A tale of two cities

John McAllion contrasts the official story of Dundee’s renaissance with realities that won’t go away

Dundee has long suffered from a bad press. In the 19th century, the Tory High Court Judge Lord Cockburn described the city as a “sink of atrocity which no moral flushing seems capable of cleansing”. James Cameron, who began a distinguished career in journalism in the Dundee of the 1930s, described the east coast town as a “symbol of a society that had gone sour”. Today, a joke running on the internet claims that, following a major earthquake in the city, £30 worth of damage was reported and locals were woken up well before their giros arrived.

The negativity historically directed towards the city usually came from those who either rarely or never visited the city. It was and is rooted in ignorance and is as inaccurate as it is undeserved. Yet it was bound to have some effect on the city itself. In recent times, one important effect has been a local fixation on what the rest of the world thinks about Dundee. The political and business elite who run the city have become obsessive about Dundee’s image. They miss no opportunity to sell the city as a place in which to do business. They view any public criticism of the place as betrayal. This addiction to winning outside acclaim and recognition led at one point to Dundee being described as “Awards City”. The City of Discovery Campaign promoting Dundee won the top national prize for marketing and promotional excellence. The successfully regenerated city centre convinced the Royal Town Planning Institute to confer its urban renaissance award and the British Retail Consortium to bestow its safer shopping award on Dundee. The redundant Verdant Works jute mill won European Museum of the Year.

Politicians visiting Dundee also stuck closely to the same script of success and nothing but success. Wendy Alexander enthused about the one-time city of jute jam and journalism now being reconstructed as the city of bytes biotechnology and business. First Minister Jack McConnell raved about a city with two outstanding universities now well on the way back from the industrial failure and the unemployment of the 1980’s. His successor Alex Salmond waxed lyrical about a resurgent city prospering on the back of pharmaceuticals and the interactive games industry. Nor was Dundee’s self-promotion without substance. Massive investment in Dundee University has made it a world-renowned centre of excellence for biotechnology and cancer research. Leading professors have been knighted for their contributions to cancer research and life sciences; Dundee graduates have been reported as having the best pay and job prospects of any university in Scotland; the Sunday Times named Dundee as Scottish University of the Year.

Abertay, Dundee’s other university, has established an international centre for computer games and virtual entertainment. Its degree courses have attracted talented games designers from across the country. Its graduates have launched new design and development studios in the city, placing Dundee at the cutting edge of one of the country’s fastest growing markets. Their success made possible Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy’s recent boast to the STUC in Dundee that the city now had more people working in the games industry than had worked in the old Timex factory. The Scottish Crop Research Institute on the edge of the city is at the forefront of biotechnological innovation. Employing more than 400 scientists, its research encompasses activities in 30 countries across the world and attracts into the city millions of pounds of funding from both the UK and Scottish governments, as well as the commercial sector. Along with the city’s two universities and a thriving college of further higher education, it helps to put Dundee in the running for the prestigious ‘Intelligent Community’ title awarded globally by an influential US think tank.

Dundee has also become a cultural centre with a national reputation. Dundee Contemporary Arts Centre has been a resounding success. Dundee’s Rep theatre has its own successful full-time repertory company and dance studio. Its tourist industry has been boosted by a new multi-million pound science centre and a series of award-winning museums and galleries. Two open championship golf courses at Carnoustie and St Andrews are a short car journey away from the city centre making Dundee a place that tourists want to visit. The city has blossomed into a major regional retail centre. The £200 million redevelopment of the Overgate shopping centre is the jewel in the crown that attracts thousands of shoppers into the city. In its first year of operation it generated £40 million in rents for its Australian owners. It is buttressed by multi- million pound shopping developments elsewhere in the city centre and in the docks area. Across the city retail parks house all of the country’s big superstore names including, Tesco, ASDA, Morrisons, B&Q and Sainsbury.

Current Dundee projects include a £300 million development of the city’s waterfront area that will include the opening of a branch of the Victoria and Albert museum, as well as a controversial biomass plant and giant wind turbines in the docks area. The City of Discovery campaign has been re-launched as “One City, Many Discoveries” with Dundee-born celebrities like the actor Brian Cox promoting their home town as a city full of surprises such as the Maggie’s Centre built by the world renowned architect Frank Gehry. As part of the millennium celebrations, Dundee City Council and Scottish Enterprise Tayside backed the publication of “Dundee a Voyage of Discovery”, an anthology that celebrates the passion for inspiration, imagination and innovation that characterise the city’s past and present. It is unremittingly positive about the future of Dundee describing it as “on a voyage into the future, seeking new cures, new treatments, new crops and new technologies that will benefit mankind.” Given all these upbeat changes that have swept Dundee into the 21st century, is it really possible to argue with the outpouring of optimism about Dundee’s future trajectory?

The answer to that question is yes. There is another Dundee that is mostly kept out of the public limelight. There is a Dundee that the city’s leadership would rather no-one spoke about. There is another Dundee that has always been there, just under the surface of the resurgent successful city. There is a Dundee that does not fit the neo-liberal script for a smart successful Scotland. There is a Dundee that leading politicians never refer to on their visits to the city.

Around the same time that the City of Discovery campaign won a top award for transforming Dundee from a post-industrial backwater into a city of arts and science, a national study, “A Divided Britain”, was identifying residents in many of the city’s working class neighbourhoods as suffering from the “worst financial hardship in Britain”. This damning conclusion was backed up by a contemporary Scottish Executive report showing that 46 per cent of resident households in the city had a net income of less than £10,000 a year while 55 per cent of the same households contained no-one who was working. While the regenerated city centre was picking up national awards for its crime-free shopping environment, a Joseph Rowntree Foundation report branded Dundee as a city of poverty, teenage mothers and poor mental health. Dundee GPs were issuing more prescriptions for mental health problems than anywhere else in Scotland. After Glasgow, Dundee had Scotland’s next highest concentration of poverty, overcrowding and drug abuse. The city retained its title as the teenage pregnancy capital of Scotland.

Annual business statistics issued at the end of 2008, revealed Dundee losing 60 manufacturing firms and 3000 manufacturing jobs in the eight years following 1998. By 2006, the city had become a service sector economy with four times as many workers working in services as in manufacturing. The average annual salary in the service sector was £8,900 a year less than in manufacturing. Dundee’s resurgence was costing its workers dear. At the beginning of 2009 an English-based research group published a report “Cities Outlook 2009” warning of the impact of the recession on 64 cities across Britain. It ranked Dundee 54th of the 64 cities, claiming that it lacked economic prosperity, suffered from a shrinking population and was scarred by stubbornly high levels of social deprivation and benefit. Only Liverpool had a higher level of benefit claimants as a proportion of its working age population. Dundee’s recent history has been a tale of two different cities. The official Dundee story has been all about continuing economic, academic and social success in a modern, diverse, innovative and world-leading city. The hidden Dundee story has been about low pay, persistent poverty, joblessness and benefit dependency in a city where the hard lives of thousands of its working class citizens have been erased from the official record.

Dundee, of course, is not unique. This same trajectory towards an increasingly socially fractured and economically unequal society can be traced in the recent histories of many of the country’s major cities. For the past generation, national governments have used their political command and their massive spending power to drive diverse local communities in the same direction. The so-called partnership approach to economic and social development in reality meant national government imposing its will on local government. Through its Scottish Enterprise Network, national government determined the direction of local economic development and the policies that bodies such as the Whitfield and Dundee Partnerships would pursue. Local politicians were given their place in these partnerships. They were never allowed to control them. Policy was determined at the national level where there was a ruthless focus on building the private sector, attracting inward investment and high-tech industries and switching from manufacturing to services. Local dissenters were kept in line by threatening the withdrawal of central government financial support.

In Dundee, a massive £80 million public private partnership to renovate the city’s schools was imposed upon a Labour- controlled council. Labour and SNP councillors alike voted through a project they both politically opposed. As the education convener said at the time, “PPP is the only game in town”. The first payment for the new schools falls due this year when the council will begin to shell out to a private consortium the first instalment of what will amount to around £400 million over the next 25 years. Whatever cuts are imposed on council spending after the general election, these payments will have to be honoured. The Scottish Executive tried to engineer the end of the city’s council housing by making cancellation of Dundee’s housing debt conditional on a whole stock transfer to housing associations. Their scheme only failed because a survey of Dundee’s council tenants produced a 70 per cent vote for staying with the council. Partial stock transfers and demolitions have reduced the council’s stock to just 14,000 at a time when homelessness is rife and when just one in five on the council’s 10,000-long waiting list received the offer of a house in the previous year. Meanwhile luxury apartments were multiplying in the city’s docks area for sale to the citizens of the other Dundee where things had never been better.

The core working class in cities like Dundee traditionally looked to the Labour movement to fight its corner and to protect it from the excesses of free market capitalism. They expected the unions to defend their wages and conditions in the workplace. They looked to the Labour Party for affordable housing, good schools, hospitals and social welfare. The creation of New Labour destroyed all of that. The party the workers voted for suddenly went over to the other side. The workers were left to face the consequences.

In cities like Dundee, millions of workers are already paying the price of that betrayal. Whoever wins the next general election, millions more will be joining them. The neo-liberal party is over. New Labour is over. Class based politics are back. Who or what comes next is up to ourselves.