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May 6, 2009

Communities Minister keen to maintain momentum

Last week,  representatives from LPL met with Alex Neil MSP,  our relatively new Minister for Housing and Communities.  We came away encouraged by what we heard.  The Minister certainly knows what community empowerment looks like when he sees it, citing Cordale Housing Association in Renton as a shining  example of what’s possible when the conditions are right.  The trick will be to find a way to replicate those conditions across the rest of the country

Meeting with Alex Neil MSP, Minister for Housing and Communities.  LPL were represented by Angus Hardie,  Ian Cooke (DTAS), Pauline Hinchion (CRNS) Jon Hollingdale (CWA)

The Minister welcomed the delegation from LPL to the meeting  by emphasising the SNP’s devolutionary credentials and consequent commitment to devolve power down to the most local level possible.

LPL  position is that we welcomed Scottish Government’s current commitment to community empowerment and the publication of the action plan which we saw as an encouraging first step. Our concern as expressed to the Minister was whether there would be sufficient momentum , commitment and resources from local councils to deliver the Plan.

The Minister was interested to know whether there were parts of the country where councils were more in support of the empowerment agenda than others.  LPL confirmed this to be the case.

The Minister agreed with our proposition that in times of economic recession there was a risk that some councils would become more entrenched in their position towards the community sector and would reduce the resource allocation to the community sector as a means of protecting what they consider to be core services.  Also recognised that the last time this happened, under a Conservative Government, it caused lasting long term damage to communities which is still being felt today. LPL emphasised that this experience has shown that investment in building community resilience is a crucial part of a recession survival plan and that Scottish Government should make its position clear in this respect.

The Minister was presented with an illustration of contract procurement  which contain an explicit community benefit clause as an example of how progress can be impaired by competing inter-departmental priorities within a single local authority.

The question of how to deliver the culture change within local govt which everyone agreed is critical to making any progress on the empowerment agenda was discussed.   Training for councillors forms one of the action points in CEAP and it was agreed that LPL should be able to contribute to the delivery of this.

While it was acknowledged that the Concordat meant that it would be for local councils to decide their own priorities the Minister asked whether we felt there were things that Govt could do to assist.  LPL asked that the issue of Govt delays re guidance for public bodies over the disposal of public assets at less than best consideration be resolved. The minister agreed to investigate why more progress in this issue had not happened.  The Minister also suggested that LPL should formally request of the Environment and Rural Affairs Committee that they consider a full review of the operation and effectiveness of the Land Reform Act.

Part of the discussion focused on housing associations and whether there was more that the RSL movement could do to contribute to the empowerment agenda. It was agreed that many housing associations were playing a key role and the Minister quoted Cordale Housing Assoc and the work taking place in Renton as exemplars of community empowerment.

In terms of making sure momentum is not lost, The Minister suggested that the June meeting between COSLA and Scottish Government would consider progress to date and what proposals were necessary in order that momentum is maintained around this agenda.