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A Dispatch from Edinburgh: What Is a Scheme?

I mentioned on Friday that I had arrived in Edinburgh, Scotland and am here to look into the work of a ministry called 20schemes. 20schemes is dedicated to providing gospel churches for Scotland’s poorest people and these are, almost by definition, people who live in schemes.

“What is a scheme?” you may ask. It is a good question. It is also a little bit difficult to answer, even though I have spent a few days in one and have heard several explanations. Part of the difficulty comes in that there is no direct comparison between a Scottish scheme and something that exists in North America.

In most of the United Kingdom a scheme is referred to as “council housing.” In the United States you might know something similar as a “project” or in Canada (or Ontario, at least) as “Ontario housing” or “welfare housing.”

Schemes began as housing developments for the working class and factory laborers. Beginning between the two world wars, the government wanted to tear down inner-city slums and tenement buildings and in their place developed schemes outside the city centers. The government owned these homes, managed them, and rented them to the workers. This was the socialist utopia, the place where the working class could live in ideal conditions. These were desirable homes and there was some pride in moving to these new neighborhoods.

Over time, as the nation became increasingly socialized, the schemes were reassigned as subsidized housing for the poor or free housing for the destitute. Through the 60’s and all the way to the present, urban blight set in and the schemes were left to decay. Soon they were overtaken by gangs, violence and drugs. Today they house many of the “benefits class” of people who exist entirely on social security handouts and who may have done so for generations. Many of the schemes have decayed to such a degree that they are now little more than slums, though there are also revitalization programs underway to replace some of the worst of the housing.

To complicate things further, Margaret Thatcher introduced a program in the 1980’s that allowed residents to purchase their homes at subsidized rates, so that today some homes in the schemes are owned privately while others are owned by the government. Additionally, with real estate prices rising, homes in the schemes have become an affordable entry-level option for those wanting to begin to climb the real estate ladder. As this middle class contingent has moved in, they have brought a very different worldview and a whole new set of complications. In most schemes, then, you have an eclectic mixture of people: social climbers, lifelong welfare recipients, drug addicts, released criminals, elderly residents who bought their homes years ago but no longer have the funds to maintain them, and more besides.

Each scheme has its own identity, heritage and local culture so that residents will acknowledge they are from this scheme or that scheme and perhaps even feel a bit territorial. Many schemes span a whole neighborhood with defined boundaries and thousands or even ten or twenty thousand residents living within it. Many families have been there for several generations.

What makes schemes unique compared to near equivalents in the U.S. and elsewhere is the absence of desperate monetary poverty. In a welfare state, even those who will not or cannot work are given money and are in little danger of starvation or homelessness. But having money does not guarantee education, opportunity, employment, and the like. There is desperate poverty even with a widescreen TV in the living room.

What is conspicuously lacking in almost every scheme is a church, and especially a church that preaches the gospel. Many organizations have gone into the schemes with charity and support groups. Very few have gone in with the gospel.

We are based this week in Niddrie, on the outskirts of Edinburgh where Mez McConnell pastors Niddrie Community Church and heads up 20schemes. He and his team have identified 20 key schemes as priority areas and they plan to plant at least one gospel-preaching church in each of them over the next 10 years.

The work is already underway. Some churches have been planted. Other areas have been identified and there are even church buildings that have been offered and are just waiting to be filled. All that is needed is the workers.

To that end, 20schemes is actively recruiting church planters, female outreach workers, and ministry apprentices. And, of course, they are looking for churches to partner with them by supporting the work. I will tell you more about that in the days ahead.