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January 14, 2009

Community Empowerment Action Plan

Scottish Government’s Community Empowerment Action Plan is expected this spring and Alasdair McKinlay, who sits in the Housing and Regeneration Directorate, is leading on this work and contributes an update in the current Scotregen journal. The content of this Plan will bear directly on the future work of LPL. Through Angus Hardie, LPL has been contributing to the development of the Action Plan.

Alasdair MacKinlay, Scottish Government

In April this year, the Scottish Government and COSLA announced a joint statement of commitment to community empowerment.That statement set out a definition of community empowerment and a high level outline of a community empowerment action plan. The definition that was agreed by Ministers and COSLA says that community empowerment is a process where people work together to make change happen in their communities by having more power and influence over what matters to them.

It is fair to say that the definition has been read differently by different people. Some think that the definition suggests a ‘top down’ approach to empowerment. This was certainly not the intention. Ministers are clear that in essence empowerment is about
people doing things for themselves about the things that matter to them. I suspect that the debates will continue – and the trick will be to balance debates on definitions with making progress on practical action.

Key roles and messages

Since the announcement of the joint statement, Ministers have asked us to work closely with a range of colleagues to develop the detail in the action plan. As a key part of our joint working we have been very pleased to work in the spirit of the concordat with COSLA’s community empowerment working group. Ministers see local authorities having a key role in enabling and supporting community empowerment and COSLA’s decision to set up a group to look specifically at this agenda is to be warmly welcomed. No less importantly, we have also benefited greatly from challenge and ideas from Local People Leading (LPL) who are campaigning for a strong and independent community sector in Scotland. Many LPL supporters are involved in the community led groups who form the backbone of community empowerment on the ground. It is important to remember that the content of the plan we are developing has been heavily influenced by the wide ranging dialogue that we carried out towards the end of last year. Given that around 380 people gave of their time and energy to get involved in that process, it is important to the Scottish Government that what was said is reflected in the plan. It might be helpful to reflect on some of the key messages that we heard and how those are feeding in to action for the future.

Perhaps most strikingly, there was a strong plea that we should not invent new schemes or structures, but that we should publicise existing examples and build on what already exists. It was also agreed that there was no “one size fits all” model of communityempowerment.

For that reason, we have approached twelve existing examples of community empowerment practice to try to reflect experience from different parts of the country and to give a flavour of the different models in existence. We are delighted that we will be able to tell the stories of places where communities own significant assets like the island of Gigha and Cordale Housing Association, through to examples involving bodies like Registered Tenant Organisations and Community Councils who have clear influence over local decision making.

Describing these examples will not be a dry, academic exercise, but will celebrate what can be achieved through community empowerment by supporting people to tell their own stories in an inspiring way – including both the good and the not so good bits.

It is clear to Government that communities owning assets like land and buildings can be a powerful route to empowerment in the right circumstances, and this was backed up by a number of people involved in the dialogue. Community asset ownership is a complicated area, and we will be working with Development Trust
Association Scotland and other stakeholders to put in place a range of work that will help communities and the public sector understand and deliver the potential benefits of community asset ownership.

Time and again in our dialogue the point was made that training was needed to help people understand what community engagement and empowerment are and how to deliver them. We will be investing in a range of National work in this area, from supporting a successor to the Community Voices Network aimed at community activists to working with the Improvement Service to develop and deliver
training aimed at local authority councillors – which is a first for Scotland.

Work in progress

Finally, while everyone saw potential benefits in communities being more empowered, there was a strong view that many communities simply wanted better opportunities to be heard by public sector bodies when they are planning and delivering services. The plan will therefore reflect the continuing importance of community engagement, as part of a spectrum of working with communities, and we will continue to promote the National Standards for community engagement and the community engagement planning tool, VOICE.

So the plan is a work in progress – and when it is launched early next year it should be seen as a starting point. It will include a restatement of Ministers’ firm commitment to seeing more communities becoming more empowered. I am sure that beyond the publishing of the action plan, debate and discussion about community empowerment, both the principles and the practice, will continue and we look forward to that on-going dialogue