Our National Community Link Worker Amanda Bickerton has been travelling far and wide to follow up on the Good Society conversations we held in communities last year. Her is Amanda’s report on a recent journey to Scotland.
The town of Invergordon is located on the Firth of Cromarty to the north of Inverness. It is a centre for oil rig refurbishment and maintenance. It has a deep-water port and is visited by large cruise liners for coach tours of the Northern Highlands.
The Good Society project here has expanded its boundaries beyond Invergordon to the wider Easter Ross area, including Milton, Alness and Dingwall, areas which are among the 15% most deprived communities in Scotland.
I visited the town earlier in the summer. For a city dweller, the sense of remoteness is palpable. The community in the towns along the Firth struck me as very strong, close-knit and supportive. The oil rigs, standing unused out in the Firth, speak of an industry that has an uncertain future. They are visible from all over the town (I had not appreciated until this visit just how large an oil rig is) and cannot be ignored: they serve as a constant reminder to the town how precarious their economy is at the moment.
Some of the preliminary issues which arose were:
- The overarching insecurity of the economy, because of the precarious state of the oil industry on which the area depends and the downturn which has already occurred, is impacting on the community.
- Lack of IT skills in the local community, meaning that when people become unemployed they are struggling with the demands of the online system used by the Department for Work and Pensions.
- The introduction of Universal Credit to the area, with a 13-week waiting time for claims to be processed and sanctions leaving people with no income. There were concerns about the wholesale roll-out of Universal Credit in the area: it has thus far only affected single people without dependants.
- The transport situation in the area makes travelling for interviews and work very difficult: without a car it is difficult to get anywhere.
- The local housing association told us that half of the affordable housing in the area is allocated to people affected by relationship breakdown.
- When Universal Credit is introduced, no rent will be paid for the first month of the claim as it is assumed that claimants will have savings. This will have a significant impact since 50% of tenants are in receipt of housing benefit.
- Debt and the lack of access to affordable credit is an issue. The local housing association found, from a study in 2011, that between 10 and 15% of their tenants had used illegal credit (loan sharks) or BrightHouse to borrow money or obtain goods. The landlord has offered to pay membership for tenants to join the local credit union as an alternative.
- The Poverty Premium is even higher in this area, probably up to 30% more, due to lack of access to cheap energy, prepayment meters and high transport costs. The area is rural and geographically isolated, which compounds the problem.
In the next few months there will be Good Society conversations and small events in the communities along the Firth, before the groups all come together to share their responses and ideas.