When we talk about regional inequality, we usually talk about the chasm between London & the South-East and the rest of the UK, including Scotland. On that scale, Britain is one of the most regionally unequal country’s in Europe. But regional inequalities matter within Scotland too, have been growing for a long time, and are being exacerbated by the pandemic.
Scotland’s poorest region is Inverclyde, and it also happens to be the local authority in the first wave which had the highest rate of covid-19 deaths proportionately. But take a step back from the pandemic, and health inequalities were already causing enormous damage in the west coast region. Inverclyde recorded the greatest drop in life expectancy in the latest National Records of Scotland figures for 2017-19, with a baby girl now expected to live 1.7 years less than just five years ago. Average life expectancy has now dropped under 75 for men in the region. When life expectancy is declining at that speed, we should all sit up and take notice.
Economically, Inverclyde has gone through waves of capital investment and disinvestment. Greenock, the region’s largest town, is instructive. Formerly a centre of ship-building, Greenock became an electronics manufacturing hub in the 1970s, but firms like IBM and Lenovo have since moved work to Eastern Europe and Asia. The call centre and retail jobs which have replaced it are insecure and low-paid, and the rise of e-commerce and out-of-town shopping has hit the town centre hard. Greenock Town Centre and East Central is now the most deprived area in Scotland, as recorded in the 2020 Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation.
It’s not at all clear there is a new wave of investment coming from the private or public sector, with high-productivity jobs increasingly concentrated around Glasgow and Edinburgh. Over the 21 years of devolution, the growth in gross value added per head in Inverclyde has been almost half of that in Edinburgh. There is an Amazon warehouse in Gourock employing 400 workers, but e-commerce is likely to be a net job loser over the long-term, sucking more jobs out of retail than it puts in. As automation intensifies, Amazon warehouse jobs will dwindle. If waves of capital investment was not a sustainable regional industrial policy in the past, today it offers little hope for sustainable, well-paid jobs.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon reported yesterday that Inverclyde (along with Stirling) is the regions already in Level 3 restrictions where they are most concerned about a rising trajectory of covid-19 infections. It could be the first region to be moved into Level four, which is close to a full lockdown. A doom loop can be observed here: deprivation – high rates of infection – lockdown – greater economic pain – greater deprivation.
All Scottish politicians across all parties should be asking how to break that doom loop in a region like Inverclyde, lest declining life expectancy accelerates even more. When kids are on course to live considerably shorter lives than their parents, it’s time to change course.
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