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A different beat

A different beat

In 2012, when details of the proposed Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill were announced, Local Government Minister Derek Mackay said it heralded the biggest potential transfer of power since devolution. He said: “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.”

Fast forward almost two years – and with a snappily shortened name – the Scottish Government published the Bill last month, saying it is designed to strengthen and nurture participation and encourage enterprising community development. Ever since the Christie Commission published its report in 2011, the Scottish Government, its partners and others within civic life have been working on one of the trickiest of conundrums: how do we involve people in the design and delivery of the public services they use, and thereby empower Scotland’s communities?

It is hoped, if passed by Holyrood, the Bill will go some way to answering this question. So just what does it propose and what more would it benefit from?

The Scottish Government has said the legislation will reform existing community right to buy and includes measures to make it simpler for communities to take over public sector land and buildings. Existing community right to buy will be streamlined and extended to cover all parts of Scotland, both urban areas and larger rural towns, as part of plans to have one million acres in community ownership by 2020. The Bill will also include provision for communities to take over public sector land and buildings where they can show they can deliver greater public benefit with those assets.

Rules on Scotland’s local authority allotment sites will also be simplified, strengthening the duty on councils to provide sites triggered by actual demand. The Bill will also embed Scotland’s performance framework in legislation, ensuring the Scottish Government remains focused on improving outcomes for communities. Mackay said community empowerment can only be achieved with proper support and in announcing the Bill, he confirmed an increase in funding from the People and Communities Fund by £1.5m to £9.4m per year in 2015/16. This supports community organisations to grow and strengthen by delivering outcomes to meet and respond to the aspirations of their communities.

Mackay headed to community-owned facility, The Kabin at Loanhead, to launch the Bill. The Kabin, he said, is an “excellent example” of what can be achieved with the right support. The facility, which opened its doors in 2011, supports about 20 organisations, all working together to support over 1,500 people in the local community. It was built on a piece of land that was gifted by Midlothian Council and with funding from the Big Lottery, Scottish Government and third sector amongst others.

Mackay said: “This Bill is about enabling people and communities throughout Scotland to make their own decisions and to build their own future. Reforming the community right to buy, giving urban communities in Scotland the same rights as rural communities, and creating access to public land and buildings is a momentous step forward. This legislation will empower communities who wish to take over public land and buildings where they think they can make better use of them than their current public sector owners and ensure their ambitions are supported by public bodies.

“This Government believes firmly in subsidiarity and local decision making, and just as independence can ensure decisions about Scotland are taken by the people who care most about Scotland, the people who live and work here, so community empowerment can extend that opportunity to every community in Scotland.”

Speaking to Holyrood, Professor Richard Kerley, Professor of Management at Queen Margaret University, said this is a draft Bill “which has its heart in the right place”.

He added: “There are hurdles but they can be overcome without too many problems. However, looking at the more aspirational side of things, it gets to be quite difficult. Apart from anything else, it poses fundamental questions about what is a community and how you define a community. Also, there’s an assumption often thrown into discussion that communities agree about things, which isn’t always the case. You just have to look at the continuing furore over a new high school for Portobello, to see there are legitimate views on each side.

“That aside, I think it is a good Bill and it is brave of the Government to put the Bill into the public domain and say, ‘let’s talk about it’ because the way I read it, what Derek Mackay and his colleagues are saying is ‘we don’t have neat and tidy answers, this is not a solution, let’s see what emerges from discussion’.”
Kerley said he would like to see the issue of community councils addressed within the Bill. “I have taken the view for a while now that with community councils, it’s either kill them or cure them,” he said.

“I would certainly urge something to do with community councils in the Bill, they are something we shouldn’t ignore. I would encourage a wider discussion about what we actually mean by community empowerment and different views on how that can be expressed.”

The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations’ (SCVO) policy officer, Felix Spittal, said the focus on engaging communities rather than enabling community action makes the Community Empowerment Bill “frustratingly inconsistent”. Writing on the organisation’s website, he said: “Given that the Government is so clear about this difference, why do four of the eight legislative proposals in the Bill focus on engagement and not empowerment? Engagement can be effective if carried out correctly, but ultimately it’s about involving communities in public sector agendas. When communities lead change themselves, they are in control and can pursue their own goals on their own terms.

“The proposals putting community planning partnerships on a stronger legislative footing are indicative of the problem because they have the most tenuous connection to community empowerment. How will compelling public sector bodies to commit to community planning empower communities? Additionally, these proposals enshrine in legislation a process which Audit Scotland has heavily criticised for failing to have a significant impact on outcomes or inequality.

“Thankfully, all is not lost as there are some solid proposals in the Bill for asset transfer, land reform and allotments, which could provide genuinely useful tools for communities to empower themselves through land and other assets. The ability of disadvantaged communities to access those tools and the effect this might have on inequality are top concerns for us in the third sector. In part, this can be addressed by ensuring measures are in place to support the legislation and build community capacity.”

Commenting on the Bill, John Hancox, chairman of Scottish Orchards, said: “There is no shortage of thoughtful and committed citizens wanting to change Scotland for the better – they just need to be allowed to do so – and we believe this Bill is helpful in giving that permission.

“Our argument to the Scottish Government has been that what’s needed is a ‘community right to grow’ akin to access rights. It makes absolutely no sense to have land, and other assets sitting around derelict and underused, while people can’t access and develop it.

“Our vision is of a fruitful Scotland where people can grow fruit and local food close to where they live and improve their local environment, and also their health. We welcome the way in which the Bill is framed in giving a presumption in favour of community groups being able to access assets, unless there is a good reason otherwise.”

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