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Comment: Creating change for the better

Chris Creegan - Image credit: Holyrood

Comment: Creating change for the better

Scotland needs a crisis recovery commission to turn our desire for change and commitment to each other into a better future for all.

COVID-19 provides a testbed like no other for Scotland’s narrative about empowering communities.

While that narrative is strong, there is more we can do to realise the potential of social action to progress and solve the wicked problems of our times.

It is already clear that civil society has responded with gusto and has been supported by government – national and local – in doing so.

We will debate the speed and magnitude of that support in the months to come.

But there is a more urgent question that COVID-19 has brought into sharp relief. How can Scotland be a great and distinctive place to live for everyone?

Scotland entered this crisis with a persistent problem of inequality; one in four children and one in five people of working age live in poverty.

There is a yawning gap in life expectancy and years of good health between the most and the least deprived communities.

It was inevitable that the experiences of Scottish people in this crisis would reflect that divide. While the virus threatens us all, inequality splits the nation in two.

It has been estimated that if the restrictions continue for three months, GDP will contract by up to 25 per cent. The economic impact will be felt most acutely by communities least able to withstand them.

Empowering our communities matters now as never before.

Many of the causes and effects of injustice – mental illness, disability, homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, loneliness, unemployment, low educational attainment – cannot be addressed without community mobilisation.

We also know that too many well-intentioned strategies and interventions have failed. We must create and deliver solutions with citizens.

Does the current crisis offer an opportunity to move our narrative beyond aspiration?

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA, has argued that crisis is most likely to lead to change when three conditions are in place.

First, was there a latent desire and capacity for change before the crisis? Second, has that desire been reinforced and have responses to the crisis hinted at change to come?

Finally, are there political alliances, social innovations and policy prescriptions ready to be deployed in its immediate aftermath when openness to new ideas is strongest.

These are not low bars, but I think there is cause for hope. But we should not underestimate another latent tendency – the desire to get back to ‘normal’.

Turning to the first test, just weeks before the crisis unfolded, realising the potential of the third sector was a key theme at the First Minister’s breakfast session at The Gathering.

We have the Community Empowerment Act and a National Performance Framework around which state and civil society find common cause.

There is also no question that the desire has been reinforced. Scottish civil society has responded to COVID-19 with agility and creativity – focused on communities most in need.

Among the general population, we have seen a huge desire to volunteer – 60,000 citizens at the last count.

The response of the state was a £350m investment in welfare and wellbeing in communities and a £20m third sector resilience fund.

Third sector workers in health and social care will now get the Scottish Living Wage.

The final test provides the highest bar, but here too there is cause for optimism. On our constitutional future and fiscal framework, Scotland is divided.

But on the role of communities in shaping and delivering the state’s response to our biggest social problems, there is greater consensus – stretching back ten years to the Christie Commission.

However, the window of opportunity will be brief, so we must act and think now – while we are still emerging from the crisis.

We must find a mechanism to do this – a crisis recovery commission – to bring key actors together from across the political, economic and civic spheres.

Citizens, including those who started this crisis most disadvantaged and who have paid the highest price, must be front and centre.

The agenda must be explicitly local and long-term. We must, for example, rethink commissioning relationships which have too often ignored the unique strengths of the third sector and treated it as little more than a cheaper provider.

Solutions must be co-produced and generated deliberatively, drawing on policies already designed – like the Scottish Child Payment – and ideas where work has been done – like universal basic income.

The purpose would not be to supplant the democratic process but to provide a dashboard as it restarts and resets. We need to build a bridge to the future which hardwires community assets into whole-system change.

In Scotland, we have been talking about this for long enough. Now, in the wake of this crisis, our small country needs to think big.

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