August 25, 2020
Rightly or wrongly, I’ve long assumed that the unions representing public sector workers have taken a broadly negative view of the community empowerment agenda on the basis that it carries an implicit threat to public sector jobs and the terms and conditions that they have fought hard to safeguard. Which is why a recent paper by Dave Watson, former head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON caught my eye. Writing for the Jimmy Reid Foundation, Dave lays out his ideas for how we could be Building Stronger Communities. Seems I’ve been labouring under a false assumption.
To read the full paper published by Jimmy Reid Foundation – click here
- The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of strong communities, supporting and looking out for each other. This paper looks at how communities of place have been undermined by austerity and make the case for a comprehensive programme to rebuild communities as the building block of a more equal, democratic, healthier and sustainable society.
- Most of us have a vague notion of what we mean by our community. It is usually recognised as a community of place – our village, town or part of a city. There are also communities of interest or identity which join us by our hobbies, work, religion and other interests, which often have no territorial relationship. Communities demand a sense of shared obligation and commitment, something both emotional and practical.
- Austerity has undermined many of the local institutions that bind our communities together. Cuts to our libraries, community learning, youth work, day centres and grants to voluntary organisations have all contributed to a weakening of local communities. These cuts impact adversely and more acutely on the most disadvantaged individuals, communities and groups.
- A key concept in this paper is that of social infrastructure. The Scottish Government reports on a related concept, ‘social capital’. Social infrastructure relates to the physical conditions that determine whether personal relationships can flourish. When social infrastructure is robust, it fosters contact, mutual support, and collaboration among friends and neighbours. When degraded, it inhibits social activity, leaving families and individuals to fend for themselves. We look at a wide range of initiatives that can strengthen social infrastructure including, good housing, libraries, leisure facilities, voluntary organisations, community ownership and the role of planning.
- Communication technologies and social media, in particular, can strengthen and weaken social infrastructure. At its worse, it creates insular ‘echo chambers’. At its best, it directs us to physical spaces that everyone can access and enables ‘Groupsourcing’ fast responses to local need. This also depends on connectivity which can be limited and unequal in many communities.
- The governance of public services in Scotland is one of the most centralised in Europe. We make the case for national government to focus on setting frameworks, leaving the delivery of services to local democratic control. Local integrated services should be based around community hubs in recognisable communities of place. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of local services and the workers who deliver them – we should ‘Build Back Better’ based on the principle of subsidiarity.
- There is a wealth of evidence that place impacts on health and wellbeing and contributes to creating or reducing inequalities. Sufficient social infrastructure helps tackle isolation and improves physical and mental health. This includes how we design communities and create integrated local health and care services.
- Scotland’s high streets and town centres were struggling even before the pandemic with five stores a week closing. We look at the various initiatives to repurpose our town centres in Scotland and across the UK and the proposals from the retail employers and trade unions. Community Wealth Building should be at the core of the measures needed to rebuild local economies, based on wellbeing and inclusion. We need to rethink our town centres as places where people live and work, not just shop, although that will remain important. This requires a much larger regeneration programme that redevelops redundant retail spaces and car parks into homes, workplaces, community hubs and social spaces.