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June 2, 2020

New Deal for Communities

Recently, this briefing highlighted a somewhat depressing predictability in the make-up of the Scottish Government’s Advisory Group on Economic Recovery. Nonetheless, when the Group put out a call for views, SCA was determined to submit a response in the hope of shifting the focus of the discussions towards a more community-focused recovery. No doubt every Tom, Dick and Harry from across the political spectrum will argue their own particular corner, but we’re hoping that our proposal for a £200m New Deal for Communities will attract some serious debate.


Call for Views : Advisory Group on Economic Recovery

NOTE: Due to the short time frame allowed for responses, Scottish Community Alliance has elected not to respond to the prescribed questions but instead has submitted this brief response which outlines our views on what recovery should look like.

Twin tracked interventions from top-down and bottom-up have shifted national consciousness. While the country has depended on the UK Government’s macro-interventions in the economy in order to retain jobs and businesses in the short term, it has simultaneously come to rely on countless and varied micro-interventions of the community and voluntary sector to deliver support and comfort to thousands of households and localities.

As a result of lockdown, we have all become intensely focused on the places in which we live. We have become more aware than ever before of the significance of our immediate locality – be that at the street level where informal, mutual aid initiatives have proliferated, or at wider neighbourhood level where responsibility for the provisioning of food and medicines and maintaining levels of social contact has been assumed by countless local voluntary groups.

We have come to rely on one another in a way that has shifted not just our levels of trust in each other as citizens, but also our relationship with the state and many of its key institutions. Instead of complaining about NHS waiting lists and demanding better services, our national focus is now to ‘Protect the NHS’. This marked growth in the national reserve of social capital represents a rare opportunity for the architects of economic recovery.

As the country transitions from emergency response into recovery, the scale of the damage that has been inflicted on the economy and the extent to which all sectors possess the necessary reserves and resilience to recover is, at this stage, largely unknown.

What is known however, is that many of our systems had a pre-existing vulnerability to shocks such as have been inflicted by this pandemic, and that while the immediate priority must be to recover from this crisis, the approach we adopt should build appropriate resilience into the system so that the impacts of predictable threats in the future (climate emergency, collapse of biodiversity, further pandemics, global conflicts) can be mitigated.

A national recovery based on locally rooted solutions. It is already clear that the countries around the world that have coped best with the pandemic are those that have both routinely invested in productive relationships with the value creators in society, and have recognised serving the public interest as their primary concern. Years of outsourcing public sector functions and a culture of privatisation in pursuit of best value efficiencies have systematically weakened our systems to the point where they have been unable to respond quickly and effectively to Covid.

Whatever economic stimulus the government is able to muster for this recovery, the quality of the subsequent investment decisions is as important as the quantity of that public investment. Think back to the ‘recovery’ from the economic crisis and how much of the QE investment was absorbed by banks rather than the real economy.

As an example of a country that has coped well with the pandemic’s impact, New Zealand had already moved towards implementing a ‘wellbeing budget’ and has explicitly promoted a ‘spirit of service’ and an ‘ethic of care’ across its public services. These sentiments are in accord with the current (albeit perhaps only transient) mood of national unity in Scotland and a level of consensual support for foundational services in this country such as health and education, and should be incorporated into the design of any recovery plan.

As other countries (Taiwan, New Zealand, Norway) have demonstrated, building effective levels of national resilience can only be achieved by investing firstly in the infrastructure of resilience at the scale of community. This will require a major reassessment of how national priorities are pursued and the re-localisation of many aspects of the foundational economy including our food systems, energy distribution and generation, local transport, social care provision, community health services and so on. Inevitably, new local governance arrangements will need to evolve to support the administration of these localised arrangements.

The New Deal for Communities

This proposal moves far beyond the ‘nice to have’ activities of communities that have perennially sat on the edge of mainstream economic activity in Scotland. The New Deal represents a fundamental rebalancing of Scotland’s economy so that community led solutions become our default modus operandi and sit alongside national and regional economic interventions with equal status.

The New Deal for Communities represents an initial bid for £200m of investment across a range of community-based activity. Detailed proposals are currently being worked up across different parts of the sector.

As an example of what this will consist of, and a demonstration of how such an intervention would address the multiple imperatives of tackling the climate emergency, injecting vital stimuli into our local economies and building local resilience, we propose a massive and universal extension of the domestic building retrofit programme. This work would be led by local anchor organisations (of which there are hundreds across Scotland), create local jobs with economic benefits being retained in the local economy and secure the active engagement of local people in achieving the national target to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2045.

In addition to new investment, the New Deal would seek to harmonise existing streams of public investment into communities from across Scottish Government and would look to:

  • build appropriate infrastructure to support the development of local food systems
  • establish local energy economies which match supply and demand for renewable energy, retain value in the local economy and reduce carbon emissions
  • secure the financial sustainability of a vital element (community anchor organisations) of the recovery plan infrastructure
  • grow levels of community ownership of land and buildings and thus release the well documented phenomena of collective creativity and entrepreneurism
  •  increase the number of community owned and cooperative enterprises
  •  build the circular economy from the bottom up
  • take action to restore loss of biodiversity through tree replanting and restoration programmes

There are already examples of all these activities operating in isolation across the country. The New Deal seeks to build on this experience with a significant roll out of what we know to be tried and tested approaches.

Facing up to the dual challenge of the pandemic and climate emergency. The world is likely to have changed profoundly and permanently as a result of the pandemic and any plan for recovery must reflect not just the new reality that we will inhabit but in addition, the even greater challenge presented by global climate breakdown. It follows therefore that the economic recovery plan must take a fundamentally different path from that which conventional wisdom might have suggested in the past.

Moreover, the composition and remit of the Advisory Group on Economic Recovery appears to be fundamentally flawed given the true scale of the task in hand. We would propose at the very least that the membership be extended to include a much broader base of expert opinion to reflect the scope and scale of the challenge it faces, with the remit and ambition of the group expanded accordingly. Given our proposal to implement a Growth Deal for Communities, an obvious omission on the Advisory Group is from the community sector and in order to rectify this we would be pleased to contribute some names for consideration.

May 2020