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January 15, 2014

Shape of things to come

There seems to be something approaching a consensus within government that many of today’s challenges can only be met if a different sort of relationship with communities can be fostered. Thus far, no one has been able to articulate precisely what this new arrangement should look like but even an acknowledgment that change is needed has to be seen as progress. SCA has been supporting a PhD student to research what it might look like. He’s written a short blog by way of introduction.


James Henderson

The public sector and community: time for a re-think

A cheery voice calling “Mr James, Mr James, breakfast …” brings me round: this however is no colonial boat heading into a fearful unknown, but fortunately the good humour of the stewardess on the freight ferry to Shetland. In fact, I have the rare luxury of a study trip to view the potential of ‘local community’ in action in remote Northmavine – a peninsula joined by a narrow neck of land (Mavis Grind) to the Shetland Mainland – and to see and hear about the work of the Northmavine Community Development Company (NCDC). 

This is one of three case-studies I’ve been undertaking as part of a research project for a PhD – the others being Creetown Initiative in Creetown in Dumfries and Galloway and Govanhill Housing Association in Govanhill in Glasgow – and so a chance to build a picture of the realities and possibilities of community action across urban, rural and remote contexts in Scotland.

The project is particularly timely given the developing policy here. The Christie Commission’s 2011 report has seemed to establish a crucial policy narrative within which long-term pressure on public sector budgets and demographic changes are generating a shift in thinking; in particular towards a focus on fundamental reform of public services, preventative approaches and developing roles for ‘community’. The current consultation on the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill is now indicating key areas for action including asset transfer and extension of the community-right-to-buy; a right for communities to participate in public service design and delivery; new provision for common good funds and extension of allotments under local authority control; and measures to strengthen community planning partnerships and the national performance framework. 

Intriguingly too, CoSLA’s recently launched Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy suggests potential for a shift in policy thinking in which communities could increase their role in broader local decision-making  for both ‘local services’ and ‘local issues’ – including local economic and social development perhaps?

I drive for about an hour to the north-east of Lerwick to find Northmavine; the parish is about 20 miles in length, north-to-south, and a mix of small dispersed settlements – of which Eshaness, Hillswick, North Roe, Ollaberry and Sullom are the most prominent – and of stunning wild hills, moors and voes. NCDC’s development worker Maree Hay sets the scene for me on the issues the community faces, pointing to: concerns over population with numbers dipping from almost 900 in the 1980s to below 800 currently; a buoyant Shetland economy means unemployment remains remarkably low, yet increasing centralisation to Lerwick and its surrounding districts means that locally-based employment in Northmavine has been declining; and, as for all remote communities, the costs of sustaining a minimum standard of living are simply much higher than in urban areas – up to 40% higher says a recent Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) report. No wonder then that the community is recognised as ‘fragile’ and targeted within Shetland Island Council’s (SIC) own Community Regeneration Policy.

One key response to these challenges over the last decade, and which has been taken forward by local people as activists, volunteers and staff – and with the active support of SIC and HIE – is the development of NCDC itself. Maree crucially makes the link to many of these same local people so that I can establish the interviews and visits needed over my three days here to grasp the full extent and complexity of what is being achieved. 

There is a growing and now extensive range of community-led activity including:

the development of a community-owned shop in Hillswick providing groceries, fuel and cash-machine

increasing levels of affordable family housing and other property for rent in the area

development across the parish of a network of community-owned ‘poly-crubs’ – poly-tunnels made to cope with the robust Shetland winds – for fresh vegetables, and of a small business providing these poly-tunnels to others

active support for local economic development through advice to local micro-business, initiatives at the local pier and marina, support for local tourism including a local music festival (‘Glusstonberry’), and now plans for a local enterprise hub

on-going community development activity and planning with task groups focused on housing, renewables, social enterprise/business and tourism.

Across all these initiatives NCDC can be seen as fulfilling the crucial role of a ‘community anchor’ in that it is: (1) community-led and owned – with a locally-elected board, a network of volunteers and activists, and a wider community dialogue and local plan; (2) multi-purpose and working for local economic and social development, supporting local service provision, and supporting local democratic participation and advocacy; (3) and it is increasing its ‘financial sustainability’ by building-up its levels of earned (trading) income – which in turn increases it ability to represent local community interests independently of the state.

NCDC can also be seen to be working through at least three distinctive forms of ‘community’ – these are of course inter-dependent and generate together what would seem to be the necessary complexity of local networks ‘to get things done’ –namely:

the local community sector: of more formalised local organisations including the five community halls and their committees, the community council, the Hillswick community shop and committee, the Ollaberry community coop and the local marina groups. 

informal community networks: of support, care and solidarity through networks of neighbours, friends and extended family.

local community groups: smaller community groups that can shift between the more formal and the informal – such as local sports groups, mother and toddler groups, older people’s groups and so on


“Mr James, Mr James, breakfast …” … to be frank I can’t face it on the home journey, it’s too choppy, but can still hold it together enough to reflect. Does the Northmavine experience have wider relevance to urban and rural mainland Scotland? 

My other study visits with Govanhill Housing Association and Creetown Initiative, and more generally other case-study work I’ve undertaken with 20+ community organisations – as development trusts, community housing associations and community health organisations – across Scotland over the last five years would indicate strongly that there is indeed a wider opportunity here. My ongoing study visits continue to bring to life the reality, the achievements and the commitment of those in the community sector and informal community networks … and in ways the books and policy documents won’t capture. As a researcher I keep returning to the experiences of those working on-the-ground to make sense of what’s happening and what might be possible.

I would suggest then that if those working within the public sector are to get to grips with the potential of ‘community’, and move on from project-based, short-term partnership-working to building genuinely-committed, long-term working relationships with the community sector and wider community – as illustrated by SIC and HIE in their joint-working with NCDC and Northmavine over the last decade – then such study visits with and/or shadowing of community sector colleagues, and not only staff but activists and volunteers too, have to be the starting point for a ‘journey of discovery’. It is through the insights that will be gained from such a journey that the public sector will be able to create the fundamental shift in its culture and organisational mind-set that is needed if it is to grasp the current policy opportunity. 

There is more to think through here as to what such a long-term public-community working relationship might ‘look like’, how the state can support its development and what could be achieved through it. So in two further articles I’ll seek to draw from the other case-studies on the community anchors in Creetown and Govanhill and learn more from what is already being achieved.

James Henderson is a researcher and about to submit his PhD. at Heriot-Watt University.