December 14, 2011
Legislation must have impact
The Scottish Government may have created a rod for its own back by choosing to legislate on community empowerment. Some argue that it’s an area of policy more suited to being shaped by public debate and strategy rather than the law. Nonetheless it reflects a genuine commitment on the part of the SNP Government to move this agenda forward. In the words of the Cabinet Secretary, the Empowerment Bill must ‘make a real difference.’ Along with many others, the Alliance has submitted some ideas to Government for consideration before the formal consultation begins next year.
The Scottish Community Alliance’s response to the Scottish Government’s proposal to introduce the Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill
This response is informed by two key principles:
1. That community empowerment alters the nature and balance of two important sets of relationships
- between local people and the physical environment in which they live
- between local people and the power structures that relate to that community and which shape quality of life within it
2. That community empowerment requires the presence of a locally run organisation with the capacity to offer a degree of local leadership both internally and externally as well as to provide support to a wide range of less formal activity that takes places locally. The generic term for this role is a community anchor. The Alliance would draw attention to the section on page 8 of the response submitted by the Glasgow and West of Scotland Forum of Housing Associations.
The following proposals in relation to what the new Bill might contain are suggested on the basis that they would impact positively on the two sets of relationships as outlined above.
1. Communities need to know what assets are in the public domain and what plans public sector agencies have for them. There should therefore be a duty placed on every public body to publish, in plain English, an asset register and an asset management plan including any potential disposals. This duty should place a requirement on every public body to include a section in its asset management plan that specifically addresses policy and practical questions of asset transfer to community bodies. Audit Scotland recently discovered that while there had been an assumption that all local authorities were operating asset management systems. It transpired that many were not.
2. Using the asset registers and asset management plans (to be collated and held centrally by each CCP), community bodies should have the right to register an interest in being kept informed about any intention with regards to change of use or disposal of an asset. It is assumed that to take advantage of this right to know, it would place a minimal administrative burden on the community body (as compared to the community right to buy).
3. If a public body decides to dispose of an asset or introduce a significant change of use, the community body, having already utilised its right to know (and therefore will have been informed of the public body’s intentions) should have a pre-emptive right to buy or to try to retain the service by assuming responsibility for the management of the asset. The pre-emptive right to buy or to try would effectively embargo the public body’s proposals for a set period while the community body developed its business plan. With respect of the right to buy, this would represent an extension of the scope of the existing community right to buy legislation to include all land that is currently excluded by the Act
4. Public bodies hold many assets, not always fixed assets, that operated at less than 100% capacity and which therefore represent an opportunity for community bodies to take advantage of by expanding on current levels of usage. To instigate this requires a variation of both the right to know and a subsequent right to try. If the asset in question is not treated as a fixed asset by the public body it may not appear on the asset register. In this instance, a community body should have a right to know about current levels of usage of the asset in question (part of a building, partial use of a leisure facility, transport pool) and then have an opportunity to utilise a right to try which would involve assuming management responsibility for the service/asset in question
5. Where it can be demonstrated that an area of land or a building has become derelict or unused and is either causing an unacceptable degree of blight or frustrating the implementation of local planning priorities, a community body should have the right to instigate a compulsory purchase order against the owner (public or private).
6. Where a community body identifies an area of public service that it believes could be delivered in a more effective or cost efficient manner, the community body should be able to instigate a community right to challenge. The public body that has been challenged in this way has a duty to investigate the matter and to respond publicly. If the public body agrees with the basis of the challenge, the assumption is that the service in question would be put out to tender through the normal procurement process.
7. A number of responses submitted by Alliance members have proposed that there should be a general presumption in favour of community use of underutilised public land and that this should be reflected in a community right to challenge any public landowner. The is right to challenge should then be supported by community right to use if the landowner is unable to present a reasonable case for an alternative use.
8. Public bodies, other than local authorities, are restricted in their freedom to dispose of assets at less than market rate. This restriction is imposed by the regulations covering disposal that are set out in the Scottish Public Finance Manual. The bill needs to ensure that the SPFM is amended so as to permit Scottish Government bodies to dispose of assets at less than market value when the disposal is likely to contribute to economic development or regeneration; health; social well-being; or environmental well-being – in other words, to mirror the powers given to Scottish Local Authorities under the Disposal of Land by Local Authorities (Scotland) Regulations 2010.