The Scottish Government is currently consulting on its proposed Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill; this paper is a contribution to that discussion. It has been jointly written with Hugh Moore, who has been chair of Giffnock Community Council in East Renfrewshire for a number of years. As well as being Community Councillors, both Hugh and I are also planners.
At the same time as consulting on the proposed Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill, the Scottish Government also has initiatives to review Community Councils, help the planning system reach its potential to support economic recovery, and to review Community Planning.
We think these four initiatives are closely linked. Together, they provide an opportunity for a step-change in communities being able to achieve their aims and aspirations. The current review of Community Planning is, we believe, particularly important.
barriers to improvement
Let us declare our agenda: we completely support the Minister’s opening words in his Foreword to the Bill consultation:
“The people who live in Scotland are best placed to make decisions about Scotland’s future. … Scotland’s people are its greatest asset and are a rich source of creativity and talent. In future we want to see all Scots having increased opportunities to shape and decide on their own futures.”
Later in the Foreword, the Minister refers to the need for people to play “the fullest possible role in delivering the successful future we all want to see” in order to “strengthen community participation, unlock enterprising community development and renew our communities” .
Again, we completely support that aspiration. But, from our perspective as community activists and independent practitioners working on the ground, there are a number of barriers which need to be overcome in order to achieve that aspiration:
1. Community capacity There is a lack of capacity in Scotland’s communities to deliver the promise of the Bill. There are, of course, a number of communities up and down the country who are well organised and tenacious and which are already delivering change in their local areas – we happen to have worked with some in as diverse places as Orkney, the Vale of Leven, Kirkcudbright, Strathfillan , Haddington and Tobermory, and one only has to look at the annual Scottish Urban Regeneration Forum (SURF) Awards to see others. Unfortunately these laudable exceptions are not the norm.
Most communities, including our own, lack capacity to deliver change. Creating an enabling legislative framework for Community Empowerment and Renewal will only enable community organisations and volunteers to deliver change if they are given collaborative support, respect, trust and resources.
These are the key ingredients which need to be combined in the right way to achieve both the ability to have a sustainable mechanism that can deliver change effectively and to enable the quality and talents of community participation to be optimised.
Whilst wider strategic and legislative changes may be required, it is at the interface of policy and practice where the real focus should lie so that communities are capable of adding value to Council and CPP objectives in a proactive way.
We believe that this can be achieved by firstly creating the right mechanism that allows this interface to work best, and secondly reviewing resources within existing limits to direct these to delivering capacity requirements.
As well as boosting their existing capacity, it will also help them to attract other people, which is vital. We know from experience, both where we live and in communities we have worked with across Scotland, that many key local activists are already over-stretched and find it hard to get new blood. So capacity building must be about growing the pool of volunteers too.
2. Recognise diversity Each community is different, from Orkney to Kirkcudbright, with a whole spectrum between. Likewise, the local institutions (like Community Councils) and people who are active in each community are different.
The public sector’s relationships with local communities need must recognise this. The best local authorities and Community Planning Partnerships already realise this, and treat each community differently but equally and fairly – but, again, these are the exceptions not the norm. East Lothian Council, for example, is setting up local Community Planning arrangements in each of its towns, and is considering varying the approach in different towns.
This demonstrates that it is not necessary to apply a ‘one size fits all’ approach throughout a local area in order to ensure fairness. With a little imagination, it is quite possible to have different arrangements in different communities, but still ensure that resources are distributed fairly across the Community Planning Partnership area.
Again, the trick is to focus on where Council and Partners meet community. At this interface there is scope to optimise the role of communities who wish to participate in greater empowerment activities whilst still allowing those who are less able or interested to function at a level which works for them. However at this interface it allows the delivery partners to provide a mechanism that can cover the full spectrum of communities.
3. Culture change and leadership There are too many influential vested interests in local authorities content to continue the status quo, rather than support empowerment of communities. Put simply, those vested interests need to go.
Local government needs to rid itself of outdated attitudes, and change its culture towards one of working with and for local communities. In the same way that Planning Reform Next Steps has highlighted the need for a culture change amongst the planning profession to be more entrepreneurial and customer-focused, so local government needs a culture change too.
This culture change must involve better leadership. By this, we don’t mean local authorities directing communities in a top-down fashion; we mean key local authority members and officers leading culture change in their organisations, and setting an example by working collaboratively with local people to lead the communities which they all serve and are part of.
This aspect cannot be understated if we are to respond to the serious economic and social issues we currently face both for Councils and communities. It is not sufficient to have gradual change by relying on persuasion and co-operation to change attitudes and mindsets to create such an environment.
This is not a role for mediators. It is a role for game-changers. Major change is never easy to manage but there should be recognition that what is needed is a level of leadership and approach which is prepared to challenge existing practises in a more direct manner with an appropriate level of leadership and authority.
This calls for what we would describe as a “task force”, a properly resourced unit which directs culture change, provides leadership and delivers actions and could be an integral part of Community Planning mechanisms.
4. Openness, transparency and trust There should no longer be any place for local authorities and Community Planning Partnerships to make decisions about local communities behind closed doors. Of course, not everyone will agree with local authority decisions about their community, but background information, evidence and justifications need to be made freely available.
This is all part of the massive need to create trust between local organisations (such as Community Councils) and public bodies – because trust is the foundation for building the collaborative relationships that successful implementation of the community empowerment and renewal agenda will depend upon.
beyond the Bill: what else is needed?
Each of these four barriers needs to be tackled in order to realise the Minister’s aspirations. We believe that the Community Empowerment and Action Bill will be an important part of the package which addresses those barriers. But it is not enough on its own.
We see the three other elements of the package as being:
1. Community Council reform Community Councils are the only nationwide system we have for community representation. At the moment, coverage is incomplete and the quality of Community Councils is variable. But the Short Term Working Group on Community Councils needs to raise its eyes to the future potential of what a properly supported Community Council sector could achieve, rather than focus on the difficulties of the current system. This means building capacity (which includes not simply resources but attracting a range of capable, motivated local people onto Community Councils) and building trusting relationships with the public sector. There will of course be other local organisations which complement Community Councils – which might include Development Trusts, or Tenants and Residents Associations or any number of other local groups.
2. The land-use planning system The recent Next Steps to Planning Reform consultation document provides welcome additional stimulus for the planning system and its stakeholders to contribute more positively to economic recovery. It speaks of the importance informing, involving and engaging with communities. The Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill consultation, meanwhile, emphasises the importance of physical renewal of Scotland’s communities as one of its three strands. Achieving this will be greatly assisted by planning’s culture change agenda including a focus on better collaboration with communities, as outlined on previous pages of this paper. Culture change for better community empowerment and better land-use planning in communities are two sides of the same coin.
3. Community Planning Possibly most important of all, an updated approach to Community Planning has a vital role in delivering community empowerment. Community Planning needs to be re-aligned so that it becomes more than simply a focus for public sector organisation to organise their service delivery. Community Planning Partnerships (CPPs) have immense potential to be the local delivery agencies for collaborative planning and action involving the public sector and local communities as partners.
Community Planning as the delivery mechanism
Re-imagining the role of CPPs, in particular, could be the game-changer that is needed to achieve the purpose of the Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill to life. They should have a clear focus on co-ordination of support and resources for local communities, including Community Councils, to empower them to achieve their aspirations; and on action and delivery.
To do this, CPPs should bring together players from not only the public sector, but also the voluntary and private sectors too (see diagram below) – but with delivery of community aspirations remaining their guiding principle. Community Planning also has the potential to integrate the different sections of the Community Empower and Renewal Bill – strengthening participation, unlocking community enterprise and renewing our communities – which need to be integrated in delivery, not just in legislation.
Collaboratively developing a simple vision and action plan – as many places are already doing across the country, as diverse as Glasgow, Haddington and Crianlarich – is an excellent starting point for CPPs to build trust, momentum and a sense of shared collaborative purpose. The trick is that this must be done by properly engaging with local communities about the future of their places, not simply consulting them.
Essentially it is not so much the linear provision from legislation to policy and practice that is the focus but rather the recognition of the dynamic relationship as indicated above between all who play a part in community planning. This is a complex environment where clarity and direction can often be difficult to maintain throughout the stakeholder environment.
To change the mindset from an emphasis on target setting and reporting, this dynamic environment needs to be viewed as three dimensional with a focus on maximising the input from stakeholders and being able to manage this to deliver change. This is where we see the “hub” for delivering the empowerment agenda through the “task force” concept, sitting at the centre of this 3 dimensional environment and capable of directing public, voluntary and even private sector interests.
As independent practitioners, we support the aims of the Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill. To achieve its potential and bring together its various strands, we believe it must be linked with ongoing government reviews of Community Planning, Community Councils and land-use planning. Community Planning Partnerships have a particularly important role in bringing partners together, creating collaborative relationships, and delivering community aspirations.
The Scottish Government’s consultation on the Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill ends on 29 August 2012. The consultation documents are viewable here.