Town Hall blog in Livingston: November 2018

On 23 November, Andy Haldane, our Chief Economist, visited Livingston and Edinburgh. During his visit he met with staff and volunteers from Citizens Advice Scotland and its clients, to listen to their experiences of dealing with debt and related issues.

My latest Town Hall visit took me to Livingston in West Lothian as part of a day of meetings organised by Citizens Advice Scotland. Livingston, which was one of several new towns built in Scotland during the post-war period, sits in the M8 commuter belt, 15 miles from Edinburgh and 30 miles from Glasgow.

There’s been a Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) in Livingston pretty much since the town was built. Opened in 1969, it’s been supporting local people with a range of social, legal, financial and personal problems ever since. These days the bureau is part of a modern, bustling community centre in the town’s Craighill district which is also home to facilities including the local library and a credit union.

I was told that co-housing the CAB with a range of other community services had helped to reduce the stigma of seeking out help from the service. The community centre was certainly a bustling hub of activity. A children’s party was in full swing in the centre’s community café when we arrived.

The mood wasn’t quite so upbeat in the CAB. Chatting to centre manager Karen Nailen, her staff and volunteers, the breadth of challenges facing the 7,500 or so clients who use the centre each year soon became clear. Naturally our focus was on money issues. And the word ‘poverty’ cropped up regularly too despite one volunteer telling me she’d like to see it banned: “If you’re skint, you’re skint,” she told me.

A big message was that the balance of problems had shifted from dealing with debt to the sheer challenge of making ends meet. Increasingly, that means helping people who are in work and have mortgages. Many people said that their incomes have failed to keep pace with rises in the cost of living. As one volunteer put it: “People just don’t have enough money to get by”.  You didn’t have to look far to understand why.

Over the road from the community centre is a small branch of a supermarket chain where prices have been rising. While providing a valuable service for local people, those that I met found it to be more expensive than some larger, out-of-town supermarkets. Many local residents lack the transport to get to those cheaper shops, so suffer what is sometimes called a “poverty premium” for the goods they buy.

I heard a lot about the challenges facing those living on benefits and, in particular, charities’ perspectives on the impact of the roll-out of Universal Credit. This was a hot topic at a roundtable later in the day at CAS’s offices in Edinburgh. I also heard from organisations including Money Advice Scotland, Age Scotland and the Child Poverty Action Group about their own clients’ experiences.

Though the effort to simplify the system was welcomed, the charities I met said that change to UC was often hard for people to deal with, especially if they were not well-connected digitally. They provided anecdotal evidence that rent and Council tax arrears had increased in areas where UC had been rolled out and food bank usage had increased.

I also heard about the challenges facing charities which often rely on short-term funding streams to tackle long-term problems. Some of the services provided by those charities had recently been cut. In addition, people in rural Scotland often faced difficulties in accessing services like energy and broadband at an affordable price.

The issue of financial literacy among young people came up time and again, so it was great to hear about some of the excellent work being undertaken in schools in Fife on this topic. It also underscores the importance of the Bank’s own efforts on the educational front. Our new education materials and programme of school talks are already having an impact on thousands of school children, and we have more planned.

Back in Livingston, the most memorable encounter of my trip took place during a consultation. I was able to sit in on a conversation with a young mum who has been helped by bureau staff after racking up an unsustainable amount of credit card debt over more than 15 years.

Listening to her story brought home to me the complexity of the debt journey and how easy it was for things to spiral out of control. I heard about the anxiety caused by being caught up in that spiral. And I also heard about the kind of life-changing experiences that are needed to prompt someone to seek help. In this woman’s case it was the imminent arrival of her new child.

With debt having cast a long shadow over almost half of her lifetime, once she had made the important decision to seek help that shadow had started rapidly to shorten. Sitting down with a trained and neutral bureau assistant, working through incomings and outgoings and then organising a plan for repayment may sound simple. But it had transformed this person’s life and that of her family.

This particular story is well on the way to having a happy ending. But the problem of dealing with debt is a deep-seated one in communities up and down the UK, as I have found in my other Town Hall meetings.

I am grateful to Citizens Advice Scotland CEO Derek Mitchell and his team for organising such an insightful and memorable trip and to the CAB volunteers and clients for sharing their stories with me so openly and candidly. They are clearly doing tremendously important work in their local community and beyond.

Thanks also to Will Dowson, Raakhi Odedra and their colleagues in the Bank’s Scotland Agency, to the partnerships advisor Andrew Hebden, for helping to organise my visit. This also included a public lecture, and very enjoyable series of engagements, at the Glasgow School of Art the day before my trip to Livingston.

It was my last Town Hall of 2018, but I really look forward to doing more in the New Year.

This page was last updated 18 April 2019
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