January 15, 2014
Respond if you can
Next Friday is an important staging post in Scottish Government’s plans to invest communities with new powers. 24th Jan is the deadline for responding to the consultation for the Community Empowerment Bill. Since its launch, the Minister and his civil servants have been putting in the miles, attending events the length and breadth of the country, explaining the thinking that lies behind these proposals. The Minister clearly believes this can be a game-changer. You can help shape this legislation.
A Briefing for communities from Scottish Communities Development Centre, Dec 2014
The Scottish Government has published a consultation on the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill. In the foreword to the consultation, Derek Mackay the Minister for Local Government and Planning describes community empowerment:
“at its heart about communities taking their own decisions about their futures, and improvingthings for families, friends and neighbours … taking action with access to all the resources available to them to develop their local economies, environment and culture.”
The draft Bill and consultation document is quite lengthy and, at times complex. Below we summarise some of its key points along with some of our thoughts on it. At the same time, we would encourage you to read the consultation document, and you can find a link at the end of this briefing.
What new rights would be introduced?
The Bill intends to give new rights to communities in two main areas:
• rights to acquire or use public land or buildings for community benefit, – this includes extensions and improvements to the existing community right to buy
• rights to initiate action to improve public services – in the draft Bill this is described as ‘community right to request to participate in processes to improve outcomes of service delivery’.
It also addresses some of the issues that can prevent local authorities and other public bodies engaging effectively with communities. For example, it includes:
• proposals to strengthen community planning by focusing more closely on outcomes, putting key roles and responsibilities on a statutory basis, and providing firmer scrutiny and audit
• greater clarity and transparency over which public assets are held for the ‘common good’ and which can be important to communities
• financial incentives for local authorities to deal more effectively with dangerous or defective buildings
• improvements to the provision and management of allotments
• powers for local authorities to have localised business rate relief schemes that could be to the advantage of communities
• better information and consultation over deciding outcomes and reporting on progress at national level.
Who would have these rights?
Rights to acquire or use property and other assets, or to express an interest in the right to buy would be available to ‘community bodies’ either as designated by Scottish Ministers (in other words, the government would decide), or a company that is governed by the community.
Rights to initiate action to improve public services are available to a wider range of community bodies than those above. They include community councils, and any organisation with a constitution that sets out its aims and purposes, its rules of membership, a description of the community it benefits, and a description of the benefit it provides. This is quite open and suggests that any community organisation with a constitution and membership would be entitled to initiate such action.
The draft legislation goes into detail about the processes that would apply to communities and public bodies in relation to these rights, and what appeals procedures, if any, would be available.
How might these rights help communities?
We would expect that most communities will welcome the provision in the draft Bill, whether they wish to acquire land, buildings or other assets for community benefit, or if they want greater attention to be paid to a community issue or opportunity. The ‘empowerment’ in the draft Bill is about giving communities an opportunity to set the agenda, and to be involved more actively in improving community conditions and the way services are designed and provided.
Should communities be concerned about any of the proposals?
Generally we believe that community organisations should welcome the proposals. However, for some communities there could be considerable obstacles to taking full benefit. These might include:
• Where communities do not recognise that they have these rights, community planning mayinvolve communities in identifying needs and issues, but not involve them in decision making
• communities that know they have the rights may not have the confidence, support or advice to use them – the draft Bill appears to require communities to have sound evidence of need and of their capacity to engage in order to make a request
• the possibility of conflict in communities, if different groups flag up different issues and priorities from the same locality
• better organised (and often more prosperous) communities benefiting at the expense of the more marginalised and ‘weaker’ communities
• some ‘assets’ of land and property might actually be liabilities which could tie community groups into unwelcome management problems or financial burdens
All this suggests that the communities that are most likely to benefit are those that have a sound network of active, inclusive local organisations that are seen as legitimate and accountable. Our view is that communities that do not have such a strong infrastructure should be able to call on advice and support to help them benefit from the new rights in the same way. As it stands, the Bill does not make provisions for this.
What happens next?
SCDC would encourage community groups to access the consultation document and respond to as many of the questions as possible. We would also like to know the views from communities (and those who support them) on what they think of the Bill’s proposals. We have created a short online
survey about the Bill’s proposals which are most relevant to community development in Scotland. These are not intended to replace the draft Bill’s own consultation questions which we encourage you to respond to. Our survey will simply allow us to get a better feel for how relevant the Bill’s
proposals are to the practitioners and communities we work with, something that will better inform our own response.
Our online survey can be accessed here and should only take a few minutes to complete.