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February 1, 2007

True power comes with ownership

Some communities will elect to become a lower tier of the state – much more responsive to local needs – good luck to them.  But the ones which will be really transformed will be those which also grasp the challenges of the market; those which promote a culture of enterprise and independence – those determined to take control of their own destiny.

Laurence Demarco

True power comes with ownership

Laurence Demarco
Speech to the Annual General Meeting of the Volunteer Centre, Glasgow

The volunteers I’d like to talk about today are those citizens who give their time to improve the communities where they live – often referred to as community activists. I believe that many Scottish local authorities deliberately and routinely obstruct this work – which is frankly disgraceful. But I also believe that we are entering a period when all this will change.

I’ll start with a bit of background.

The 20th century brought increased freedom and prosperity to our citizens – but at a cost.  Many of the traditional institutions that provided care, nurtured trust and fostered cooperation have weakened.

I have just read a book, Decline of the Public, which argues that a healthy public domain – encompassing active citizenship and voluntary service – is fundamental to a society in which citizens can flourish.  But it claims that for 30 years Thatcher and Blair’s governments have attacked anything that stands in the way of the private sector markets: the notion of the public interest has been subordinated; commercial interest take precedence; the citizen domain of trust, equity and service has been diminished.

At the same time, local government has become increasingly preoccupied with regulation and control.  Citizen initiatives are routinely discouraged and resisted. Officials and councillors have connived to establish a culture of passive dependency in our communities.

I became a community worker 35 years ago because I believed society would work better if people had greater control over the decisions that affect our lives.  We set out to extend local democracy into communities by, in effect, establishing an informal community tier of government.  In Wester Hailes, where I worked for 15 years, the community subdivided itself into neighbourhoods, each with its own elected representatives who all gathered monthly as on unified Representative Council.  The energy of hundreds of local folk was mobilized through this process into a single and powerful community voice.

This was in the 1980s when many housing estates across Scotland developed effective community organisations with the capacity and independence to challenge local councils on a whole range of issues.  But in Edinburgh, the Labour Administration moved to take back control of what it called ‘its’ housing estates by imposing council controlled ‘partnerships’.  Most independent community anchor groups, including Wester Hailes, have now been brought to heel.  I believe that this wilful clampdown on grass roots activity has contributed to the stagnation of our national politics.

Throughout my working life Scotland has been a one party Labour state – like the former communist bloc – people joined the party for personal advancement. Free open debate was discouraged. The state permeated every aspect of our society.

There are council wards in central Scotland that are still run as the personal fiefdoms of authoritarian councillors with a deep distrust of grassroots activists who are branded ‘troublemakers’.  In his book Stone Voices, Neal Ascherson writes: “Scottish local government is preoccupied with control, and a condition of silent, divorced dependence is what it prefers from its tenantry – an archipelago of undemocracies, run by power cliques who want as few people as possible to participate in running their own lives.”  I believe that this dark period will be remembered in Ascherson’s words.

But if Scotland is stuck in a municipal time-warp, that is not the case in England where both the major parties seem to be competing for the role of championing the Third Sector and empowering communities. For Labour’s David Milleband it comes out of an acute awareness of what he calls a ‘democratic deficit’. Two thirds of British citizens feel remote from the big institutions that affect their lives, according to recent research.  Politicians and their media entourage have lost touch with the aspirations of the people. As a result, individuals and communities feel powerless.  Milleband sees what he calls a “serious and damaging power gap” and the need to “shift power decisively to individuals and communities”.

He says he is not talking about a new formal tier of government, but his proposals include delegated budgets and new powers at neighbourhood level for deciding those things that are best understood locally including the right to acquire and manage physical assets such as land and buildings. He cites the model of continental communes.  There are 32,000 of these in France alone, each with fewer than 2,000 residents. In the whole of Europe the UK has the biggest gap between the citizen and the 1st tier of democracy.

Conservative leader David Cameron is, if anything even more enthusiastic about the power of the third sector to transform society.  He consistently demonstrates an impressive understanding of the potential particularly of the small local groups – imbedded in the communities they serve – and the Tories would like to shift a major chunk of service delivery to a local level.  I anticipate that this ethos of local control will continue to gather support and is likely to be reinforced by a growing workforce of “para-professionals”.  These are the teaching assistants, community support officers and childcare workers etc who usually live in the same communities in which they work and who have strong motivation and local knowledge. In a recent paper, Professor David Donnison predicted the emergence of a new professional trained specifically to work with local people.

So things are looking good – I can’t think of any time in my working life when there was so much political support for the work we do even in Scotland, where politicians are doing their best to ignore all this, we will catch at least the slipstream of all this energy.  The Scottish elections in May under the new PR system will shift some of the ‘old brigade’ labour fiefdoms and bring some fresh people and new thinking to our Town Halls.  But let’s not imagine this is going to be easy – there are major hurdles to jump – here are a couple of them.

Firstly you can be sure that local government will not willingly give up its control of our communities – and that’s not only in Scotland.  Last week Steven Bubb CEO of ACEVO spoke to a local government conference in England and said to the assembled council officials “In terms of your mindset and culture, you are not fit for purpose,” he said.  “What you perceive as partnership, we perceive as patronage.  On a scale of one to 10, if 10 is partnership and 1 is patronage, we are at 10 and you are at one.”  I maybe wouldn’t have said it quite so bluntly but he gets to the heart of the matter – which is that local authorities which make the contractual decisions, show no inclination to pass power downstairs. This is frankly the main challenge – changing the mindset of Councils – why are they going to shift power to citizens?

The second challenge facing us is that politicians and officials don’t seem to realise that “empowering communities” is not a simple policy decision.  It takes years, and skilled help, for communities to develop the necessary structures and capacity.  People who make extravagant claims for what social enterprise could do are doing us no favours.  This sector is growing, but most of it is nowhere near ready to deliver public services.  50 people each month register online for Senscot’s bulletin – but less than a third of these have direct connections with a real social enterprise. Our sector is fashionable – and casts a shadow much bigger than its substance. I can remember the 1970s and 80s – when the co-operative and community business movement was hyped – and burst like a bubble. We don’t want to do this again.

My final point relates to community owning assets – to the unique power of ownership to galvanise local morale and confidence.  Its one thing to elect a local management committee which the council ‘allows’ to operate some services.  It’s quite different for a community to own the local operating companies and the premises they use.

This is not an argument against the benefits of elected neighbourhood councils – it’s a recognition that true power comes with ownership.  Some communities will elect to become a lower tier of the state – much more responsive to local needs – good luck to them.  But the ones which will be really transformed will be those which also grasp the challenges of the market; those which promote a culture of enterprise and independence – those determined to take control of their own destiny.

Gordon Brown was in Glasgow on 13th October giving the Donald Dewar Memorial Lecture.  Once again he used a phrase he’s used before and since – he spoke about “shaping a new constitutional settlement of the relationship between individuals, their communities and government”. I think he’s got something up his sleeve – for when he takes power.  But no matter who wins the next General Election I believe we are entering a golden period for the realm of the citizen. I’m an optimist – I believe that we are about to see a decisive shift of power to individuals and communities – and in the words of Thomas Jefferson, “I know of no safe repository of the ultimate power of society but the people themselves.”