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October 4, 2022

Does wisdom come with age?

It’s the trap that no one tells you about until you fall into it. It’s when the long years of working in the same field teach you that the latest policy ‘excitement’ is likely to have as little substance as all the previous ones. And yet you still have to choose between engaging with the new excitement or emitting that sigh of world weary cynicism that reveals you’ve seen it all before. Outgoing SCDC chief, Fiona Garven, manages to fall somewhere in between with this blog assessing the potential of the latest buzz in the policy world – community wealth building.

Fiona Garven, SURF

Fiona’s blog forms part of a wider set of reflections on the recent SURF conference on Community Wealth Building contained in the SURF Journal

“If you are sitting in this room thinking you’ve seen it all before then you are probably in the wrong job”. Blimey, called out and it’s not even coffee time. Just as well I’m retiring (ish).

C’mon though, throw us a bone. It’s hard not to feel a sense of frustration when you’ve been round the block a few times and seen several centrally led projects, programmes, initiatives, strategies, whatever you want to call them, come and go over the last few decades. One thing is notable, they arrive in a flourish but, not unlike old rock stars, it’s fair to say that most of them just fade away.

We’ve had AMDs, APTs, SIPs, SIMDs, LECs, URCs and CPPs.

We’ve had social strategies, the community programme, the urban programme, wider role, better neighbourhoods, total place and town centre regeneration.

We’ve had the language of social capital, co-production, strengths based, assets based and empowerment.

We’ve got outcomes and outputs, principles and policies, standards and frameworks, bling bong and ping pong.

And I’ve forgotten some…

Now we have place based approaches, 20 minute neighbourhoods and community wealth building.

To be fair, all of these things have been, and are, well intentioned. They are backed up with earnest and well-constructed policy directives setting out how we will reduce inequality and make lives better, how we can foster our own resources so that Scotland can be a good place to live and work for everyone. The words are the right ones. There have been pockets of progress and hints of hope.

But when we look back, how do we measure success at scale? What has really happened over decades of those initiatives for those still at the sharp end? What have we learned from all these worthy intentions? I would argue very little, otherwise we wouldn’t still be here chewing the fat, we’d have worked ourselves out of a job.

The main focus for discussion at the SURF conference was community wealth building, relatively new terminology in Scotland. I have struggled to properly understand what it means – simplistically it seems to mean more money going into local areas, creating local supply chains and local employment, leading to better outcomes and improved places – all unarguable as far as I’m concerned.

But I still can’t quite pin down what we mean by ‘community’ – is it the community sector, or the entire local population? And wealth – is it about wealth creation or wealth distribution? Or both? Is it only financial and economic wealth or are we including a wealth of other, more intangible assets such as opportunity, social connectedness, health and environment? What do we really believe counts the most?

What is a more recent phenomenon in regeneration (and other) policy is the attention that has been drawn to the contribution and role played by the community sector, a role now seen as critical in the pursuit of many of our national outcomes. I am one of the first to welcome these discussions. It is a sign of great progress that, at last, we in the community sector are sitting round the table and working alongside government and public sector colleagues in forging a better future for Scotland.

But, and it’s a big but, where I get very nervous is when the pendulum swings to communities being ‘the solution’. Much has been made from the critical role communities played in in the pandemic, acting swiftly to protect and support some of the groups of people in society most at risk. We are currently facing one of the most turbulent times in modern history. We have continuing deep inequalities in Scotland,  a war in Europe, a climate emergency, a pandemic still lurking, a cost of living crisis and a ticking health and social care time bomb.

As Martin Avila very articulately pointed out, it cannot be ‘communities’ who fix those structural problems. Access to care, welfare, decent housing, fair work and fair pay is for our governments to provide.

Communities can, however, do remarkable things and the evidence of this is all around us, not least in the presentation from colleagues from Dunoon. Nearly every event online and offline includes stories and case studies of community initiatives, always popular and always getting the most applause. Whilst not providing solutions to structural issues, communities can and do provide opportunities for people to exert their own agency and engage in collective action, to act or campaign for the things important to them, to create social networks and develop ideas and initiatives designed to build many different forms of local wealth.

If we all recognise this, why, then, if it is about community wealth building does it still feel like top down driven policy speak? Why are the funding streams associated with Community Wealth Building still being awarded to the public sector and trickled down into ‘projects’ through small grants and bureaucratic processes? If the community is such a key partner, why are we not seeing investment being made directly into building community capacity and infrastructure, especially in the areas where it’s needed the most?

We know that community effort can make a significant positive impact on peoples’ lives, but it cannot be co-opted. It needs to grow and flourish from the ground up, driven by local aspirations and delivered on local terms – that is what is at the root of its success.

So, the key question was ‘what should SURF’s Community Wealth Building Network explore over the next year?’ For me, if Community Wealth Building is not to be just a slogan, or to go the way of ageing rocks stars, we need to;

Play the long game – stick with it, don’t import any new gimmicky ideas, it’s the principles that count, not the slogan.

Learn from the past – retrieve some of that institutional memory, build from our mistakes, don’t repeat them.

Invest in communities, don’t just talk about them.

And lastly, think carefully about the language we use and the impact it can have. How must it feel for people living in poverty to be told they live in a ‘thriving place’ or that a local policy is all about ‘community wealth’?

As Kevin P. Gilday so eloquently pointed out, excess can have a whole new meaning when it’s paired with the word ‘mortality’.