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July 16, 2008

From Community Development to Empowerment

Many independent community organisations of the 1960’s & 70’s didn’t survive the so called ‘partnerships’ of the 80’s and 90’s. Chick Collin’s profiles a Clydebank Resource Centre which has retained its independence for over 37 years – with the support of the Trades Union Movement

Chik Collins, newstart

Lately there has been some interesting debate about community development and empowerment. It’s by no means a new discussion, but it remains very important.

Briefly, in the late 1960s and 1970s the idea of community development came to the fore -promoting the emergence of independent and assertive community organisations which could get their voices heeded in the corridors of power.

But from the late 1980s this increasingly gave way to the idea of communities working in partnership with politicians and agencies. This was the new ‘approved’ route to empowerment. Community action gave way to community engagement.

The partnership model has always, from the community development perspective, looked at best highly sanguine about the realities of power, and there is much to suggest that in practice this has indeed been the case. Experienced, independent community organisations have come to view many of the purveyors of empowerment and engagement like the way they might view someone called Herod as a purveyor of child care.

Such an organisation is Clydebank Independent Resource Centre (Circ). Its title is relatively new, but the organisation has been around for the best part of four decades. It was previously Clydebank Unemployed Community Resource Centre (1992-2006). Prior to that it was ClydebankUnemployed Workers Centre (1981-1990), and earlier still Clydebank Unemployed Action Group (1971-1981).

I first visited the centre at the end of 2006, to participate in a community conference on poverty in the west of Scotland. I got to know a bit about its history, its solid community roots, its capacity to defend its independence, and the myriad ways it has worked to address community needs over the years.

I was taken aback, not just by the centre’s endurance and achievements, but also by the fact that I hadn’t heard more about it previously. In Scotland, and I suspect more widely, the transition from ‘community development’ to ‘partnership’ and ’empowerment’ has seen very many other community organisations fall by the wayside. But here was an organisation which had proved able to defend its independence and purpose over many years. Consequently it had been able to continue to serve its community -providing education and training, creche facilities, a hugely successful welfare rights and money advice service, social and recreational activities, facilitating local campaigns and much more. It had been able to do this on very limited budgets, and in the kinds of social and political circumstances which had seen other organisations lose their independence, get co-opted to the agendas of others, and quite often get killed off altogether.

Fortunately, Oxfam Scotland felt the story of the centre could make a really important contribution to its aim of supporting genuinely community-based responses to poverty in Scotland. I was lucky enough to get the job of writing that story. It sets out the scale of the centre’s achievements over the years.

Succeeding while others fail

Reflecting on those achievements, one cannot help but note the contrast with the failures of regeneration in the town -and in Scotland more generally -over the same period.

On the one hand, a wee community-led organisation, with just a few staff and its volunteers, and a dogged commitment to the needs of its people. It sets realistic goals and then, in the words of one notable commentator, achieves ‘beyond all reasonable expectation’. But it repeatedly has to fight for its basic existence.

And on the other hand, a parade of high profile. high budget, multi-agency initiatives which promise much more but continually fail to come close to delivering.

So, in Clydebank there was the enterprise zone of the 1980s. Then there was the smaller urban regeneration initiative in the early 1990s, followed by the priority partnership area (PPA) in the mid-1990s, which in turn gave way to the social inclusion partnership (SIP) at the end of that decade.

All very conspicuously failed.

The enterprise zone had the temerity to chase the centre out of its business park -because the centre damaged its image! But its carefully (and expensively) presented image didn’t deliver the ‘economic revitalisation’ -or jobs -it had promised for Clydebank. Meanwhile, the centre worked against the odds to preserve the fabric of community life as the town’s economic base collapsed.

The priority partnership areas, as part of the continuation of the New Life for Urban Scotland programme, promised a ‘renaissance’ for Scotland’s poorest communities. But by the time they were created it was already clear that the New Life programme was failing very badly in its pre- existing, and massively resourced, flagship areas.

As the rather less well-resourced PPA was failing in Clydebank, the centre was delivering badly needed services, and campaigning on vital issues such as the introduction of jobseeker’s allowance and the disempowerment of local government.

And New Labour’s SIPs simply continued the partnership agenda inherited from the Conservatives. Shortly the Scottish Executive’s own research would be criticising them ferociously for their failure to deliver. But by then the only surprise was that anyone found that surprising. Had they really expected the SIPs to deliver regeneration? But as the Clydebank SIP was failing, the centre was gaining national recognition for the breadth and depth of its achievements on its own comparatively minuscule budget.

Today Clydebank has a community planning partnership and an urban regeneration company, which are, unfortunately, no more likely to succeed in delivering for the poorest communities than their predecessors. They reflect the kind of thinking about partnerships and enterprise which has failed so conspicuously in the past. Quite why anyone would expect different outcomes this time is, at least as far as ordinary rationality is concerned, a mystery.

Key lessons

How, then, has the centre has been able to maintain its independence, so as to be able to continue to serve its community over so many years? The key seems to be its roots in, and continuing relationship to, the trade union movement. The organisation was created in the first instance by the local trades union council, and the latter has retained a key role since. So across the years the centre has been able to benefit from the understanding and experience of people who have been active trade unionists and shop stewards. In turn that understanding and experience has become part of the culture of the centre, which has been transmitted to its staff and its volunteers.

The result is that the centre never became dependent on development workers employed by others. It has developed its own workers, who have absorbed and carried forward the spirit, aims and purpose of their organisation. And at vital moments, when hostile forces have gathered, the Scottish TUC has, very much indeed to its credit, stepped up to defend it.

This brings us back to the discussion of community development and empowerment. The centre, unlike many other organisations, has not travelled the path from the former to the latter -with all of the negative implications associated. In fact, it seems never to have become as dependent on community development support as many other organisations.

The significance of this is that in many cases it was the organisations which were so dependent that could be led from development to empowerment -as the political and policy landscape mutated from the mid-late 1980s. And this observation poses a significant challenge for proponents of community development today. How are organisations developed by other bodies, which inevitably have their own agendas, to preserve their independent existence over the long haul?

And this is perhaps the key lesson of the centre’s story. It offers an alternative model- one which has been shown to meet the above challenge. Clydebank is not unique, and what has been achieved there can be mirrored in other towns and cities. And this would seem to require a renewal of the kind of positive, mutual relationship between the trades unions and local communities which was in the past an almost defining aspect of the trade union movement in Scotland -but was, and to some extent still is, also in evidence in many other towns and cities in Britain.

If this relationship can be renewed and strengthened in other towns and cities it will be to the mutual benefit of local communities and trade union members. For it is not just local communities that find themselves challenged by poverty and regeneration. Trade unionists are increasingly aware that behind the cloak of regeneration there often lies an agenda for privatisation, ‘flexible’ labour markets and service cuts. And in Scotland at least the unions are increasingly aware that working together, local communities and trade unionists will be more likely to be able to stand up against that challenge.

Those who are in regeneration because they genuinely want to see communities exercising some power over their own lives and futures will welcome that. Others might not.