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November 18, 2009

Some observations from south of the Border

One of the delegates at the aforementioned land reform seminar was a researcher who is closely involved in the Community Land Trust movement.  In a personal blog she highlights some striking contrasts between what she heard at the seminar and her experience of the community sector in England – in particular its relationship with government.  Perhaps it’s not so bad up here after all.

Jennifer Aird

Recently I was privileged enough to attend an extremely significant seminar discussing the future of land reform in Scotland. The event was hosted by Local People Leading……

….It felt very different to community sector meetings I have attended in England. I think the difference was the idealism, the faith that an abstract piece of legislation (Land Reform Act) could change lives. And such expectations! Expectations that politicians would deliver what was needed! I think someone actually bemoaned the lack of ‘political vision’. It is a long time since I  heard anyone in the community sector even referring to the possibility that there could be such a thing as political vision.

People I work with in England don’t expect anything from the government or from politicians. This is how bad it has become. Westminster seems remote to most of the country, and is now tarnished by so many scandals. The contrast really struck home to me the lack of faith we have in our London politicians to do anything they say they will. How much power do they have, anyway? Hazel Blears really seemed to believe what she said about communities, yet residents in her constituency of Salford have been scandalously treated by the City Council, and her public support was insufficient to progress a proposed community buy-out of a hospital site in Stroud. How can we trust our ‘democratic’ institutions – when they produce men who announce quite publicly that taxpayers (peasants?) are simply jealous of their vast estates?

In Scotland, on the other hand, there is a feeling that the devolved government is more accountable, more responsive. It is newer, younger, less tainted by scandal. The first Labour government won on the basis of many promises to resolve longstanding injustices and reform land tenure. As a result there are now very high expectations. It is important that these expectations are not frustrated. ……

However if there is one thing we have learned in England, it is that you don’t need to wait for permission to take action – you could be waiting a long time. Yes, land reform is important. Yet it is more likely to happen as the result of a groundswell of unstoppable community successes that show how urgently it is needed. Society does not change to fit legislation, legislation changes to reflect society.

…….I understand the need to change the system. For the Scots the history is present. It is not remote, in the past, but something that is still felt, that still hurts. But in trying to repair past injustices, taking on long, slow battles over points of principle, are we missing out on smaller, easier wins? I felt that all the resources to achieve a brighter future were in that room, or represented in that room. Do we really need local government or politicians? Let’s get on and show what is possible, then wait for them to catch up! They soon will, if it’s popular and successful…..and then they’ll appear for that photo opportunity!