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June 18, 2008

The difference between civil and civic

In a keynote speech to a packed DTA Scotland Conference in St. Andrews on Monday – Laurence Demarco highlighted the distinction between `civic` society – the realm of the `local state` and civil society – the realm of voluntary action by citizens – outwith the direction of the state

Laurence Demarco

I would like to begin by making a distinction between what is meant by civic society and civil society. The first – civic society – I take to mean – the ‘local state’ – where citizens participate in local health boards – schools – community councils – planning partnerships and all the other mechanisms ultimately under the direction of the state. All this is good stuff. Civil society – I take to mean voluntary action – undertaken by citizens not under the direction of any authority wielding the power of the state. This is the definition of voluntary action given by Lord Beveridge in his famous 1948 report of that name. Beveridge said that ‘‘the vigor and abundance of voluntary action – undertaken by citizens not under the direction of any authority wielding the power of the state – is one of the distinguishing marks of a free society!!

I have offered this distinction between the civic realm of the state – and the civil realm of the citizen because I believe that government has the inbuilt tendency to poach our space – that there is a powerful lobby within the statutory sector which believes that anything organized in our communities outwith their control is potentially dodgy. It is important for us here today to consider whether a development trust operates in the civic realm of the state – or the independent realm of the citizen. Are we active partners in public sector programmes or are we independent `civil society` actors.

As our movement gathers momentum in the acquisition of land and assets – we can anticipate that this issue of independence will come under increasing scrutiny.

I’ve been a community worker since the late 1960s – over 40 years. For much of that time – real community development work has been discouraged in Scotland. Particularly in our cities – the style of government had been municipal – that is to say – state delivered services – with citizens expected to be passive – grateful – complaint. Sometimes – in some places like Edinburgh – there have been deliberate moves to discourage – every obstruct voluntary action. It`s also my opinion that the Community Development profession which I joined, turned its back on community and went to work for the state – but that`s another story.

I would like to say a few words today about Local People Leading – the campaign for strong and independent communities in Scotland. In LPL the DTA Scotland comes together with other community based associations like woodlands – transport – recycling – housing etc. LPL is not a new organization – more an alliance of organizations – who believe that within out communities – there is an enormous reservoir of locked up imagination and energy for good – which we want to release. The aim is to provide a platform for the community sector to get together and build a national movement for community empowerment. LPL has drafted a position statement – outlining the actions we consider necessary to make this happen. Copies of this are available in your conference pack.

During my time as a community worker – Scottish communities have engaged in all manner of what they call ‘partnerships’ – with local and central government. But Partnership is not a good word – because of the gross imbalance of power inherent in these arrangements, the role of the community is too often tokenistic. Unfortunately most of the communities which were on the index of deprivation in the 60s are still on it. Truth to tell – our attempts at regenerations have mostly failed. The programme I know most about is Wester Hailes, where I worked from 1976 to 1990 – 14 years.

For 10 years – from 1988 – 1998, it was one of four areas chosen for the Scottish Office New Life for Urban Scotland Partnership. This programme invested £120m in Wester Hailes – but it`s difficult to see today what was achieved. WH was chosen for this Partnership because it already had an effective community infrastructure centred around a locally run Representative Council. When the Partnership and its funding ended the community`s independent organization was fatally damaged. Before the partnership – the community was in the lead. Gradually govt. officials and consultants took over. Last month, there was a meeting to formally dissolve the WH Rep Council. £120m to make a community less empowered than it was in the first place.

That experience taught me the very important lesson – that top down regeneration doesn’t work. Unless the process engages local people – unless they take it on- it simply unravels when the suits all leave – and leave they will.

But what if that £120 million spent in Wester Hailes – or even one year of it – £12 million – had been used to endow a local Development Trust. The endowment not spent, but invested – and the annual interest used by the Trust to drive local development; to develop property for social and commercial use; to operate social enterprises where the market leaves gaps; to operate public services on contract; training schemes to skill local people for employment – and to become directors of new community enterprises – a culture of enterprise. I don’t have to tell the people here, the amazing range of activities which Development Trusts undertake. If the Wester Hailes partnership had endowed a community trust all these activities would still be operating – increasing in confidence and competence.

The lesson is – that giving communities the opportunity to participate in so -called partnerships – arrangements essentially controlled by government – is no substitute for them having the power to decide and act for themselves. Empowered communities – unlocking the energy and imagination of local people – have the potential to play a major role alongside local government in making successful communities – but not as compliant subordinates. Communities can only be truly partners when they have achieved a degree of independence. A truly empowered community will have the capacity to disagree with the council – in its pursuit of its own vision for itself.

Experience across the UK shows that the most common characteristic of communities which have empowered themselves – is that they have been able to unite under the leadership of one locally owned organisation – which acts as the ‘Anchor’ for future progress. The term Anchor is not some new fashionable word that we all have to learn- LPL uses it simply to denote whichever organization it happens to be – which co-ordinates the energy of a particular community. It can be the local housing association – community council – a church group – very often it’s a Development Trust.

LPL has made the promotion of – locally owned – asset holding community anchors a key objective of our campaign. You may be aware that in 2009 an estimated £400 million in dormant bank accounts will provide a one-off windfall for the Third Sector in the UK. 10% of that – £40 million will be allocated in Scotland by our devolved government. The problem with such allocations is that they always seem to go to the agencies best able to promote themselves – at the expense of our poorest citizens. LPL calls on our government to be bold – to nominate our 20 most deprived communities and allocate to each an endowment of £2 million in perpetuity. The interest on such an endowment should provide an Anchor organisation / Development Trust in each of these areas with a core income of around £100k per annum – independent of the political and budget fluctuations of local government.

This amount would provide Development Trusts with stable management and development capacity to plan long term.

Such a bold move would signal a dramatic policy shift. It would be to acknowledge that after 40 years of `top down` urban regeneration, the poorest communities have not moved on, that the government and its partnerships have failed these people – and that it’s time to let communities get on with it. LPL believe that an endowment approach will allow communities the necessary independence and continuity to show what they can do.

Over the next 3 months – till Sept 08 – the Scottish Government will be consulting on how the dormant accounts money should be allocated. Can I ask that if you agree with our proposal, you register as a supporter of LPL on our website and consider attending one of the consultation meetings?

Finally – I started by making the distinction between civic society – the realm of the state – and civil society – the realm of the citizen. I would like to end with the question – where does community empowerment sit between these two? Is it about engaging our communities as the lowest rung in the state apparatus complimenting the role of councillors? Or is it about releasing the energy and imagination of our people as an independent force – outwith the direction of the state. This is the crunch issue – which will be decided in Scotland over the next couple of years.

The political parties` election manifestos for the 2007 Scottis Parliament Elections appeared to confirm the enthusiasm among Scottish politicians for extending the spirit of devolution to citizens and communities. The SNP`s manifesto was the most specific and included bold and radical commitments on issues such as community councils and the community ownership of assets.
Against this background – Local People Leading is very disappointed by the limited ambition and scope of the recent joint commitment on community empowerment from Scottish Government and COSLA.
We believe that as it currently stands, it will be a huge missed opportunity if it does not do more to empower communities directly. There is a wealth of experience and skills in the community sector in Scotland which would enable the piloting and implementation of a much more effective programme on community empowerment and engagement.

But I’d like to end on a positive note –
Scottish Government has decided that it will take forward the empowerment agenda jointly with COSLA. It has to be a step forward that central and local government are working together. Their joint commitment states unequivocally that they both see community empowerment as a key element of what they are about – and that this is the starting point of a long journey. In this spirit, Local People Leading looks forward to being part of the forthcoming dialogue – with a view to advancing some of the actions outlined in our position statement.

Thank you.