September 9, 2009
Empowerment Action Plan lacks momentum
Six months have passed since the Scottish Government’s launched its Community Empowerment Action Plan. At the time, the Minister said that Plan should be seen as the first step in a journey. However, all journeys require a certain momentum and LPL has been unable to discern any real progress since that first step was taken. LPL has identified 6 key areas where further action is required.
A response to Scottish Government’s Community Empowerment Action Plan
1. Local People Leading – the informal alliance of national and regional networks, local community groups and individuals that has come together to campaign for a strong and independent community sector in Scotland – welcomed the Scottish Government’s Community Empowerment Action Plan as an important step on the road to greater community empowerment in Scotland. But it is not sufficiently radical or ambitious to achieve significant change. There are six key areas where further action is needed.
Recognising the community sector
2. The Action Plan and government policy more widely, does not recognise the existence of the community sector as a distinct part of the Third Sector. It has distinct characteristics: as well as formally constituted, community owned and led organisations, the sector is comprised of many more informal, smaller, more volunteer based organisations. Much of this activity happens beneath the radar of government and yet produces the vital social capital which provides so much of the foundation and energy for local civic action and empowerment. Not surprisingly these groups have distinctive needs for support, advice, funding, and engagement if they are to thrive and develop.
3. LPL contends that the Scottish Government should develop a separate and distinctive strategy for the community sector which recognises this – as it has for social enterprises. This strategy would set out the role and importance of the community sector, the support it requires nationally and locally and a plan for government to support its development. Key elements of that strategy are identified below.
An independent and influential community sector
4. Effective community empowerment will only be achieved when local community organisations achieve genuine independence and strength, take on local leadership and power through double devolution and are influential in local engagement processes such as Community Planning Partnerships. The involvement of community groups in community planning however effectively that is done – and much more action is required to make it effective – is no substitute for true community empowerment: local people coming together with the capacity to do things for themselves either independently or, if they choose, in partnership with others.
5. Community anchors – locally owned community organisations which support and provide leadership for other community organisations – are vital to achieve an independent and influential local community sector. The Action Plan recognises that anchors are a critical characteristic of empowered communities but contains no policy or action to support and develop them. LPL believes this is a fundamental weakness of the Plan. The Scottish Government should introduce a programme of work to highlight the importance of community anchors and to support their development financially and organisationally.
Community assets and enterprise
6. More often than not, at the heart of an empowered community is a community owned asset providing not only an independent, locally controlled income stream but also the confidence and energy which goes alongside a successful community enterprise. In recent years, the policy climate has cooled towards the community ownership of assets but despite this, several models have been shown to be highly effective and offer opportunities for expansion.
7. The Action Plan and the subsequent grant to DTA Scotland for a programme to promote asset transfer to communities is a welcome development. The crucial further element which needs urgent attention is the financial and organisational support available to community groups which wish to acquire and manage assets. There is much to be learned from effective practice in this regard elsewhere in the UK, including the operation of the Adventure Capital Fund in England.
8. A comprehensive review by government of progress in relation to community asset ownership, including proper scrutiny of the existing Land Reform legislation, is urgently required in order to reinvigorate this agenda.
Supporting the community sector
9. Community empowerment cannot be given or provided by external agencies but communities can be helped to become empowered by community development work, often called community capacity building. However, at the moment communities have no access to independent community capacity building resources. The limited support that does exist is within the CLD departments of councils and these are geared to the priorities of the local authority. The Action Plan – although it recognises the importance of community capacity building and proposes some high-level work to improve its effectiveness – does not address this fundamental issue. LPL believes that communities must have access to and control of community capacity building resources which are independent of government.
10. Re-engaging citizens with local and national government is essential if our democracy is to be re-vitalised. New ways need to be found to engage people locally with government and local issues. However, the Action Plan has little to say about the link between community empowerment and democratic renewal and proposes only a modest albeit welcome pilot initiative in participatory budgeting.
11. This is a huge missed opportunity to link community empowerment and democratic revival. Double devolution – the devolution of leadership and power beyond local authorities- must be pursued energetically as part of the programme to increase community empowerment. Community Councils will have a role to play in this. There are also opportunities to expand the current role of elected and selected citizen representatives across a range of civic institutions and community calls for action, already being piloted by some councils, must also be developed and extended. But the most potent opportunity lies in the delegated management and budgets for local services and LPL recommends that a programme of pilot projects should be developed with a view to introducing a national policy for delegated local services.
Communities and sustainable development
12. Empowered communities will be at the heart of successful policies to tackle global climate change and achieve environmental justice and there is a growing imperative to refocus on local action and solutions. There is a growing wealth of experience of communities coming together to take action on climate change in a wide variety of ways including the control and ownership of renewable energy production. This experience needs to be captured and extended much more widely in both urban and rural areas.
13. The Community Empowerment Action Plan is part of the journey towards more community empowerment in Scotland. These recommendations will take that journey further and faster which is essential if the economic, social and environmental issues facing Scotland’s communities are to be dealt with effectively.