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May 7, 2008

Recent article on community-led regeneration

The core of the LPL campaign is an alliance of Scottish community sector intermediaries, currently led by DTA Scotland. In a recent interview, Angus Hardie (DTA Scotland) speaks of the importance of communities owning assets and the need to take a long term view

James Henderson (Social Researcher)

James Henderson meets DTAS’s Angus Hardie to find out more about the realities of this ‘community-led’ stuff

You know the kind of feel-good movie where the community wins through? Whether it’s the main plot or sub-plot, either way, they finally, after multiple humiliations, find the strength to unite behind their leader, stick together and in some way face down the bullies: the Magnificent Seven, Brassed Off, Erin Brokovitch come to mind but there’s plenty more. And as we watch we too have become committed to the cause, we see it through, we feel powerful and proud, almost heroic: all is right with the world because community is what’s right with the world.

It’s usually next day that alarm bells start ringing. I mean am I really the sort of person to hold out to the bitter end and come good? There’s family and holidays and mortgages to consider, and maybe I don’t quite care enough. Frankly, either community seems a little too good to be true, or I’m not up to the job … or both.

Not surprising then, with folk like me around, that the natural approach to developing communities these days is very much the public and private sectors taking the lead building and running local services whether schools, leisure, transport or shops. Let the big guys take the strain, the glory and the profit: communities can take a backseat, give their views and let the good times roll … or, alternatively, fight a valiant and time-consuming rearguard action against yet another development plan that doesn’t quite get to the heart of what matters to local people: a golf course, a conference centre, more private housing to pay for the social housing, or a shopping mall, perhaps.

There’s a question nagging at me: what is it that communities can realistically do for themselves? I google and find the Development Trust Association Scotland: strapline, the community-led regeneration network. Sounds promising, and I’m off to the unlikely setting of Edinburgh’s West End, amidst blue-chip companies and agencies, past the daunting towers of the Episcopal Cathedral, to locate the Trust’s basement office and its Director, Angus Hardie, eager in the short time available – he’s off to a national regeneration meeting – to get their message across:

“Community-led regeneration, it’s become empty rhetoric in the heart of municipal Scotland where councils run the cities. It’s a very different story in much of rural Scotland. If you were to go to the Highlands and Islands you have a situation where communities are leading regeneration and a public sector that supports it – Highland and Islands Enterprise and the Councils. It’s a silent revolution.”

Okay, so here at least communities have some control but to what extent?

“The Island of Gigha is in a sense where it’s taken to its logical conclusion. Before an absentee landlord and feudal system but now under community ownership it has turned itself around. The population’s growing, businesses are coming, there are wind turbines.”

And this is a model for urban areas too?

“Yes, for instance, we were talking recently with a housing cooperative in Craigmillar. They’ve got an asset-base, good reserves, are addressing wider needs and this could develop further. The community housing movement, rather than the bigger housing associations, could be the giants of community regeneration. They are starting to get there but they could go so much further.”

We talk about other projects in Glasgow but I can’t help wondering is this for real or more like one of those gooey soft-centre movies with the sickly sweet after taste? Can community organisations manage themselves with budgets stretching into millions? I want to believe in it, that this is a different way of doing things, of communities with real strengths and strong voices, but …

Angus has done the thinking: “There’s no doubt that there is a big issue about capacity and skills. But that is no excuse for the attitude of some council officers who are simply dismissive of the idea that that local people could ever manage anything let alone take control of public assets. The review in England commissioned by Department of Communities and Local Government and led by Barry Quirk found that there are no substantive barriers to asset transfer. There are risks – as in everything – but these can be minimised and the recognised benefits outweigh the risks. Quirk concluded that the barriers are more about organisational culture and mindset in local authorities, particularly those of middle management council officers and some councillors.”

“Years ago I worked in Wester Hailes, we had a very open democratic and transparent set of structures and the community got noticed. What we didn’t have was community assets and that was our mistake. Now the place is a shadow of its former self: quite sad really. The council is firmly back in control. If a community has assets and its own income then it has a chance of being able to do things for themselves. Seems to me Wester Hailes is a case of what might have been. The community were certainly up for it: literally thousands of local people were involved in one way or another – there was such a buzz.”

And so in the end, it’s all about politics: who has the power and resources, and who’s prepared to work to get it. And who is prepared to work for it?

“DTA Scotland is part of the campaign for strong and independent communities, Local People Leading, and we’re building-up a base of support across the sector – community woodlands, community transport, community retail, community energy. That could be 700 community organisations, quite a powerful constituency. And there has been a huge political shift across local authorities : Labour only controls 2 councils now and over 50% of councillors are new to their role . As for the new national administration, they tend to see the third sector as having the potential to make a more significant contribution to the wider economy. While that is part of the agenda I don’t see that as the primary purpose of our work. It is about building more connected and stronger communities where local people are more involved in the issues which affect their day to day lives.”

And if this community coalition can find its way, what’s possible?

“This is about long term change. We need some stability and a bit more of a vision about how things should be, perhaps in ten to fifteen years time. The new Scottish Government seems to be making the right noises. I’m optimistic, but no one should think this is going to be easy.”

A voice calls from the deep, “10 to 11, Angus … your train”, and he’s away to Dundee to make the case once more.

As for me, I’m left, well, sort of encouraged … but, hey, ‘ten to fifteen years’, ‘stability’, ‘making the right noises’. This is not feeling like a great night out at the movies, more gritty realism …

I’ve been missing the point: there’s no glorious journey around some grand crusade that gets the blood-flowing. This is the day-to-day commitment of people in their communities inching their way through the minefields of funding, politics and prejudice to prove beyond reasonable doubt that, despite the inevitable ups and downs, they can do the job as well as anyone else … or better. No sentimental endings, no dramatic failures, just the politics of change.

I sit back on the bus and looking out the window start to day-dream. Part of me, somehow won’t rest up: I can’t help feeling there’s a great film buried in here somewhere, surely. Maybe it’s the now distant buzz of Wester Hailes chasing me, stinging my imagination into looking for a scriptwriter’s ending. I mean, what if there was some serious cash behind this, it could be the makings of a real old barnstorming epic of a movie, couldn’t it?

James Henderson is a social researcher who has worked on participatory research into community care, inclusion, health and well-being, community learning and place-making.