Cross Party Group on Community Empowerment

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The November 2014 meeting of the Cross Party Group on Architecture and the Built Environment, was organised by PAS (Planning Aid Scotland) and convened by Linda Fabiani MSP, and considered the implications of the Community Empowerment Bill which is set within the Scottish Government’s wider programme of public service reform.

A ‘strategic overview’ was provided by Derek Mackay, Minister for Local Government and Planning, who stressed a need to realise the possibilities of what can be achieved through removing barriers and unlocking the potential for good things to happen. The CE Bill links with national outcomes, community planning, a more proactive role for communities in triggering consultations, community right to buy extending from rural to urban areas, common good land and strengthening allotments. Success will look like more confident empowered communities with more land and assets in community ownership; success will breed success. Community planning requires greater engagement of communities; there is an urgent need to link community and spatial planning.

The strategic overview prompted a wide ranging discussion that included:

  • An aim is to tackle poverty and inequality – better off communities can access funding, professional assistance and acquire assets; how will interests of marginalised and disadvantaged communities be adequately supported?
  • Supporting communities is resource intensive and requires appropriate skills and funding.
  • There is a strong relationship between the CE Bill, National Outcomes and the National Performance Framework. Success can be monitored through ‘Scotland Performs’, and will be evident through more confident communities that enter into the co-design of the design and delivery of services and facilities.
  • Whilst the CE Bill creates a culture of expectation, with a corporate duty to consider the legislation, there is a need to get beyond the usual suspects and inspire communities; people need to be encouraged to think what may be possible and to think: what can we do?
  • In the context of today’s austerity, and pressure on Council budgets to dispose of assets we are slipping into a ‘language’ where transfer to communities can’t possibly be seen as a bad thing! However, assets exist for good reason to provide universal access to services and facilities; there are concerns the CE Bill will lead to a slide towards greater inequality.
  • Communities access assets through common public ownership. In many cases assets have been inherited by local communities and stewarded through public management for the greater good.
  • Checks and balances will be required. We need systems that ensure transparency and longer term accountability; councils are elected over political cycles; who will look after the longer term interests of communities? What happens if assets aren’t successfully managed?
  • Community ownership of assets, and/or co-design and delivery of services need to be valued in ways that go further than financial/monetary terms. More confident, empowered communities that achieve more will lead to wider public savings. The Scottish Public Finance Manual notes that full commercial value does not need to be acquired on disposal of assets.

The ‘Council View’ was provided by Stephanie-Anne Harris, City of Edinburgh Council, who offered some personal observations. There are considerable pressures on council budgets, therefore radical rethink is required. There is no one-size-fits-all ‘magic’ solution. Community ownership of assets is not a new concept and has been done before (e.g. woodlands, church halls, etc). The process has to be organic and driven by communities; council officer involvement working with communities is time intensive; avoid rules and regulations that support things that work!

Various projects highlighted considerations, e.g.: Projects such as Inch Park community sports hub and Spartans football academy stemmed from the visions of one person and illustrated the need for a champion or project sponsor who is interested in the long term. Crags sports centre was an idea that emerged from the local community but which fell into financial difficulty; CEC/Edinburgh Leisure have worked with the community to ensure its long term survival through leasing to a basketball club.

Other projects, though part subsidised may eventually save Council money through achieving wider aims (e.g. working towards underlying health and education issues). There is a need for honesty around expectation. There may be inherent operational issues requiring significant subsidy. This should be made clear from the outset of a process that aims to support the community but which can be highly politicised. The budget challenge is frightening; significant budget pressures will ultimately involve closure of facilities. Some are suitable for asset transfer, but these need to be identified and a dialogue started early with local communities. A champion is required. It is necessary to go at the pace of the community, not at the pace of the council.

The ‘Community View’ was provided by Ian Menzies who spoke about Aberfeldy Town Hall, and provided some impressions from a community that has gone through a community asset transfer. A community organisation – LOCUS – originally formed in 1988 to look after a former church donated to the people of Aberfeldy (opened in 1991 and converted to its present format in 2000). This community organisational structure was able to respond to the announcement of the disposal of the Town Hall through forming a steering group, meeting with the Council and ultimately becoming the first Community Asset Transfer in Perth & Kinross Area in 2011.

The presentation highlighted the need to overcome red tape and bureaucracy. The ‘normal commercial transaction’ (£300k) was re-assessed at community value (closer to £200k) and was completed by end 2013, with the building returned to the community in 2014. As an older building it required a lot of work (e.g. modern heating; upgrading insulation; installing toilets). LOCUS were able to access funding streams and the necessary professional help (e.g. legal, architect, etc). This involved considerable effort: What does an empowered community look like: Frazzled!

The ‘Organisation View’ was provided by Peter Peacock, Community Land Scotland. Placemaking has many different dimensions: safety; employment; connectedness; nurture; education and learning; services; cultural, etc… These all relate to human aspects. We all contribute to placemaking in our own separate and combined ways. There are several types of communities:

  • ‘Victim communities’ – of poor planning and design; poor health and education; poor economy
  • ‘Passive recipient communities’ of other peoples decisions – not engaged
  • ‘Recipient communities’ who are consulted
  • ‘Co-design communities’ – empowered to engage
  • ‘Co-producer communities’– empowered in design and delivery
  • ‘In control communities’– who own the land or assets; decision-makers in their own right

The CE Bill moves people along this spectrum; more empowered communities have a greater sense of wellbeing, and take responsibility for the long term future of their place. The CE Bill will release energy and innovation. Whereas previously it was ‘what are you going to do?’ this bill recognises ‘this is our problem; what can we do?’ A mindset change to self determination; disempowered communities are reliant on others; confident communities imagine a better future.

A subsequent discussion raised a number of considerations:

  • The importance of ownership; this empowers owners to think about managing for the future.
  • Buildings represent and strengthen a sense of place, identity and attachment.
  • The importance of seeing what other can achieve (i.e. Gigha happened because of Eigg)
  • Communities have to want to do it; it can’t be forced on them; they need the right framework, funds and expertise.
  • It won’t happen overnight; it needs patience and people who are prepared to stick with it.
  • A project sponsor might initiate, but how to ensure the community follows on? Succession planning of ‘champions’?
  • The process needs to happen organically; but there is a need for processes, and projects will be considered chronologically and in budget cycles. Processes can present obstacles.
  • Communities may act if there is no other alternative (e.g. Knoydart, Eigg, Assynt).
  • It is necessary to get majority community support behind the project; but there may be differing views, opinions and tensions – it is not simple!
  • It may happen more often in rural areas where there is a more direct say in the workings of the land; it is more complex in urban situations where it is difficult to co-ordinate views.
  • How to evaluate ‘preventative spend’ benefits? It is more than a bottom line transaction.
  • How to do this? More advice and guidance needs to be made available to communities.

Making Places

Making Places: This project is about community empowerment and capacity building through community events and workshops.

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