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December 12, 2007

Community planning and policy change

Last week John Swinney said that community planning’s main purpose is the co-ordination of services – not community empowerment. Does this signal a shift in policy? If so, what is to be the Government’s new channel for community empowerment?

Edward Harkins

Dear Laurence,

I noted with interest your observation on John Swinney’s comment “that if Community
Planning helps communities build capacity – that’s good and fine- but CPs’ main purpose is the better co-ordination of services”.

I have heard this from elsewhere. And like you, I am uncertain whether this is deliberate and intentional repositioning of policy or rather a slip of the tongue from a new Minister fashioning new thinking. If the latter, it’s something we must respect and encourage.

But I wonder whether we are missing what’s really happening?

If it is now openly annunciated that Community Planning is not, at it’s core, about Com-munity Capacity Building, I welcome that. The notion of developing community
engagement and capacity through Community Planning is patently and evidently not working. Institutional Scotland’s big problem is that too many decision-makers and
practitioners spoke as though required to say that all this worked well – what Gerry Has-san calls “enforced agency optimism”. Surely it’s better that we now have an open and honest acknowledgment of a new reality?

We should also welcome Nicola Sturgeon’s public declaration that the Scottish
Government remains committed to the concept and principles of Community Planning. To say anything else would not have been welcome or feasible since it would represent a further major upheaval in the central-local Government interface on public services.

This new reality fits with what you write on “Government will leave initiatives on
community empowerment, asset transfer etc to the discretion of individual councils”. Alongside this, the demise of Communities Scotland will take away the main organ for Scottish Government direct involvement in community engagement.

A few months ago, responsibility for local regeneration activity was relocated from
Scottish Enterprise into local councils. The abolition of Communities Scotland implies that it’s social enterprise remit will also go to the local councils.

Is not the main lesson from all this is that we must recognise that fundamental, significant and long-term changes are afoot – with some changes that are in a direction we do not welcome?

Regardless of our individual views on these changes, we must recognise an urgent need for them to be addressed by us. We need to think through the implications of all this, and the ability of various players, including the social enterprise Sector, to respond and take advantage of the new set up.

If we don’t urgently work through what all this means, many will be left as passive
supplicants and receivers of rationed benefits from diminishing public sector funding – and this will accentuate what the English NCVO has identified as “Grant Mission Drift”. In other words, the purposes, values and mission of social economy organisations will become ‘attuned’ more to the needs of grant funders rather than committed to their own true purpose and goals.

This is why some of us are watching trends in social enterprise in Scotland with a little unease. Social enterprise seems drifting into the compliant maze of ‘The Social Econ-omy’. This carries an increasing exposure to possible dependency on local and central government funds and contracted delivery of public services.

We should draw lessons from the previous Scottish Executive’s transfer to local
authorities of some Housing Association funding and from what is now happening. De-spite early Scottish Government promises of accelerating annual production to 35,000 new Affordable Homes in Scotland, Housing Associations are now discovering that many of these new homes may not be delivered by them, but by Local Councils – or even pri-vate consortia.

A new Scottish political dynamic is evolving that upgrades the status of COSLA and Lo-cal Councils. Our Scottish Government may feel it can enact further bolder reforms, and feel more emboldened to take them.

How bold are we, what steps do we want to take, and what steps do we know we are able to take, to ensure our advantage?


Edward Harkins.