A SENSE of despair quickly settles when well-intentioned, middle-class types come together to fret about inequality. These conversations all follow a similar trajectory. First comes an initial horror at the latest disclosure around deprivation or the ravages of poverty-related addiction.

The discourse then turns into a sharing-group as each of us strives to display our knowledge about these issues; perhaps throwing in the odd lived-experience anecdote about a friend or family member. We nod vigorously, pausing only to sip our artisan lattes. Thus begins the real purpose of discussions like these: to reassure ourselves that there’s not much more we could have done and that all of our hearts remain in “the right place”.

At this point we begin to provide our own prescriptions for these maladies affecting communities few of us have ever visited. We know them only from having driven quickly through them or as places which vie with each other for the top three slots in those indexes of multiple deprivation: Shettleston, Possil, Easterhouse, Wester Hailes, Lochee, Ferguslie Park, Greenock Central, the triennial Shipping Forecast for inner-city Scotland.

And then we fall back on the comfort of hopelessness. These places have always featured on the poor index – some for more than a century – and there is an unspoken acceptance that nothing can really be done. After all, in the devolution era, Scotland has had an uninterrupted run of governments and coalitions all purporting to be “of the left”. All of them have analysts and civil servants who can produce spreadsheets showing how many billions have been spent trying to alleviate poverty in these neighbourhoods.

There have been initiatives, projects, taskforces, Tsars and hubs. They all pledge to deliver measurable “outcomes” which they insist will be “world-class”. No-one, of course, is actually asking for “world-class”. This might surprise politicians, but people are generally happy to settle merely for “effective”. But “effective” doesn’t really resonate on election manifestos, so “world class” it must be.

They care, don’t they? They want the situation to improve. Holyrood is dominated by good, well-meaning people who represent these communities. They have all the right qualifications and have all attended the approved leadership courses where they may even get the chance to do some role-playing. “Imagine you’re a single mum on benefits.”

It’s just that, well … few of their excursions and endeavours include the actual people living with these issues.

Annemarie Ward, the respected anti-addiction campaigner, called out this bureaucratic arrogance last month when she told me: “The recovery professionals think that people with lived experience are a bit mad and are incapable of understanding the science. So they try not to include us.”

Occasionally though, you’re permitted the chance to see what happens when the task of improving lives in disadvantaged communities is led by the people who live in them and whose children and grandchildren will be reared in them.

When I visited The Gorbals last week I kind of knew that some good things had been happening here. But, well … you know, it’s The Gorbals! I mean, you can’t allow yourself to expect too much in a place like this whose name alone had channelled all of Glasgow’s social iniquities across generations.

Yet, The Gorbals truly had been transformed. The social housing, built to the same specifications as the owner/occupied (and existing alongside them) were designed by firms of award-winning architects working with and, crucially, for the community. At its heart lay open spaces, a strip of local shops and service-providers and a community hub (which Glasgow City Council has refused to re-open following the pandemic).

This evolution has occurred over three decades of hard work by local people who simply refused to settle for second-best. Nor were they given any preferential treatment. Rather, they produced from within their own community eloquent and implacable advocates who served on the New Gorbals Housing Association.

Having first identified, then studied those elusive and spectral pathways on which public money flows they began to explore the boundaries of what was possible in accessing it. They coaxed, cajoled and chivvied until politicians and civil servants were forced to come to their table.

Fraser Stewart, director of New Gorbals Housing Association, is fond of citing one of Winston Churchill’s observations: “We make the buildings and thereafter they make us.” The residents of the Gorbals, like those in all other working-class neighbourhoods simply want to live in good houses. They know too that if bad planning and design can disfigured their community, as it did in the 1960s and 1970s, then good planning and high-quality design can help enable them to thrive and give them hope and a sense of pride.

What’s more, they had earned this right over generations where their families had sacrificed their lives in two world wars or had contributed to Britain’s economic riches by mining coal and building the country’s transport infrastructure, all for subsistence wages.

Pointing to one of the housing developments, Mr Stewart said: “The residents wanted variety, not bleak homogeneity. The Moffat Gardens development which clinched the 1999 City of Architecture accolade was designed by three different architecture firms. This should be the model for all social housing in Scotland.”

The proof of what’s possible when local people are respected and not treated as mere numbers and units is evident in the most recent health and wellbeing statistics across Glasgow in 2018. There are six measurements: feeling in control; a sense of belonging; being valued; agency; looking out for each other and a desire to volunteer. In each of them The Gorbals residents scored significant improvements from the previous survey. In doing so, they also massively outstripped the rest of Glasgow in these categories.

The Gorbals, like many other working-class areas, is predominantly populated by low-income families. It will always encounter disproportionate patterns of inequality.

For generations these places were denied dignity and a chance to enjoy their lives rather than merely endure them. The benefits of taking control away from a centralised bureaucracy and transferring it to them are obvious and indisputable.

Read more by Kevin McKenna:

At Large: The Gorbals diehards who refuse to give up

Diary: It's time for the UK to adopt the Glaswegian form of quantitative easing

If the SNP don’t care about independence, why should we?