Barn for 6000 years.

Why do so many projects still struggle despite consecutive years of increasing investment?
Joe diagnoses the problem unambiguously, saying:

“There is funding out there for specific targets, outcomes and issues.  However many of these are not relevant to the work we do. The identity crisis within the sector does not help this situation.”

Joe and his team are just one of hundreds of groups operating across Glasgow, in extremely challenging circumstances, who attempt to tackle social issues fundamentally by forming meaningful relationships with the young people over a long period of time, before behavioural problems develop.

But according to Joe, this work is either misunderstood or undervalued by those who hold the keys to the kingdom and he believes the problem is increasingly structural, saying:

“There does still seem to be not a great deal of will for longer term investment in young people and the development of so called soft skills; there is a discrepancy, at Scottish government level, between the desires for the kind of society we want to live in and the resources that are allocated to help this happen and where they are directed.”

Glasgow City Council’s budget for the voluntary sector – a public document, buried in torturous managerial speak, details every organisations core budget and the ‘variances’ and ‘efficiency savings’ – cuts to you and me – over the next 3 years.  The Barn, with historical roots in the Gorbals for over 30 years, has received a 30% cut in its budget over the last 6 years.

The total ‘efficiency savings’ made by Glasgow City Council for the next 3 years total just over £1.4 million.  This was achieved by shaving relatively small amounts of funding from relatively small groups, which by definition, find the cuts harder to absorb than larger organisations.

To put this in context, MSP’s total expenses – on top of their salaries – have risen to over £13 million a year.  You may feel the issues are unrelated but the people who live in these communities certainly don’t.

The debacle surrounding the demolition of the Red Road flats, for global entertainment, is a prime example of the increasing disconnect between a swelling political and managerial class and the communities they are paid so well to empower.

The Barn, a small project which aims to engage local young people through activities and the arts, is funded from the same pot of money as massive social and cultural institutions such as:  Citizen’s Theatre, The Arches, Scottish Ballet, Scottish Opera, Glasgow Housing Association, Police Scotland as well as programs in the Glasgow School of Art and many of Glasgow’s main colleges and universities.
These nationally recognised organisations, who can also apply for funding from other public bodies like Creative Scotland as well as the European Union – which has a subtle but decisive influence on the direction of social programs via directives attached to multi-million pound funding pots. Projects which adopt these directives, like regenerating disused land or combating sectarianism, stand a far greater chance of gaining and keeping their funding.

There is very little scrutiny of the sector beyond its own internal evaluations, making it relatively unaccountable to the communities it purports to serve.  The dependency on funding approval leads to a self-censorship where criticism is concerned however, at The Barn they don’t seem afflicted by this structural apathy.

One community artist, who asked not to be identified, also spoke of a culture of ‘book cooking’.  Driven by the necessity to meet funding criteria, project evaluations are often tweaked – or even falsified – to avoid a perception that the project was unsuccessful in some of its aims.

“I was brought into a project in Ayrshire by an arts organisation working with young people to build a community garden.  When I arrived the project had been running for 6 months, but it was in disarray.   This kind of dynamic is usually blamed on the behaviour of the young people. But a lot of the time it happens because the wrong people are employed to deliver the work.  It had been mostly funded through EU money, nearly half a million pounds, but essentially it was the staff team who were actually doing the work.  By work, I mean, actually building the garden.  By the end, morale was pretty low.  The Lord Provost for the area turned up on the opening day, as well as managing directors from the arts company, and we all took pictures for the local paper.  Speeches were made in front of parents about how great the young people had been and what a brilliant community project it was.  The public perception was that the project was a success.  It was anything but.”

Within the Third Sector, a managerial-consultancy class seems empowers itself merely by talking vaguely in the language of ‘Social Justice’.  The term itself is so subjective and like other common buzz words, such as, Social Capital, illustrate how corporate terminology has slowly permeated almost every aspect of our lives.

A ballooning poverty industry booms on the backs of the poor.

The academics are impotent and detached.  Careerism stunts the development of any meaningful journalism on the subject and the blogosphere and ‘new media’ apparatus, designed to democratize knowledge and information, often cannot see beyond their own narrow self-interest and impenetrable esoteric social theory; opting, instead, to speak in the language of political resentment, misplaced idealism and subtle self-exaltation.

The Third Sector should act as a check and balance to Government oversight, however, the sector is mainly funded with public money.  The sector publishes its own in-house paper which gives a clue as to how they seem themselves from the inside.  There are no ulterior motives or dodgy intentions, simply a structural assumption they know what others need and that only they, in their educated wisdom can deliver it.  Therefore, rocking the boat conflicts with self-interest; leaving vulnerable communities without any authentic representation.

Barry McLaughlin, a 25-year-old youth worker, employed at The Barn until last year, feels improving community self-esteem, and not simply employability, is key to authentic empowerment.
Refreshingly unguarded, Barry said:  “The most important thing for us is the positive relationships you build up with the young people.  If you don’t have trust then nothing can be achieved.”

He continued:

“There’s a sense of apathy due to decisions being made in the Gorbals without consulting the people that live here.  The Gorbals has a negative narrative that says ‘were no good enough’.  We’re trying to change that by saying the Gorbals is an amazing place.  The tools to fix the place are already here rather than parachuting government initiatives in who don’t understand the area.  They want us to do work that looks good and sounds good; but isn’t always good.”

Barry, visibly concerned he may be neglecting the young people, merely by talking to me, said:  “Impact is something we are asked about a lot by funders but it’s difficult to quantify.  You can see it as soon as you walk in the door.”

He sighs, as if resigned to some immovable truth before smiling, hopefully: “In an ideal world we would get funded for building trusting relationships with young people.”

Comments (15)

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  1. jivetoaster says:

    “There is something futile about the two remaining towers as they leer, like two middle fingers, in stubborn isolation from the surrounding scenery. ”

    I admire the article’s sentiment, but when was the writer last actually in the area? 66 Norfolk Court (the one nearest Gorbals Street) was demolished in October 2010: there has only been one black slab block in the area for over 4 years now.

    1. Loki The Scottish Rapper says:

      Many of my family lived and died in the gorbals. If i miscounted the tower blocks then i am guilty of sentimentality. The image is emblazoned on my mind. I was also working in the area when i wrote it. Thank you for drawing my attention to my mistake. Loki

      1. jivetoaster says:

        No worries 🙂

        Likewise I had relatives in the Gorbals. I agree that community self-esteem is an important thing to be fostered, but not simply in the form of community defiance, which is what it often morphs into. Difficult balancing act.

  2. David Agnew says:

    I think a lot of the problem with the “third sector” is simply the same as those firms who took contracts to “assist” people into paid work. They are there simply to soak up public money, while doing the absolute minimum they can get away with. They tend to ignore real concerns for pet projects or cookie cutter training courses offering “key boarding skills” – which result in sitting the unemployed into front of some aged piece of hardware while they plod through a generic MS office package.

    The bulk of what they do is diversion. Nothing to deal with real issues. Poor housing and the health issues that derive from it. Lack of facilities, out of school clubs, nurseries, adult illiteracy classes, day release for local colleges or scholarship/apprenticeship programmes. Drug/alcohol outreach. You name it, there are so many other things they can be doing. The money is there, but its almost as if you cannot speak out loud what is really needed or it vanishes.

    But the money tends to get wasted on play areas while the issue of petty vandalism is still a scourge. Theater workshops for kids before you have dealt with poor literacy skills. Training people to prepare pretty C.Vs with their new keyboarding skills, when the best opportunities are low paid manual work on a zero hour contract or worse – workfare.

    It’s like those stories you read about Afghanistan – were the people crave basic security and jobs and we send over a interpretive dance troupe and get several thousand copies of the “female eunuch” translated in Arabic when the language spoken there is Dari.

    Their hearts might be in the right place – but honestly the disconnect is as wide as country mile.

    1. Clootie says:


      You must be fun at dinner parties!

      Yes society can stand back and do nothing. We can simply abandon another generation. It does save money.

      When Mother Teresa took over an orphange she was surrounded by people discussing the lack of funds, overcrowding, dirty conditions etc all crying constantly “where do we start”.
      Mother Teresa noticed a bucket and a scrubbing brush and walked over kneeled down and started scrubbing the floor – “we start here”. Her example changed the behaviour and atmosphere within days.

      The people at the Barn are trying to do something. People who set up foodbanks are trying to do something.

      Perhaps one day we will have a fairer society in Scotland leading change from the top by people who care AND can operate the fiscal levers. In the meantime I have a great deal of respect for those trying to improve the quality of lives for their fellow man.

      We have now reached the point when 65 people on the planet have a greater wealth than the poorest half of the Earths population. That figure has reduced from 85 in less than a year. It changed from 66 to 65 while I was looking it up.

      Look at the “Spirit Level” of income gap / health conditions. We need a major political change and I deeply regret the missed opportunity resulting from the recent NO vote in the referendum that would have enabled such change to begin.

      People who try to help in such places as the Barn and our Foodbanks cannot change Westminster government policy, Stop austerity cuts or undo the years of neglect. They cannot create investment leading to good quality jobs. They at least show that someone cares.

      …and even if all they do is give a few hours of “diversion” then it is still of great benefit.

      1. David Agnew says:

        All your points are perfectly true. I would not for one minute attack the people who run food banks or the barn. But the main body of your post highlights the yawning gulf between the problem and the means available. I have a deep abiding respect for these people, but I am not blind the challenges or how too often the “system” put in scary commas for want of a better term, tends to squander resources on well meaning but pointless schemes, while these community based solutions face cuts.

        What these folk are involved in is basically – crisis management, lets not beat about the bush here, this is all it is. Its the bucket under the leaky roof. It’ll do for a while but its not a long term solution and we should resist attempts for it to be seen as such. Look at how foodbanks are being normalised as acceptable and you can see the danger. The bucket is becoming the accepted means of addressing the issue. As long as we have a bucket, or so they tell us, we can ignore the leaky roof.

        Local community leaders can and do find ways to help, but they have major problems gaining access to the means to finance it. Too much of the resources we need get re-directed to rather pointless initiatives. Think of the money squandered Glasgow city council with its Anti poverty strategy in 2013. People directly involved were not part of the main panel, they were relegated to a “wee panel” linky here http://www.glasgow.gov.uk/CHttpHandler.ashx?id=16341&p=0

        What are its conclusions – Poverty is an issue and it needs to be addressed. The poverty alliance and Gowell both of which are lobby groups get mentions. The people on the sharp end with the real experience of what is needed? Never mentioned again. Their voices and vital experience lost in a cascade of well meaning policy wonks, acknowledging there is a problem and deciding that “something must be done”. Yet labour councilors waved through vital funding for easterhouse, into the back pockets of a man who was hired to front an organisation to deal with poverty…in easterhouse…in 2013.

        By all means, let us celebrate those people who give their time freely with no other motive than a desire to help out. But we should never allow ourselves to think these people mean the issue is being dealt with. Its being managed but not dealt with. Google the words poverty in Glasgow and you’ll have exactly the same arguments being met by Initiatives with grand sounding names going back to the 70s. And yet places like Easterhouse are still among some the worst areas in Glasgow with regards to poverty. The cycle has to be broken and it seems to me, the major obstacles to it are too often those with power who supposed to be dealing with it. We need politics to fix it, but clearly it has failed us. We have become too comfortable with making do with a bucket.

        As for dinner parties – well I tend to avoid these subjects over dinner – I tend to save them for places like this 🙂

  3. zeno says:

    There was a piece of research done recently by NHS in Scotland on reducing health inequalities.

    It found the biggest difference in reducing health inequalities were projects which resulted in more money being in peoples’ pockets. Policies like the council tax freeze, or the living wage.

    In other words, jobs, money, security. AUTONOMY. Whilst programmes which targeted things like smoking or promoting cycling improved public health generally, they didn’t help reduce health inequalities. The poor aren’t going to give up their fags or get on their bikes. But if they have HOPE, in the form of jobs and living wages, suddenly they buck up and try to aspire. At that point they are more likely to fancy taking up cycling and giving up the fags.

    It is so bleedin’ obvious to me that jobs and housing – good jobs, good housing – are they key, and anything else is just sticking plasters. But it sounds like the Barn does a very good job in just being there and befriending kids. Just simple old-fashioned TLC.

  4. kailyard rules says:

    The dear green place? No mean city? Take your pick. Glasgow is a crucible. I wish all of these “Barn” kids the best of good luck as they forge their lives.

  5. Clare says:

    I work in the Gorbals – and the sight of the beautiful, rotting building in the photograph, is a daily affront to my eyes. I cannot understand why Glasgow is allowing landmark buildings to disintegrate – it’s a scandal.

    The Gorbals has got much to recommend it – a park full of fruit bushes among it but some simple things are needed to help the people who don’t get to go home at 5.30.

    As much as it needs anything, it needs some shops. The only place to buy fresh food is a dismal co-op which is both the worst stocked and the most expensive supermarket I’ve come across. Waitrose provides better value for money but they’re not opening round here.

    The community is being let down on health by the poor provision of affordable fresh food and I see it daily when I’m in there buying milk for work. It needn’t be £3 for 6 apples. I never thought I’d wish for another supermarket to be built anywhere but it’s obvious that many of the locals residents have no transport so I wish to god Lidl or Aldi or Morrisons or better still an independent grocer would open their doors and put the co op out of business. They are a shameful and hollow representation of what their movement once stood for.

  6. emilytom67 says:

    Easy to say but throwing money around/at projects do not necessitate success,most of our ails in Scotland the rest of the world lies in our”broken spirit”,spirit the much shunned part of the triumvirate of body/mind/soul if you have any one of these malfunctioning or worse not functioning then you will be “out of kilter” for sure.We have to try and get to the soul of people get it repaired and strong and there is no limit to what can be achieved,the scrubber/bucket analogy if you like,give the young was respect/encouragement let them dream give them hope,someone quoting Afghanistan,now there are some truly inspiring stories to be read about kids who know real poverty/subjugation who create their own basement businesses in the face of horrendous odds,why? because they have rock solid spirit and belief.In Scotland we have a surfeit of land couldn,t we use this to set up small self supporting holdings producing whatever food/livestock necessary,train the kids to run and if successful own them,it surely isn,t beyond our “ken” to come up with something along these lines.

  7. JLT says:

    These are the areas that have been badly let down; not only by Labour when they were in power at Westminster, but also by the likes of Glasgow City Council. This is Scotland’s real problem; not sectarianism, but poverty. The Gorbals are not the only area like this. There are areas in Edinburgh that are also blighted with the stigma of poverty and desperation, as I’m sure there are in Aberdeen, Dundee, and the other smaller cities. For some, the belief that nothing will ever change in those areas, and it will be like this always.

    I really hope that if Scotland does become independent, that we take a long hard look at areas like the Gorbals, Wester Hailes, Granton, etc. These are the areas that need massive transformation. I believe that if we could turn those areas around on mass (as in real investment in housing, amenities, business parks …and try to at least implement something in all these areas within two decades) then who knows …not only might it change the health of Scotland, but it might also inspire, give us the confidence, and help us to move along as a new and proud nation too.

  8. zeno says:

    Only independence can solve these issues because the problems are deep seated and structural. The economy. Scotland doesn’t control her own economy. People need jobs and houses, and only a Scottish Government with full powers over its revenues, policies, and legislation can act to do that. All these social problems, drink, domestic violence, broken families, poor health, low educational attainment, will melt away by themselves the minute that people have jobs and houses and begin to feel they have some hope and control over their lives.

  9. Darien says:

    Places like the barn should be considered just as importantly as daytime education or nursery provision and funded accordingly. The life of kids does not suddenly end at 3.30pm every weekday. We spend billions on educating youngsters between 9.00-3.30, then practically zilch by comparison between 7-10pm on activities that should be considered just as important – i.e. social education, sports etc. I really enjoyed my local community centre when I was a youngster but even then the activities were limited to one or two nights a week, if that. Today I notice there seems very limited scope there for teenagers as the place is jammed full of activities every night for older age groups – pilates, yoga, line dancing, indoor bowls etc,, many of them for the vociferous middle classes. Government should have a policy to deal with this, but I don’t see a comprehensive ‘after school or social education’ strategy or much in the way of resources for that.

  10. arthur thomson says:

    I would just like to express my thanks and respect to those who are genuinely trying to support the kids in the Gorbals and other deprived areas. I would also like to express my utter disdain for those who are willing to exploit the little that is offered to these kids for their own miserable gain. As someone who floundered, not very successfully, in this area of work for years I know first hand how difficult it is to offer something that is genuinely useful. Raising the self-esteem and self-belief of our young people is key but it is incredibly difficult to achieve. Barry is spot on when he says that there should be funding for building trusting relationships with our young people. My hope is that Loki and others like him will get together to inspire and fight the corner of our disadvantaged young people and the youth workers who are doing their best to help them. We need a high profile campaign to highlight the plight of so many young people who have so little meaningful support.

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