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January 11, 2012

How we can tackle poverty

Just about the only thing that politicians can agree on at the moment is that 2012 will be very tough for many people. And for those who are already living with poverty, it is likely to get even harder. Scotland’s anti-poverty network – the Poverty Alliance – has just published the latest edition of its Review with a focus on how local assets can be used to tackle poverty.  Scottish Community Alliance contributed an article explaining why regeneration must be community led



The global financial crisis is making its impact felt across all parts of society (or at least 99% of it) but inevitably it will be our poorest communities who will feel the worst of it.  But even when the economy was strong, and when public expenditure enjoyed year on year growth, many of the most deep rooted inequalities faced by those living in our poorest communities were showing little sign of improvement.  Despite the best efforts of successive regeneration strategies over the past thirty years, evaluation of their long term impact has consistently flagged up that any success has been, at best, limited while many of the disadvantages these initiatives were specifically designed to tackle have actually became more pronounced.  But despite the mounting evidence that these regeneration strategies have been pointing in the wrong direction and achieving little in the way of positive and lasting change, a form of sustained and collective amnesia seems to have prevailed amongst policy makers in respect of learning from the lessons of the past. As a result, official regeneration policy over many years has persevered with variants of the same top-down approach, focusing largely on physical regeneration and driven by the public sector in the hope that the private sector will eventually find sufficient traction and the incentive to finish the job.

But now, at last, it looks as if the Government’s obsession with top down regeneration is coming to an end. In its recent policy paper – Towards a Sustainable Future – the Scottish Government appears to acknowledge that previous approaches to regeneration have either simply failed to deliver the desired outcomes or, because of the fundamentally changed economic circumstances within which regeneration now has to take place, these approaches are effectively no longer fit for purpose.  The financial climate and in particular the long term constraints now biting into public spending budgets mean that the traditional top down public sector led approach is simply no longer an affordable option.  And the absence of public sector funding to pump prime investment opportunities, combined with the slump in land values, means that regeneration is no longer attractive to the private sector.

Whether this change of tack has come about because the Government has finally recognised the futility of pursuing approaches that have consistently failed in the past or whether it is because circumstances have conspired against them, is not entirely a moot point.  Although the Government now seems prepared to countenance a different approach to regeneration, one which is bottom up and community led, the implications for government, both local and national,are highly significant if this change in direction of government policy is to be successful.  It is important therefore that the Government is wholly committed to this new approach and recognises the full implications of what it means. Although the resource implications of community led regeneration are not insignificant, as much as anything else this approach implies a fundamental change in the culture of government, both at a local and national level, and new ways of thinking about communities and what they are capable of achieving. If Government is a reluctant conscript to the idea of community led regeneration, it is unlikely to succeed.

The fundamental assumption underpinning most regeneration effort in the recent years seems to be that it is the principle responsibility of the state, both national and local government working together, to deliver solutions to the complex challenges facing our most disadvantaged communities. It is this particular assumption that now needs to be laid to rest if the challenge of how to deliver successful community-led regeneration is to be met.

A community-led approach to regeneration is one where the emphasis in terms of the shape and direction of the regeneration process shifts from being determined principally by external stakeholders (local government, public agencies) to being determined principally by internal stakeholders (local people).  Regeneration strategies in the past have typically incorporated some degree of community involvement with the aim of providing local people with an opportunity to feed into the process and to have their voices heard. Essentially, the role of the community in previous regeneration strategies has been primarily consultative and passive in nature.  Community-led regeneration demands a much more proactive contribution from local people and as such it is not necessarily an approach that will suit all communities from the outset.

Community-led regeneration can take many different forms and these will largely be determined by the local context.  However, where a community led approach has been successful there are likely to be a number of features that can be observed in each instance:

one or more local organisations playing a leadership role within the community and has the capacity to provide support to a wide range of less formal community activities

significant assets under community ownership or control

community owned enterprises generating an independent income stream

a locally conceived community plan or ‘charter’ which identifies the short, medium and long term priorities for action as determined by local people 

a level of engagement with external stakeholders which reflects a sense of genuine partnership and mutual respect

an absence of top down initiatives driven unilaterally by public agencies

Above all, community led regeneration requires significant culture change on all sides. Communities need to realise that it is no longer an option to assume that it is the responsibility of the public sector to meet all of their needs or to ‘resolve’ many of the problems that they face. Public sector agencies need to realise that it is neither appropriate nor realistic for them to imagine they should seek to be doing this.  In essence, community-led regeneration requires the relationship between the state and communities to be recalibrated so that there is a much greater sense of mutual respect and equity of status. This aspect was recently reinforced by the Christie Commission who looked at the future delivery of public services. The report argues that the public services of the future must be built around people and communities and highlights the importance of co-producing services with local people rather than delivering to them. The report concludes that , “people’s needs are better met when they are involved in an equal and reciprocal relationship with professionals and others, working together to get things done.”

Examples of community led regeneration can be found in many different parts of the country –  from the island based community buy outs where local people have assumed control over virtually every aspect of community life (Isle of Eigg, Isle of Gigha, South Uist) to more urban communities where various combinations of development trusts and community based housing associations have acquired control and ownership over a wide range of assets and enterprises and where local people are now instrumental in shaping their own futures (Renton, Neilston, Easterhouse).   Historically, issues of urban and rural poverty have been treated by Government within distinct policy silos. While this might have been appropriate in the context of the top down models of old, community led regeneration offers real opportunities for much closer integration of effort to be developed  – indeed there are many principles and practices that have underpinned successful regeneration in rural Scotland that could and should be transferred into the urban context.  

At the heart of community led regeneration is the notion that it is about redefining the nature of the relationships between a local community and the world about them.  In this respect it is worth considering the transformational impact that the acquisition of land, and in particular the land on which a community lives, can have.  When the community of Eigg finally took the step to free itself from being subjected to the whims of an absentee and disinterested feudal landowner, a wave of energy, creativity and passion was unleashed from within the local population that today seems to be unstoppable. Prior to taking the final step towards owning their island (and a sense of control over their future) the community had showed none of this passion or interest in their collective future.  There is now a sound body of evidence stretching back over twenty years that indicates that this shift in the relationship between people and the land they live on can generate local energy like nothing else – regeneration begins to take care of itself.   The fact that not every community is an island does not negate the fact that owning land or other forms of community asset and taking control over different aspects of community life can galvanise local people in unforeseeable ways and unlock a hitherto untapped human resource. 

Indeed there are many close parallels between the experience of a remote island community such as Eigg and any one of hundreds of disadvantaged urban communities. For the absentee feudal landlord, substitute the urban local authority delivering public services within a traditional municipalist framework. Both are equally disempowering for the people who live under these paternalistic regimes. For a community land buy-out substitute the formation of a community led housing association and the purchase of the land and housing stock from the city council. Both are equally empowering for the local people involved and there is now plenty of evidence to support the argument that with appropriate external support, both models of community led regeneration, albeit in very different physical environments can produce the most stunning results.  

Despite the prevailing wind of regeneration policy having blown in the opposite direction for so many years, nonetheless many fine examples of community led regeneration have emerged across the country.  They all share a story in common with each other which describes many years of struggle in order to get to the stage of development that they are now at. In particular, and without exception, the community leaders involved would, in part at least, ascribe that struggle to varying degrees of opposition encountered from across a range of external stakeholders. While there may be some merit in the argument that the process of engaging in a struggle of some sort can forge a deeper level of commitment in the long term, the fact remains that community led regeneration has evolved as it has, in spite of the attitude and behaviour encountered from external stakeholders rather than because of them. 

In many respects, given the history of regeneration in this country this oppositional behaviour that communities have encountered is entirely predictable. The state has hitherto assumed that its principal job was to ‘fix’ whatever the problem was and any suggestion from local people that perhaps the solution lay in a different direction ran counter to the received wisdom. This state sponsored resistance to the idea of communities taking responsibility for resolving their own issues, is further exacerbated in part by the overall size of the public sector in this country, and in part by the degree to which local government has become increasingly centralised through successive reorganisations and consequently more remote from the communities it is supposed to serve. 

It is worth noting however, that in the Highlands and Islands, a particular approach to strengthening communities has been pursued by economic development agency, Highlands and Islands Enterprise.  HIE work in the belief that the economic and social development of the region are inextricably linked and as such have developed a modus operandi of getting alongside communities to help them play their full part in the regeneration of the region.  Although the effectiveness of HIE’s approach to strengthening communities attracts widespread acclaim, for whatever reason it has not been pursued elsewhere in the country.

Consequently, although perhaps to a lesser extent in the highlands and islands, there remains a very significant barrier in the way of delivering widespread and successful community led regeneration. And that is the dominant culture and prevailing mind-set within the agencies of the public sector.

In those parts of the country where community led regeneration has been successful, there is a compelling  argument to be made that the process should not have been as difficult to achieve or as costly in human terms as it has turned out to be.  Nor should the whereabouts of the successful examples be as randomly haphazard and dependent on the fortuitous presence of key individuals or local circumstances.  If the Government’s new regeneration strategy is to place an emphasis on community led regeneration, it will be essential that a more systematic and strategic means of achieving this end is identified.  It won’t be cheap and it won’t be easy – particularly for those who will need to reappraise their beliefs and attitudes towards the community sector –  but it will build local resilience where it matters most and it may help to ameliorate some of the worst impacts of the financial crisis that is spreading across Europe and beyond.