IT'S not often you see a politician close to tears. It’s not often a Conservative party leader becomes closely associated with one of the most deprived places in western Europe. But no matter what happens to Iain Duncan Smith or Easterhouse in future, they will always be connected.

The then-Tory leader famously visited the sprawling estates in the east end of Glasgow in 2002 and posed for photographs outside dilapidated housing blocks, looking like he was about to cry. At the time he admitted his party had failed such places and their people in the past – but he committed both himself and the Tories to making amends. His would be the party of “compassionate Conservatism”, he said. The press framed the visit in strangely religious language; Duncan Smith, IDS as he is known, had undergone an “Easterhouse epiphany”, apparently.

There was much talk of Easterhouse and the aforementioned epiphany last weekend when IDS resigned as work and pensions secretary, a job he’d held for almost six years, citing cuts to benefits for the disabled and accusing Chancellor George Osborne of dividing society with his approach to welfare savings. It was strong, scathing, unexpected stuff. Politics is never straightforward, of course, and many believe the resignation was more about the forthcoming referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU than a principled stance on welfare cuts. IDS had, after all, signed off on many other cuts to his budget. But the move certainly shunted welfare reform to the top of the Westminster agenda, at least for a few days.

So what do the people of Easterhouse make of the whole thing? Did they believe IDS at the time? How would they rate his tenure now? And how has their area changed in the 14 years since the "epiphany"?

It takes only 15 minutes to drive along the M8 from Glasgow city centre to Easterhouse. Certainly some things have changed since 2002 – the motorway exit takes you past The Fort, the shiny 440,000sq ft shopping mall that opened in 2004. I drive on and park near the old shopping centre, the 1970s-built Shandwick, which used to sit in the middle of some of the most run-down housing in Britain.

It’s been a few years since I’ve visited and it takes me a while to get my bearings – the place is unrecognisable. From some angles it is more like a Scandinavian new town than one of the most notorious urban planning blunders of the last century. Attractive low-rise modern homes have been built by housing associations. The gardens are neat and tidy, the environment pleasant, with views to the Campsies. Two young children and their father cycle past, and down the road sits a large private housing development, filled with driveways and executive villas. It could almost be East Kilbride.

I look over to The Bridge, the modern cultural campus that houses a theatre, library, cafe and swimming pool. People from all over Glasgow and beyond come here to see cutting-edge theatre and music performances. Things really have changed.

These days this area is home to around 35,000 people – a population comparable to Stirling – but at its height in the 1970s 70,000 lived here, which would have put Easterhouse in the top 10 biggest towns in Scotland.

I pop into the bank at the Shandwick and in the queue I get talking to Mary, a woman in her 50s who has lived in Easterhouse all her life. I remark that the place is changing. “It looks a bit better,” she says, “but the people still have nothing.” I ask her what she makes of IDS and she hoots with laughter. According to Mary the former welfare secretary’s “epiphany” wasn’t just false, it was foul.

“Him? He’s an eejit,” she says. “He had a cheek coming here shouting the odds. What does a toff like that know about the lives of folk like us? He’s all about looking after his rich pals.”

This is exactly the sort of thing I expected to hear. After all, Tories don’t tend to be popular in places like Easterhouse. And many of Duncan Smith’s policies as work and pensions secretary were controversial, not least the so-called bedroom tax and changes to the Employment Support Allowance – the replacement for Incapacity Benefit – which saw tens of thousands of claimants reassessed as fit for work despite protestations that they were sick or disabled. The initially much-vaunted Universal Credit scheme, meanwhile, which aims to make work pay for recipients, is years overdue and significantly over-budget. Easterhouse is exactly the type of place that has been hit hard by these reforms.

Surprisingly, however, I don’t have to go far to find a more nuanced view of IDS and his legacy. Across from the Shandwick sits the Phoenix, a new community centre about to open in a formerly dilapidated library. From the outside it looks like nothing special. Inside, however, it’s a revelation. Alongside the cafe and games hall are two squash and racquetball courts (the first in Easterhouse) which double as yoga and dance studios, an IT room, a library and homework room, an arts and crafts studio and a bicycle recycling workshop. A variety of clubs and activities for all age groups are already booked in, and it will be up and running by the end of April. Impressive is an understatement, even more so when you find out that not a penny of government or council money has been spent on the £100,000 transformation of the place – all the building materials, equipment and labour has been donated, all the sourcing and project management done by volunteers.

“I’m not blinkered by any one political party,” says Richard McShane, the 61-year-old who has spent four years making all this happen. “I learned early in life that you have to chap all doors.

“I met IDS in 2002. I’m a good reader of people and I could see that he was genuinely affected by what he saw in Easterhouse. I remember asking him what he thought of it – he said he was ashamed and embarrassed that people were living in such conditions in modern Britain. But, of course, he wasn’t in power at the time.”

In the intervening years McShane corresponded with IDS over various poverty-related issues, and always received extensive replies. (He also wrote to SNP and Labour politicians but says they never answered his questions.)

He adds that although housing has definitely improved in Easterhouse, the social problems – unemployment, alcoholism, drug addiction, obesity, isolation – have worsened over the last few years. McShane has many ideas about how to get people off benefits and back into work, and he says some of IDS’s policies – such as the bedroom tax – were good in principle but turned out to bad in practice.

McShane, who spent his career in management, moved to Easterhouse with his mother and six siblings in the 1960s and moved away in the 1970s before returning in 1993. He is clearly a pragmatist and will work with anyone who has something to offer the community, regardless of political affiliation, he says. He describes himself as blunt and speaks frankly about not only the effects of poverty, but also his approach to those who need help.

“Look, the benefits systems does need to be changed, everybody knows that,” he says. “In deprived areas like this we’ve created a culture that means people are dependent on benefits – they think that’s all life has to offer. But this culture is destroying our youth. Young people look at their parents who are on benefits and often don't offer them any encouragement and presume that no-one cares. So why not just get all you can out of the welfare system?”

“These folk need a kick up the backside and that’s what we’ve been doing here at Phoenix. I don’t give them a shoulder to cry on, I give them that kick up the backside. I say, go and do that 12-hour a week job you’ve been offered. It will probably lead to something else, something better.”

McShane has worked extensively with young people in gangs, runs football teams and a number of other youth activities and notes that knife crime in the area is down.

“It can be scary for people who live on benefits to move away from the only thing they know,” he adds. “People are physically and mentally unfit. Poverty and boredom cause terrible problems. So many people are on medication for depression and feel utterly disengaged from their community.

“But I certainly agree with IDS on one thing – we’ll only get people out of poverty when we get them into work. Everyone has value. Here at Phoenix we try to give people purpose. But work gives people purpose too – and that’s what we need to prepare people for.”

The Rev Sandy Weddell, a Baptist minister in Easterhouse for 36 years, is also something of a pragmatist. It was Weddell and his parishioner, community champion Bob Holman, who showed IDS around Easterhouse in 2002 with what he describes as the media “razzmatazz” in tow.

Like McShane, Weddell believes IDS was genuine in his wish to tackle poverty. He also reckons IDS had to make big compromises, like any other government minister, and has “taken the flak” for others, particularly in the Treasury, which he says has chosen to put deficit reduction before everything else.

“You know IDS came back here a few times without the press, which did impress me,” says Weddell, who is in the middle of Holy Week, one of his busiest times of the year. “Poverty and welfare are very complex – like with the current refugee crisis, there is no easy answer. In fact, I’m not sure there is an answer at all. Expectations are so high, and welfare is such an emotional issue. Ministers make policy changes with the best of intentions but someone always gets hurt.

“IDS’s Universal Credit scheme has some good ideas about making work pay. But there will always be losers. I suppose it is the job of government to ensure there are the fewest number of losers.”

Weddell believes this paradox sits at the heart of all welfare policy. But he says many things in Easterhouse have changed for the better since he arrived in 1980, and IDS first visited.

“I’ve seen some big improvements,” he explains. “I don’t just mean the housing. At one time we used to be broken into every other week, we couldn’t leave the church open or everything would be stolen.

“This week we were able to leave 250 Easter eggs in the vestibule of the church with the door open. That’s how I measure change,” he says, smiling.

Easterhouse has undergone considerable regeneration since 2002, agrees the area’s MP. But Natalie McGarry, who was elected for the SNP in 2015, replacing Labour's Margaret Curran, and who now sits as an independent after being forced to resign the whip, describes this as a facade.

“There is real anger among the people of Easterhouse about what was done in their name by IDS,” she says. “Behind closed doors in people’s real lives his cuts are having a massive impact, especially on the disabled.

“As far as I can see community campaigners like Bob Holman have been devastated by the direction of travel and the policies implemented using Easterhouse as some sort of legacy.

“Perhaps he was genuine. He did seem willing to listen and learn. But he completely lost sight of the lessons he learned.”

Indeed, Holman, who suffers from debilitating motor neurone disease, has spoken openly of his disappointment in the former work and pensions secretary, calling him “unrecognisable” from the man he first met.

“You can’t punish people into work,” adds McGarry. “That’s the way the Tories have approached this. They’re pushing people into transient, low-paid, unsuitable jobs, which means they are more likely to end up out of work again. It’s not just about financial hardship. It’s the constant worry about financial hardship.”

Since her election McGarry says she has been trying to persuade IDS to return to Easterhouse, to see for himself the negative effects of his welfare reforms on the people who inspired them. She had made progress – he agreed to visit at some point in the coming weeks – but then came the resignation. “He was so scared of coming back to Easterhouse that he had to resign," she jokes. McGarry still wants IDS to come, and says she has also invited his successor, Stephen Crabb. Whether either will make the journey north remains to be seen.

Poverty will always be a political football, of course, as we can see from the arguments between the Scottish party leaders over who is to blame for the deprivation that stubbornly blights so many communities.

But in the meantime, volunteers like Richard McShane just keep on going. He tells me how he fell 14 feet off a ladder last year while working on the restoration of the Phoenix centre. He broke a number of ribs, punctured a lung and suffered an array of complications which resulted in weeks in a high-dependency ward in hospital. “I’ve always said this place would be the death of me,” he quips.

It's getting late as he waves me off but McShane returns to his checklist of unpaid tasks without complaint.