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Community empowerment: optimism or cynicism?

Community empowerment: optimism or cynicism?

The Minister for Local Government and Community Empowerment Marco Biagi recently reflected proudly on the passing of the Community Empowerment Act. Scotland has a long history of community empowerment. The minister highlights the example of community land buy-outs. I find the example of community-based housing associations more impressive – they are predominantly urban and commonly created by people in quite marginalised, deprived neighbourhoods being supported respectfully. 

In passing the Act, the Scottish Government have also managed to avoid the pitfalls of similar legislation, such as the Localism Act’s 'Right to Challenge' which is actually a right to have your services privatised due to European Union procurement rules. I’m also quite impressed by the Scottish Government trying to use the engagement in political issues that emerged with last year’s referendum to try and deepen democracy and democratic engagement in Scotland.

However, I have two problems with the Act that means I cannot share the Minister’s optimism (not that I’d expect a Minister to be critical of their own Act, you understand). Firstly, unsurprisingly, given my interests, is the issue of possible injustices. As my colleague Professor Annette Hastings said in her submission and oral evidence to the committee scrutinising the original bill, without adequate community learning and development support it is going to be the most affluent and able communities that will be able to take most advantage of these provisions – they could widen inequality not challenge it (as argued in this paper which you can download for free at the moment).

Again, the Scottish Government have responded pro-actively to feedback. Part 2, section 9 of the act states that Community Planning Partnerships (CPPs) must “identify each locality in which persons residing there experience significantly poorer outcomes which result from socio-economic disadvantage [and] must take account of the needs and circumstances of persons residing in the area of the local authority”. This explicit recognition of socio-economic inequality is welcome. However, the original Local Government in Scotland Act 2003, which put community planning on a statutory footing, also included a clause that CPPs must develop locality partnerships. The extremely variable success of this – as noted in numerous Audit Scotland reviews and the Christie Commission report – highlights that legislation is only the start of implementation.

However, my second deeper concern is that the current community empowerment discourse is naïve in its ignorance of apathy. I often find myself at events about participation, occasionally asked to speak and whenever I do I ask the other attendees if they ever attend their local community council, PTA, neighbourhood partnership/committee etc. Invariably, these people who are imploring Scotland to be more participatory and deliberative don’t attend such events because they’re too busy and not interested. 

Even if such organisations were given substantial budgets and power over local service areas, I still wouldn’t be bothered to get involved – I want my local services delivered well without me having to tell the local authority at meetings that I’d quite like clean streets, good local schools, and enough activities and youth work to prevent youth anti-social behaviour. Why should I attend a meeting to get good local outcomes if we know how to deliver those outcomes? 

And this is where I think the Government have made a bit of an error of identification. The increase in turnout at the general election does suggest Scotland is much more politically engaged. But voting is easy, with a low cost to the individual. The sort of participatory democracy the Scottish Government wants to create through the Community Empowerment Act isn’t that easy to get involved with. It requires giving up time and effort. It also involves thinking about issues in a very complex way. 

In such current attempts at participatory democracy, such as the Fairer Scotland national conversation, it is easy for people to say “yes, I want Scotland to be fairer”, but much more difficult and contentious to discuss why. Can we have a policy discussion about controversial issues of distribution and justice, such as encouraging older people who are under-occupying massive homes and distorting the housing market to move through higher property taxes? What kind of jobs do we want to create to make people better off? Those that match the skills of the labour market now that might be low paid, or plan for a future of high productivity, high pay jobs? These are just a handful of the litany of difficult policy questions that spring to mind when you immediately start to think about what a “Fairer Scotland” might be. 

To be a little bit more critical, quite often I’ve heard people say that we need participation so people can meet outcomes. I’m sure this is commonly meant in a positive, co-producing way. But I believe it is also about dumping responsibility onto communities – want the council to do something about the closed primary school in your neighbourhood that’s being vandalised and is an eyesore? Then you should get together and buy it yourself! What? You don’t have enough money? Well, you’re not empowered enough then, are you?

Dr Peter Matthews is Lecturer in Social Policy at the School of Applied Social Science, University of Stirling, writing here in a personal capacity​

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