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November 19, 2008

LPL meets the Minister

During the summer, LPL and SCVO jointly wrote to Stewart Maxwell, Minister for Communities and Sport, asking for a meeting and expressing concern about the Government’s apparent poor appetite for community empowerment. These things take ages to set up but we finally met with the Minister last week. The original letter and a note of the meeting are attached


Letter to Stewart Maxwell, Minister for Communities and Sport (note of meeting below)

John Swinney
Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth
Scottish Parliament
EH99 1SP

20th June 2008

Dear Mr Swinney

Community Empowerment

Please find attached a short paper outlining our concerns about the approach to community empowerment now being followed by the Scottish Government and COSLA as described in the recent Government-COSLA Joint Statement on Community Empowerment. As you will see, we have some serious misgivings that the Joint Statement will not result in sufficient progress being achieved in respect of this important area of government policy.

Our reason for writing to you is to request a meeting with yourself and other relevant Ministers so that we can explain our concerns more fully. We have written to you because of your responsibilities for issues relating to the Third Sector although we recognise that specific responsibility for community empowerment lies with the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing. If you are prepared to meet with us, could your office liaise with Angus Hardie at Development Trusts Association Scotland who has agreed to coordinate arrangements on our behalf.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Local People Leading Scottish Council of Voluntary Organisations
On behalf of:
Development Trusts Association Scotland
Community Woodlands Association
Community Recycling Network Scotland
Community Transport Association
Employers in Voluntary Housing
Glasgow and West of Scotland Forum of Housing Associations

cc. Nicola Sturgeon, Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing
Stewart Maxwell, Minister for Communities and Sport

Where now for Community Empowerment?

This response has been written on behalf of a group of voluntary organisations which support the principle of the empowerment of Scotland’s local communities to urge the Scottish Government to take more and bolder steps on the journey towards community empowerment than is currently envisaged in its Joint Commitment to Community Empowerment with COSLA.

There is now a shared and long-standing political consensus about the importance of community empowerment as part of a long term strategy to support individuals and communities to take greater responsibility for their own futures whether as active partners in public sector programmes or as independent ‘civil society’ actors. A key part of the process of community empowerment is what is often called ‘double (or triple) devolution’ in which the devolution of legislative power is complemented by transferring new powers not just to local Councils but also to individual citizens and the local communities in which they live.

The political parties’ election Manifestos for the 2007 Scottish Parliament Elections appeared to confirm the enthusiasm among Scottish politicians for extending the spirit of devolution to citizens and local 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. These commitments complemented pledges elsewhere in the manifesto to other empowerment measures such as extending the Direct Payment option for users of some public services and the promotion of community owned local energy production.

Against that background – while recognising the political constraints of working as a minority administration and that the Joint Commitment is a first step on a long journey – we are very disappointed by the very limited ambition and scope of the Joint Commitment and the accompanying outline action plan.

Of course, we welcome that the Scottish Government and COSLA have stated unequivocally that both see community empowerment as a key element of what they are about and their vision of community empowerment as a process where people work together to make change happen in their communities by having more power and influence over what matters to them. The Joint Commitment also gives some recognition to the importance of community capacity building and the community ownership of assets. However, it seems from the outline action plan that there are to be no additional resources for or new approaches to community capacity building; the commitment to an integrated programme to develop skills, learning and networking on community empowerment and engagement in practice only extends to engagement; and the development of support to help communities own assets extends only to assessing what might be needed to help them do so. Crucially, there is no reference in the Joint Commitment or the outline action plan to the devolution of power beyond local authorities to Community Councils or other bodies. We also understand that the Scottish Government has agreed with COSLA that there is no expectation let alone a requirement that local authorities should devolve funding decisions to Community Councils.

We believe that the Joint Commitment and outline action plan as they currently stand will be a huge missed opportunity if they do not do more to empower communities directly. We understand and support the importance of ensuring that local communities engage effectively with Community Planning and other public sector partnerships. However, we believe that such engagement will only be at its most effective when it is conducted by empowered communities which have the self confidence which comes from possessing their own powers of action and means of representation. Indeed, giving local communities a greater power to act on their own initiative is an essential pre-condition of strengthening local democracy to the benefit of local Councils as well as democracy at national level.

We are also concerned that without effective action to increase community empowerment and the social capital it creates, local communities will be unable to contribute to their full potential to the achievement of the Government’s key social objectives in local regeneration, anti-poverty programmes, local environmental programmes, health improvement programmes, and even to national empowerment initiatives. This will in turn mean that those objectives are much less likely to be achieved.

There is a wealth of experience and skills in the community sector in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK which would enable the piloting and implementation of a much more effective programme on community empowerment and engagement. Such a programme is justified not only in its own right but also to enable the Scottish Government to achieve wider political and social objectives. We have specific proposals on how to make such a programme a reality and wish to discuss how they can be incorporated into the work associated with the Joint Commitment.

Local People Leading Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations
June 2008

Notes of the meeting with Stewart Maxwell , Minister for Communities and Sport

LPL was represented by Angus Hardie (Development Trusts Association Scotland) Jon Hollingdale (Community Woodlands Association) and John MacDonald (Community Transport Association). Stephen Maxwell represented SCVO.

Purpose of the meeting was to set out LPL’s position on community empowerment to the Minister and to raise some concerns that we have voiced recently through the LPL Briefings regarding overall progress that is being made with this agenda.

We referred the Minister to LPL’s list of proposed actions that had previously been submitted for consideration and in particular focused our comments on the importance of community ownership of assets and the various proposals that we have made that would advance this agenda. In particular, we raised the issue of the transfer of assets to communities from local authorities or other public bodies at less than best value. Stephen Maxwell proposed that where a Council has deemed an asset as being surplus to requirements, there should be a presumption in favour of community ownership when consideration was being given to the subsequent disposal. Although this would not lead to asset transfer in all cases, having such a presumption in place would give a clear message that, all things being equal, this was the desired outcome and as such would reflect that the Government’s broad support for it. However the Minister was advised by the civil servants in attendance that this would not be practicable as a mainstream policy.

LPL argued that some clear signal from Government was necessary which would indicate the scale and scope of its commitment to the community empowerment agenda. While LPL recognises there are many in local government that are committed to genuine community empowerment, we also recognise that there are many that would prefer the status quo and indeed argue that current commitments to community planning and community engagement are synonymous with community empowerment.

The Minister gave assurances that the Scottish Government was fully committed to deliver on community empowerment and emphasised that local authorities were now signed up through the Concordat to play their part in implementing the Action Plan when it eventually comes out. The Minister said he expected to see the first draft of the Plan in the New Year and that it would be launched early in the Spring.