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May 7, 2014

Manage those tensions – the Creetown way

Some of the thinking in COSLA’s interim report implies fundamental change to the culture and structure of the relationship between communities and the local state. If this is ever to happen, they need to find traction on the ground.  In recent editions, we’ve published a series of short articles by PhD student, James Henderson, which try to capture some of the nuances in the often complex tensions between community anchor organisations and the centralising tendencies of public sector agencies. Perhaps the authors of COSLA’s final report should pay a visit to Creetown.


The bus from Dumfries to Galloway takes the busy A75 in its unhurried stride, eventually touching the waves of the Solway Firth at Wigtown Bay, then shadowing the coastline up through the small village of Carsluith, and onto its larger neighbour Creetown (population c.680); the two together and hills and small settlements beyond form the old parish of Kirkmabreck (population c.1000). Stepping out onto the old high street at Creetown conjures up times past, with the village having taken shape in the 1800s. Yet, this is no country retreat rather a working village built on employment in the parish’s granite quarries from the 1850s onwards. The quarries are now closed, and the last local employer of size – the Solway Steel works – shut too in 2012, but the Creetown Initiative, a community anchor organisation, remains hard at work and committed to a longer-term vision of sustainability for their community.

As with my two earlier articles, on Northmavine Community Development Company (NCDC) in Shetland and Govanhill Housing Association (GHHA) in Glasgow, the Creetown Initiative shows all the hallmarks of a community anchor: being community-led and concerned for local community interests (mission); seeking financial independence and strength to pursue that mission; and undertaking complex, multi-purpose working across local economic development, community building, service provision, and community leadership/advocacy.

And, as with those earlier articles, it’s how the Initiative works with the public sector and wider state that is my focus. NCDC and GHHA have benefitted from longer-term working relationships, if not necessarily always consistent, with the local and central state, while Creetown Initiative’s success has been built on its ability to access successfully significant levels of funding and resources from a range of largely national sources – central government, public bodies and some philanthropic trusts. This is not to say that the Initiative doesn’t have productive relations with the local authority (indeed it receives a small amount of core funding from Dumfries and Galloway Council currently), nor that it doesn’t generate earned income itself (it earns through consultancy and development work), but that it is its ability to access this much larger body of funding and investment that has been crucial to its extensive economic and social activities in Creetown. In so doing, the Initiative’s work has turned my attention to thinking about what would happen if public sector and community sector worked together for ‘the local economy’, as well as service provision; and as an alternative to the public sector being focused on economic and service development through the ‘same old, same old’ of centralisation and ‘efficiency’ via economies of scale.

Local staff and volunteers at the Initiative generate a rich picture of their community: ‘mixed’, with strong working class roots from the old granite quarries; but also with many ‘incomers’ seeking to enjoy rural life – running ‘lifestyles businesses’ or come to retire. They flag up, too, that many people struggle to make a decent living, with earnings low and many either self-employed, working part-time or unemployed. There is a seeming paradox here, for while Rural Scotland in Focus 2012 notes the region (and Southern Scotland more generally) as economically vulnerable – with declining employment levels and many economically vulnerable towns – and facing both an ‘ageing’ and declining (working-age) population; in fact a recent report pointed to approximately a third of workers in the region earning below the Living Wage (the highest level in Scotland). Yet Dumfries and Galloway also scores as highly as anywhere on the Scottish mainland within the Office for National Statistics’ Personal well-being statistics. Those working for the Initiative clearly value the community life, but were likewise concerned for its future; in particular, given the lack of opportunities for young people, support and housing need for older people, a lack of local employment and related poverty, and fears of families moving out and leaving the village a ‘tumble-town’.

Crucially, however, local morale hasn’t collapsed, in fact quite the reverse: diverse sources – local authority planning documents and estate agent brochures – specifically recognise Creetown as an ‘active community’. Early community stirrings to action, from over a decade ago, include the establishment of the Creetown Heritage Museum and the Creetown Country Music Festival: the latter running for ten years until 2010, winning a Visit Scotland award in 2004, and bringing thousands from around the globe to visit and perform. The Initiative’s first project, in 2001, was a joint management agreement with Forestry Commission Scotland of the local Balloch Wood, and this has continued since through a series of environmental, public art and community participation projects as the Balloch Wood Community Project. Employment, in 2006, of Andrew Ward as the local project worker marked the start of very significant growth since, and the Initiative has accessed a range of public and philanthropic funding: over £1m in the last seven years.

Managing these diverse sources, has allowed the organisation – now with five FT and four PT staff, a hands-on-hands Board, and a significant pool of local volunteer support – to generate a complex, skilled interweaving of initiatives that include:

•          environmental and conservation: community woodlands, the local river, wildlife zones

•          village regeneration: the local park, the town square, an all-weather sports surface

•          community arts: with the primary school, young people and the wider village

•          community events and festivals: many and varied – musical, social, for young and old

•          public art projects: increasing numbers including Cree Baby and recently Ferry-Bell Tower

•          community hall: under development, and to act also as a training facility e.g. for the Duke of Edinburgh Award programme

•          local transport: improving access through Creetown car and scooter clubs

•          ‘green infrastructure’: energy auditing, cycle project and promotion, a community market

•          community infrastructure: development of a football pavilion, bowling club refurbishment.

The Initiative has worked across the different local ‘constituencies’: other community organisations – such as Kirkmabreck Community Council, football club(s), Creetown Bowling Club – and developed the Creetown Building Preservation Trust (with other organisations) to own/manage the community hall; (extensive) community-wide consultation work on the village hall, park regeneration and now a micro-hydro-electric project; joint-working on projects with the local primary school, and, joint-working with local/micro-business on activities and events, in particular the Creetown Gem Rock Museum.

As the range of projects, the numbers of local staff and activists/volunteers, and the extent of funding has grown, so a wider synergy has resulted; one where the many activities support each other and generate shared economic, social and environmental benefits. The key local ‘industry’ of tourism gains from the environmental improvements and the richness of community life, but without coming to dominate. The focus on the three-pronged approach of local economic developments, service provision and community building continues apace. The Initiative undertakes consultancy work with third and public sector organisations in the region to build its own financial stability. It is working to develop a micro-hydro turbine in the local burn, which will significantly boost the organisation’s core income and enable it to invest in community projects – net income anticipated to be almost £20k initially, rising to £190k after 15 years as the loan is paid off. There are plans, too, for a community enterprise centre through community ownership of the old Barholm Arms on the high street, which will provide retail space for local crafts people, a bunkhouse for back-packers, and workshops for rent. The Initiative is active, too, within the Dumfries & Galloway Farmers and Community Markets Association (and running its own monthly market) which promotes community markets across the region to support local tourism, local health and local food production.

This is still ‘early days’, and the scale of activity remains constrained by funding and investment, yet the Initiative’s broad approach, illustrates the effectiveness of community anchors in coordinating complex activities that grow the local economy – one with economic, social and ecological benefits. Indeed, the Initiative is now active in supporting local economic and social developments in four other places in the region, including a community farm in Crocketford.

Such a focus on ‘local economy’ is not, however, a key concern of the current orthodoxy of centralisation and economies of scale. For example in Dumfries and Galloway, a scan of the region’s Proposed Local Development Plan (LDP) suggests a particular focus on concentrating and centralising economic development, housing and services to Dumfries and Galloway’s more ‘urban’ areas to the east: the ‘regional capital’ of Dumfries, larger towns of Annan, Gretna and Lockerbie, and the related ‘M74 corridor’. I would argue, too, that the highly controversial (actual and planned) large scale developments of wind-farms across south-west Scotland, privately-owned and offering limited community benefits, is far from a ‘community-agreed and -owned’ renewable energy strategy concerned for local economic and social development and interests.

This is not to say that the LDP pays no heed to the wider region. Nor that such a centralisation is unique, but instead part of a larger pattern of centralisation across both urban and rural Scotland, and the UK domestic market (and globally), and one that creates an uneven development in which there will be clear ‘winners’ and ‘losers’; those communities to be well-resourced and those that will be marginalised. Several at the Initiative recognised such a wider economic and political ‘marginality’, pointing to their region’s lack of the political muscle (in comparison to urban areas) needed to wrestle: suitable investment for community-led regeneration and a suitable financial ‘playing field’ and support for rural businesses. And, I would add a suitably agreed regional framework for local renewable energy development (hydro and wind) built around community ownership/benefits.

Yet such a centralisation, and a related prioritisation of ‘economies of scale’, is not the only broad strategy available. There are definite signs of alternative ‘decentralist’ approaches and thinking on the horizon, as has been flagged-up by the Scottish Community Alliance e-bulletin in recent months and now by COSLA’s Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy: interim report; with the latter pointing to the need for genuinely local decision-making on resources and services. One fresh approach to public services in England, developed by Bromsgrove & Redditch and Stoke City Councils, and similarly community sector body Locality, is that of putting emphasis on local decision-making and coordination (a ‘local by default’), and keeping the focus on the purposes of local people; so on ‘effectiveness’, rather than on targets and ‘efficiency’ through central control. Likewise, the work of the New Economics Foundation has highlighted the value of focusing on the local economy, and supporting a local multiplier effect through its strategy of Plugging the leaky bucket; with both the community sector and public sector having key roles here. Within Scotland, this concern for local economy, and the role of both public and community sectors in developing it, is increasingly being highlighted too, for instance: in relation to local food production and distribution, as per the Fife Diet’s Manifesto; and in the Reid Foundation’s Common Weal given its recognition of the importance of ‘ownership’ – social/community, public and private (domestic) – in economic and social development.

There are then alternative decentralist models to funding, investment and development on offer which can become part of serious efforts to tackle uneven development (inequalities) in Scotland. Success, however, requires both a capable community sector and a shift in public sector/state culture, strategy and patterns of investment. The complex workings of the Creetown Initiative in leading and coordinating local economic and community development illustrate that such a community sector is certainly achievable. Further, a shift in government thinking away from centralisation, and towards a national community sector strategy, and in regional community-focused investment bodies – like Highlands & Islands Enterprise – across Scotland, would provide a crucial step-change in opportunities for action. While for the local state and public sector, surely it’s time to explore significant investment in the ‘local economy’ and in ‘local-by-default’ service provision, and to learn to draw on the strengths of the community sector in coordinating such local development.

James Henderson is a researcher and has (finally) submitted a PhD at Heriot-Watt University on the community sector.