Consultation has been launched on the Scottish Government’s new Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill
Both north and south of the border, decision makers are looking at ways to transfer power and decision-making directly to communities.
In 2009, in the run up to the general election, David Cameron outlined his vision for the Big Society. In a speech on the subject in November 2009, he said: “There are specific instances where the very act of rolling back the state will serve to roll forward society, for example, when organisations that have been dependent on the state are asked to go outside government for funding, and thereby improve their record of engaging with the public and society. But I believe that in general, a simplistic retrenchment of the state which assumes that better alternatives to state action will just spring to life unbidden is wrong. Instead we need a thoughtful re-imagination of the role, as well as the size, of the state.
“The first step must be a new focus on empowering and enabling individuals, families and communities to take control of their lives so we create the avenues through which responsibility and opportunity can develop. This is especially vital in what is today the front line of the fight against poverty and inequality: education. But I also want to argue that the re-imagined state should not stop at creating opportunities for people to take control of their lives. It must actively help people take advantage of this new freedom. This means a new role for the state: actively helping to create the Big Society; directly agitating for, catalysing and galvanising social renewal.
“In the fight against poverty, inequality, social breakdown and injustice, I do want to move from state action to social action. But I see a powerful role for government in helping to engineer that shift. Let me put it more plainly: we must use the state to remake society.”
Since then, the UK Government says the Big Society vision has become the bedrock for all its work in housing, planning, regeneration and local government. Cameron has stated that “the people are the boss” and that four tools – competition, choice, payment by results and transparency – are essential to achieving a radical shift of power away from the centre.
Some of the measures include removing bureaucratic barriers such as unnecessary planning regulations, restrictions on local involvement in decisions about issues affecting them and excessive form filling which prevents local initiatives.
In Scotland, empowerment is also at the top of the agenda for the Scottish Government, with community planning and engagement sitting at the heart of local government. In recent weeks, the Government has taken this a step further with the launch of a consultation period for the proposed Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill. The Bill could give local communities increased power in a number of areas. The wideranging consultation will look at how to give local people a more direct say in what happens in their own communities, with responses to the consultation helping to shape the planned Bill.
Ideas being explored include extending right to buy – similar to the one enjoyed by rural communities in Scotland – to larger towns and cities. This could allow people in urban areas to follow in the footsteps of recent successful community buyouts, such as the former airbase at Machrihanish in Argyll.
The consultation also considers whether communities should have a right to ask to take on unused public sector assets such as school and health centres, and how they can be more involved in making decisions on local budgets, helping public sector organisations identify the needs and priorities in an area and target budgets more effectively – an idea first piloted in Brazil and used in a number of European cities. It also looks at ideas designed to give people a better understanding of the public sector assets in their area, such as asking public sector authorities to publish a register of their assets and asset management plans.
The consultation also seeks views on giving communities the right to ask local authorities to repair dangerous buildings, and giving authorities better powers to recover the costs of repairs to these buildings, which will allow repairs to take place at an earlier stage and bring buildings back into use. It will also examine giving local authorities the power to enforce the sale or lease of empty homes, where the property is causing problems for neighbours or is in poor condition, or where there is high demand for housing in an area. The local authority would be entitled to recover its costs from the sale price or rent. Consultation looks set to close on 29 August.
Local Government and Planning Minister Derek Mackay said: “It is a very exciting consultation and could lead to a step change in community empowerment. Community assets are transferred at the moment and there are community development trusts but often what happens is the public sector decides to dispose of an asset and then community organisations at that point might take an interest in taking it up. What this could do is empower communities and community groups to choose to actively pursue properties which they feel could be put to better use. We want to give absolute clarity and support through the progress of the Bill.
“What the Bill will do is capture views on how we could genuinely enhance and empower local communities and through the very process of consulting, we will share best practice and good practice. The consultation process itself will lead to further stimulation of the empowerment agenda. Travelling across Scotland, I have seen at first hand the strong foundation of active communities we already have, and I want this proposed legislation to build on this.
“I am launching an open consultation on a proposed Bill which will support communities to achieve their own goals and aspirations through taking independent action and by having their voices heard in the decisions that affect their area. The ideas in this consultation are designed to strengthen community participation, unlock enterprising community development and renew our communities. We want to explore these ideas and see how we can remove bureaucratic barriers and develop a meaningful and effective legislative framework to support community activity. Working with our partners in local government, we will listen carefully to people’s views and ideas to help meet our shared goal of empowering more of Scotland’s communities. The views we hear will help determine what we take forward in our draft Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill.”
A development trust is a community organisation which is owned and managed by the local community and aims to achieve the sustainable regeneration of a community or address a range of economic, social, environmental and cultural issues within a community. Such an organisation is independent but seeks to work in partnership with other private, public and third sector organisations and also aims to reduce dependency on grant support by generating income through enterprise and the ownership of assets.
Welcoming the launch of the consultation, Ian Cooke, director of Development Trusts Association Scotland (DTAS), added: “DTAS welcomes the launch of the formal consultation process for the Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill. As long-time advocates of community enterprise, community ownership and community-led regeneration, DTAS particularly welcomes those sections within the consultation document which address these areas, identify barriers and explore how these could be addressed. Some of the issues within the document are potentially challenging, but our initial impression is that the document is a balanced and well-rounded paper, and DTAS looks forward to engaging our membership, and the communities they represent, fully in the consultation process.”
However, the Scottish Greens said the Scottish Government’s proposed Bill will be a real test of the SNP’s centralising tendencies. The party has long called for devolution of decision making within Scotland along with better use of council-owned and common good assets.
Alison Johnstone, Green MSP for Lothian, said: “Urban right to buy, community budgeting, and new allotments legislation are all very welcome but the real test will be if the Government delivers genuine power to the people. To date, under the SNP, we have seen decision making centralised with local councillors restricted in how they raise funds and deliver services.
“Our local authorities need to be given control so they can press ahead with innovative ideas like local energy companies which could keep a share of the profits of the renewables revolution in public and community hands. Greens believe decisions are best made close to those they affect and we’d like to see this principle included in the Bill.”