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April 22, 2015

Participation is the name of game

If empowerment has become an overused word in recent years, participation may be soon be challenging it for the top slot in the jargon charts, courtesy of the Community Empowerment Bill. The new rights that communities will have to participate in areas previously considered off limits to local people, are significant. It would be interesting to know whether the case of Nairn River Community Council’s recently thwarted attempt to take over some basic council functions would have succeeded if the Bill was already in place.



Stuart Findlay

A FLAGSHIP scheme to return power to local communities could be scuppered by red tape, it has emerged.

The Community Challenge Fund (CCF) was launched by Highland Council in 2013 to allow work currently carried out by the council to transfer into local hands.

Nairn River Community Council has been working on proposals to take over grass-cutting and grounds maintenance in the town for the past two years but its plans look dead in the water after a council official told them any project costing £12,500 a year would need to go out to tender.

It would leave the volunteer-run group and others across the Highlands trying to take over local services competing against professional firms for jobs.

Council depute leader David Alston, who chairs the local authority’s CCF group, said he had not been told about the threshold amount and vowed to look into it.

“I was not aware of procurement rules leading to that threshold and I will personally investigate it,” he said.

“It may have come from the procurement department of the council who saw it as an issue as there would come a point where it becomes difficult to transfer a service to a community without going through the usual process.”

Nairn River estimated its project would cost well in excess of the fund’s threshold amount and now fear it cannot go forward.

Community councillor Simon Noble helped take it forward and said there had been several positive meetings with council officials during the past two years. He added they were aware of how much the group’s plans would cost and were assured they would be able to implement them using the CCF.

“A number of communities will have thought this fund would be brilliant for them, not knowing they will end up against professional firms,” said Mr Noble.

“It is hard to believe there is a strong political will to achieve community empowerment, they have clearly not attempted to remove the obstacles. The indications are this fund is not a serious policy because it cannot be implemented in any kind of serious way.”

Nairn River chairman Tommy Hogg was similarly aggrieved.

“It is very disappointing, we feel as if

they have been stringing us along. The £12,500 figure was never mentioned and we would have been looking for well above that, you’re talking treble the amount,” he said.

“We are not happy that it took two years to come to this conclusion, a lot of work went into it at our end. Why couldn’t we have been told about this sooner?

“For the figure they are saying, once you factor in the tools, equipment and overheads you would be talking about a couple of weeks of work for two or three men. It’s just not viable.”

The CCF is designed to support community empowerment by allowing local groups to take control of services currently provided by the council. The fund is used to cover the costs of transferring the services and for a budget to run them.

A total of £1 million a year is being set aside by the local authority for the fund.

“The procurement process the council operates makes it virtually impossible for a group like ours to take this on,” added Mr Hogg.

“We wanted this so we could make Nairn look as nice as possible for ourselves and for visitors. I have been listening to what people have been saying for years and there was a real need for it to be taken forward but unfortunately, the town is the one that will suffer.”