Dundee was long treated very much as the poor relation amongst Scottish cities, a place left in the slipstream of history, with a reputation for poverty and drug and drink induced violence – a place to avoid at all costs. In the last few years, however, Dundonians have been increasingly treated to headlines in the local, national and even international media telling them that, following the city’s ‘transformation from run-down industrial relic to vibrant creative hub’ (Sunday Times, April 14 2019), they now live in some kind of post-industrial arcadia. I’m only surprised that we haven’t yet heard from a local ‘high heid yin’ or design guru that ‘we’ve never had it so good’.
I have news for readers of this blog: this myth of ‘transformation’ is treated with widespread contempt and often anger by ordinary Dundonians who feel as though they’ve been barred fae a perty taking place in their ain hoose. Many Dundonians have experienced ‘transformation’ – there is a list of companies paying good wages for skilled work, such as NCR, Michelin and McGills, that have closed down or have laid off the majority of their workforce. We hear from many older skilled manual workers who have struggled to re-train for insecure and low paying jobs in the service sector. And, being used to a sense of pride in their abilities and skills, some have been horrified at the offhand and contemptuous attitudes they face from much younger managerial staff.
When we meet those who have suffered recent redundancy and who are forced to go into a job centre for the first time in decades, they often express their sense of shock at the ‘transformation’ in the impertinent way in which they are now treated (by ‘work coaches’ young enough to be their grandchildren) and how little help is open to them after a lifetime of working. This is ‘transformation’ of a sort, but not the kind that is often spoken about by those who talk up the notion of Dundee as a city crammed with young, go-ahead, mocha-slurping creative types. They may be, indeed, be found in the west end of the city, or, the ‘creative quarter’, as it has been renamed, but there’s not much sign of them in the schemes, where the vast majority of the population still live – despite the best efforts of city planners whose idea of ‘regeneration’ bore an uncanny resemblance to the Highland, and Lowland, clearances.
For all of that, I’m sure there will be some readers who will dismiss this view as talking down good news, or else as a prolier than thou attack on the shiny new middle-class reality that is emerging on the banks of the silvery Tay. There will be those who will see the victims of continuing de-industrialisation as regrettable but inevitable ‘collateral damage’ in pursuit of the ultimate goal – the creation of Bilbao by the Tay. Fair enough, but consider this – if we are to accept the claims that Dundee has now been transformed, or even that such sacrifices are necessary as Bilbao by the Tay emerges from its chrysalis, what of those pesky statistics that tell a very different and much darker story about the reality of life, and death, in Scotland’s ‘creative hub’?
Not only does Dundee have the highest rate of unemployment in Scotland, it also suffers from the highest suicide rate. As welfare activists, we have direct knowledge and experience of this developing epidemic, dealing, as we do, with folk who are sometimes at the end of their tether – a problem we encounter particularly, though not exclusively, amongst young men. We are also aware of the very real potential for the under-reporting of suicides with death being attributed to other causes – an issue that has been raised with us by visitors to our stalls. Even as the ‘concrete skip’ that is the V&A was unveiled to the international press corps, RNLI boats and rescue helicopters were seen scouring the Tay for signs of the latest suicide attempt from a Dundee bridge. The assembled press corps didn’t even have to budge from the conveniently placed viewing platform at the V&A to watch the grisly search unfold, as it is positioned midway between both bridges and faces the river.
Our much vaunted ‘city of many discoveries’ also boasts a rate of deaths from drug taking that has seen it earn the, disputed, title of ‘drugs death capital of Europe’. Although local anti-drugs campaigners point to the 2018 figures as a cause for optimism – a decline from the 51 fatalities suffered in 2017 – in the six months between April and September 2018 alone, 14 people lost their lives. According to the local press;
‘[O]f those deaths, 12 were male and two were female. The majority of people who died were in the 40-49 age group. The DD4 postcode – which covers areas including Whitfield, Craigie and Maryfield – suffered the highest number of losses, with five.’ (Evening Telegraph, January 1st, 2019)
To round off the litany of despair that lies behind the gleaming façade of the new Dundee, we would point to the reports we are regularly receiving of increasing food bank usage in the city from folk who are in work. Skilled manufacturing jobs have, in the main, been replaced with zero-hour labouring in the gig economy. ‘Unskilled’ and service jobs have not only become a burden, but also an act of forced charity on the part of those caught within their trap towards the rich corporations that employ them. And, heaven forbid that they should refuse a job that doesn’t pay enough to feed and clothe them. If the zero hour worker leaves the job, they can expect little in the way of sympathy from their DWP ‘work coach’, and nothing in the way of material help.
Reality points, not to a city in the grip of a cycle of virtuous transformation, but one where working-class communities are suffering from deep social stress. Their aspirations have been dismissed and their plight ignored. Actually, it is much worse than this. The constant talking up of an already compromised form of top-down, corporate-led regeneration, is being used to mask the dark reality of a city that has for many years felt as though it is under siege. The current siege by ‘regeneration’ is only the latest in a long line stretching back forty years, courtesy of Tory voodoo economics, in its various blue and red varieties.