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June 27, 2012

Tough times

In highlighting aspects of the community sector, Local People Leading generally tries to focus on the positives.  But experience on the ground can be very different and as one supporter writes, it is becoming increasingly hard for community spirit to thrive in places where the impact of cuts in services and living standards more generally is being felt the most. His experience suggests that when times are tough, it’s all too easy for community spirit to evaporate.


A blog by A. Armstrong   –  Big society withering on the poorer branches? 

In this week’s East Fife Mail (circulation 10,621), two contrasting stories epitomise current mores.  

“Few communities can match ours when it comes to caring gestures” boasted the front-page lead.  Within hours of publishing a story about an injured puppy with two broken legs, over £1,600 had been raised for its veterinary treatment by SSPCA.   Local woman, Kelly Dewar described the reaction of local people as `just fantastic” and hoped to raise more. 

On other pages of the same paper, less upbeat reports noted the closing of two community institutions.

Leven Community Council, which has run for around 35 years, is to fold.  Declining attendance, too few people willing to become office-bearers,  general apathy combined with cuts in funding were the contributory factors cited by Secretary Jack Carrie.   

“It’s just accepted that if something needs done, somebody else will do it.  Plenty of people complain but they’re not willing to put themselves forward to help”. 

Elsewhere, the Leven Ladies Social Services Club held its last meeting, dwindling members meant it is unable to raise sufficient funds to pay its rent.  The Community Cinema, established around 2 years ago, also faces imminent closure mainly due to financial constraints.

These types of stories become more common.   Last week the respected Kennoway Area Tenants & Residents Association staved off closure by persuading one well-known local figure to step in as temporary secretary.   No community council now functions in Levenmouth (population 34,000 and, with the highest concentration of deprivation in Fife), while other community associations such as Levenmouth Communities Regeneration Group and a host of others have fallen by the wayside in recent times.

Do these contrasting stories illustrate the mentality of modern Scots?   People can still be sympathetic and kind-hearted, many individuals put in many hours of unpaid work to help worthy cause near or far from home, some might even take part in one-off fundraising exercise (even essentially unproductive walks and runs).   But society has become individualised round here – people engage by voting on television programmes like X-Factor, Strictly, they donate by transferring funds to the latest worthy charity appeal (with a bias towards animals) – they largely make gestures.

It seems only a rapidly dwindling band is prepared to invest much of themselves in community endeavours.    Has time and efforts become such scarce commodities that too few can spare too little?   Or is that modern society just doesn’t `get’ the role of civil society at the grassroots and see no relevance to their lives or aspirations?   Has their experience with other community institutions such as churches, local sports clubs, co-operative society , maybe even libraries and shops become such a distant memory that this tendency is visibly decaying before our eyes ?.    

Less than half voting for elected representatives is common so some are already disengaged.  For the rest, perhaps their community role is essentially getting the council to `sort something’. 

In a week following the sad attempts to reinforce a traditional idea of community through organising some artificial events (mainly in southern England to be sure), is this notion in terminal decline in Scotland?      

Mobilising volunteer involvement for local good work is a universal challenge – after 5 years of experience involved in a relatively effective civic-environmental group here, we know it’s a greater challenge in the more deprived corners of the country.   Our existence is precarious.  Despite many efforts to reach out in different ways to the local community, it’s the same small handful of individuals who keep the show running.   From conversations with others, we suspect it’s considerably easier to engage others in leafier or better-heeled communities.

Forget David Cameron’s vision of an active Big Society, what we’re seeing is the realisation of Margaret Thatcher’s paraphrased belief that `there’s no such thing as community`