'The Scheme', Govanhill, Assets, Health Inequalities and other complexities

27 July 2011

Chris Harkins reflects on similarities between his work in Govanhill and emergent themes from BBC Scotland's 'The Scheme'.

I don’t know if you have had a chance to catch BBC Scotland’s much debated and often maligned fly-on-the-wall documentary, ‘The Scheme’?

This hugely popular documentary followed the lives of six families on the Onthank and Knockinlaw housing schemes in Kilmarnock. The debate that surrounded the programme was often shaped by sharply opposing points of view.  Was it a wake-up call to the 21st century realities of people living in poverty? Or, what Pat Kane, commentator and musician, referred to in a broadsheet article as ‘poverty porn’? The final episode was followed by a TV debate hosted by BBC Scotland’s news and current affairs broadcaster, Glen Campbell.

On a personal level, I can understand why some would see it as ‘over-the-top’, exploitative and unrepresentative of the majority of the families within the area. Nevertheless, I think it raised some important, and challenging, questions as to how we think about and deliver public services to address some of the challenges raised in this programme.  

There were moments when watching ‘The Scheme’, and listening to the debate, that I felt it chimed closely with aspects of my work, as a Public Health Researcher, in Govanhill – a neighbourhood in Glasgow’s south side. Over the last 18 months, local services, such as Health, Local Authority and Housing, have come together, through a Scottish Government initiative, to learn from each other, overcome hurdles and find new ways to address the challenges facing the area. 

The complex challenges shown in ‘The Scheme’ mirrored some of Govanhill’s challenges: the high proportions of poor housing, unemployment, and the cycle of alcohol, drugs and offending facing some families.   

A recent Govanhill report has shown the efforts being made by local services to try out new ways of working to improve living conditions and reduce health problems in the area.  New ways of working described in the report, such as ‘the Govanhill Hub’, may be less eye catching and don’t always deliver ‘quick wins’, but the Hub will at least provide lessons on how Scotland’s public services can genuinely impact on our entrenched health and social problems.

There is a pressing need for change beyond this work in Govanhill.  According to the recent Christie Commission on the Future Delivery of Public Services, it has been estimated that as much as  40 per cent of all spend on interventions by public services in Scotland could have been avoided by prioritising a preventative approach. Linked to this reform agenda, there is growing importance being placed on developing an assets-based approach within public services. With community members at the centre of service reforms, a change in attitudes, values and language (from problems and deficiencies to skills and potential) is required. So too is a fresh outlook that does not see people and places as passive and disempowered but recognises their inherent strengths and resources.

Thinking about how public services can meet the challenge of these new reforms, it’s worth trying to imagine the worldview of Steven, a young man who took part in ‘The Scheme’.

Smoking a cigarette inside his family home, with visible damp and graffiti on its inside walls, Steven displayed complete candour and remarkable clarity when describing the detrimental impact of the local environment on his life. 

He knew too well the impact of poor housing, the lack of job prospects as a consequence of his criminal record, deteriorating family relationships and the use of alcohol and drugs “to blank it all out…to numb it out”.

If public services are to succeed in taking forward this reform agenda, it is vital that services work more effectively on a joined-up basis, embracing an interagency ethos which feels more comfortable working together to address the complexities of a life such as Steven’s. From my work in Govanhill, I can report that the shared premises approach adopted by The Hub has been successful in embedding just such an ethos.

Within the Hub, partner agencies actually work out of the same office space, located in Govanhill, and meet every weekday at 10am to discuss and plan collective responses to new and ongoing complex issues and cases within the area. Hosted by the Govanhill Housing Association and under the stewardship of City Property, a relaxed, informal and supportive atmosphere has been cultivated within the Hub. This has proven to be a strong foundation from which collaborative working has developed and has, for the most part, been nurtured and supported by local partners. However the Hub approach has not been easy to implement and may be difficult to replicate; the interim report explores these challenges in detail.

Thinking of the development of an assets-based approach further, it is also important that services resist placing the burden of choice and change at the feet of people using their services. Instead, they should work alongside people to ensure meaningful and lasting change occurs.       

If someone like Steven, with such a dispiriting view of the road ahead, genuinely ‘buys in’ to this reform agenda and feels like an active partner, then maybe we will have passed the acid-test...?


About the author

Chris Harkins Public Health Programme Manager


Chris’ role contributes to several of the Centre’s areas of work and involves taking forward research within community-based settings. In particular Chris leads on evaluating the impacts of community-based programmes and interventions; including assessing their contributions to addressing health and other inequalities. Chris is leading the evaluation of Sistema Scotland. He is also responsible for research and evaluation concerning approaches to community engagement, empowerment, participation and local democratic processes including participatory budgeting. Since Summer 2020 Chris has been supporting evidence-based pandemic community recovery efforts, as a member of Glasgow City Council's Social Recovery Task Force

Chris has published a variety of reports and outputs concerning community-based partnership approaches and social regeneration. He also contributes to the Centre’s inequalities across the life course theme and has published work relating to the population health impacts of in-work poverty and payday loans, moving forward within this theme Chris is conducting research into unsecure debt, health and wellbeing.

Chris’ background is in Social Science, Medical Science and IT; he is an experienced researcher and evaluator and has worked directly within NHS, Local Authority and academic settings. He has also worked extensively with the Scottish Government and a variety of third sector organisations over the past 20 years, not least in his contributions to adult literacy projects within Glasgow City and the evaluation of the Have a Heart Paisley National Demonstration Project. Chris lectures at Glasgow Caledonian University and is an Honorary Researcher with the University of Glasgow.

Read all articles by Chris Harkins

Comments (1)

  • Dr Katherine Trebeck replied on Wed 27 Jul 2011 at 05:21PM:

    All too often low income communities and people experiencing poverty are written off as passive, undeserving and even different to the rest of us.

    So it is great that the research Chris is doing is highlighting some of the tremendous work being done in Govanhill and the new ways of working together for a shared goal. This activity is generating an energy and some shared goals despite, not because of, the indifference of many organisations purportedly in existence to deliver the 'public good'.

    It is harnessing what is already in the community, not dismissing the community as having nothing to offer and in need of solutions imposed from outside.

    I only saw the last episode of The Scheme and the BBC debate afterwards.
    What struck me was the hope of the people the series featured. They wanted what most of us want - a stable job, to get married, a secure family life. And the debate that followed the series was more a show casing of some energetic and effective organisations active in Onthank.

    In light if The Scheme and the work being undertaken in Govanhill, one might ask, if communities are getting it right and utilising their assets (in all senses of the word) to develop their own solutions, then maybe it is those in positions of power, the decision-makers, who are getting it wrong?

Commenting is now closed on this article.