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June 18, 2008

Empowerment will mean dissent

If community empowerment is to be implemented in Scotland by local councils – will they be willing to fund local action groups which hold them to account. This story about the Salford Star illustrates the tensions with independent community newspapers.

Stephen Kingston

Just read the government’s proposals for empowerment and comments by Phil Hope, minister for the third sector, who recently stated: ‘Third – sector groups often give voice to the people who are most marginalised.

It’s really important that the sector represents these views in the draft legislative programme consultation. The proposed legislation will empower more people to take part in local democracy.

The Salford Star is a third sector award winning (Magazine of the Year Foot Award 2007 etc) not for profit, community centred magazine that is doing exactly what Phil Hope is urging -empowering local people, trying to make public bodies more accountable, involving non media citizens in the production of the magazine, and the most important thing, giving people a voice. The very root of the magazine is democracy, accountability and transparency.

The problem is that most devolved grants are filtered through local govemrnent and if you are holding such public bodies up to account, and finding and exposing problems with what they are doing, the last thing they want to do is to fund your magazine -either through grants or advertising (despite producing 15,000 copies of our magazine which go direct to the community, door-to-door and in places like pubs, bookies, shops etc, the council wont even advertise things like art exhibitions or sports activities )for youngsters.

Indeed, we had a major run in last year With Salford Council when we applied to community committees in the area for funding. The community never got to see the application never mind decide to help fund the magazine, because the council basically ripped up our application, after rewriting their constituion to ensure we didnt comply. This has been well documented both within our magazine and Red Pepper etc. TheEasr Salford Community Committee has just passed a motion saying that it now wants to see that application, so we will see what happens. But I’m sure that you ca see the conflict of interest.

So, basically, as publisher and editor of the Salford Star, my comments on the draft bill are that unless there is some body which decides on grant funding that is absolutely independent of local govemment or such agencies, there are going to be vested interests actively stopping concepts such as ’empowerment, local democracy and accountability’. Last year Salford Council spent over £2m on marketing and producing glossy leaflets and brochures explaining the council’s position. The Salford Star, which represents the local community, didn’t get a penny of public finance. Is this ’empowerment’?

I would argue that if the governm’ent is serious about these proposals, it is vitally important that people should be allowed a voice through an independent vehicle, and that vehicle must be supported by taxpayers’ money. Unfortunately, even if this was to be included in the bill, by the time it comes into force the Salford Star will probably have folded through lack of funds.