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November 28, 2023

Two sides of the same coin

A fascinating conversation hosted recently by Community Land Scotland explored some of the many ways in which communities might celebrate their cultural heritage and to what extent that complex relationship between land and the people is truly understood – not just by those who live there but by the policy makers whose work can have such an impact on their lives. The flipside of this powerful portrayal of ‘community’ was articulated recently in an article by Rhoda Meek which might serve as a note of caution to anyone who feels tempted to take on a leadership role in their community.

Rhoda Meek, The National

IF the mood ever takes you to become the chair of an island development trust, can I recommend that you seriously consider something more relaxing and less fraught, like bomb disposal or crocodile training? I hear that those roles are also paid positions.

I’m only partly joking. An enormous amount is put on the shoulders of ­unpaid volunteers in rural and island communities. It is hard, often ­thankless work. The adage goes that you cannot please everyone all of the time – in these roles, you often please no-one most of the time. It’s good though, we’re told. It’s ­community empowerment.

Politicians and local authorities are ­another group with the same problem when it comes to pleasing people, and they love the phrase “community empowerment”. The go-to solution for supporting rural communities is to do a large consultation on a topic, take little heed of the results and follow up with a plan of things they were probably going to do all along.

There is ­usually capital funding attached to the plan which will “address” the topic. If communities have the staff and expertise AND play the game correctly, they get the funding. Thus, the funders conclude that our communities have been ­empowered. Job done.

Not so fast. That might be a very neat ­solution for ticking boxes, but it is a ­solution that asks a huge amount of ­communities. They become the delivery arm. And the legal responsibility rests ­almost entirely on the shoulders of volunteers. Volunteers who, in most places, are burnt out and fraying at the edges.

Now, of course, there is a role for ­voluntary groups and local committees, as there has been since the dawn of ­people living in close proximity, but there is a line where volunteer willingness ­begins to enable statutory neglect.

That line is moving ever more in the wrong direction. As Tiree ­Development Trust, the community is running, ­building and maintaining a huge ­number of our own services including a fuel ­station, ­business units, a broadband service, two harbours and an upcoming ­housing ­project whilst simultaneously trying to find ways to solve the desperate lack of childcare. I discovered last week that the campervan waste point is also in our ­portfolio. That’s to name a few.

Tiree is fortunate to have a wind ­turbine which provides income for the community trust. It is an asset we have leveraged to great effect, thanks to a dedicated (volunteer) group who believed in the concept and moved heaven, earth, and a lot of rock, to get it built. It means we can run a development trust with some of our own income to make up funding shortfalls – for as long as Tilley the Turbine (bless her wee steel socks) keeps turning.

We have almost 13 members of staff – and yet we are still struggling for ­capacity. That might sound like a champagne ­problem, especially to those communities who are worse off than we are. There is no question about it – we are indeed ­fortunate. But as we do more, so ­statutory bodies expect more from us.

To run all these services in an orderly ­fashion we need the staff, but we also need a main board of directors for the Trust. We ­require four subsidiary ­companies which must all have their own boards of ­directors. For childcare and housing projects, and building business units, we needed steering groups to make sure ­community input was there at all stages.

That is eight different groups of ­volunteers who are being asked to give up time to field incoming emails, digest long ­complicated reports, and make important decisions often on short deadlines – whilst juggling jobs, crofts, kids and the complexities of their own lives – before turning out for evening meetings.

Trusts tend to be charities and there are legal responsibilities which ­directors bear. It’s not something to be taken ­lightly, and when staff capacity is an issue and things need done, it’s volunteers who step up.

Within the community, there also ­exists a plethora of other, vitally ­important groups and committees including (but not limited to): the local NFU group and Tiree Rural Development; the ­Maritime Trust; the Regatta Committee; Tiree ­Community Business; the Historical ­Society who run the museum; the Christmas ­Parties ­Committee; the Agricultural Show ­Committee; Meals on Wheels; Cùram who provide transport for the elderly or infirm, the Hall Committee; whatever the PTA is called these days, and the ­churches who all run on volunteers.

I count at least 22 volunteer groups there, and I will have missed plenty. (A few years ago, a local survey once identified 43 of themunique groups.) So, when we say that communities like Tiree are running on fumes, we’re not ­exaggerating. At the last census, our population was 650. That includes children, and our population is ageing fast.

Which is all to say, that when I read the phrase “community empowerment”, a little bit more of my soul leaves my body. It was used in the Rural and Islands Housing Plan last week, along with an announcement that a Depopulation Plan is on the horizon. I imagine there will be a lot of empowerment mentioned there as well.

On the face of it, community ­empowerment is exactly what we want. ­Communities being empowered to make decisions and drive meaningful change in ways which work for them. It sounds great – the is even a Community ­Empowerment Act to help us!

The reality is that the current version of community empowerment gets as far as graciously bestowing capital funding upon us and then expecting the rest to magically happen. No funding is easy to come by, but capital funding is a walk in the park compared to the core ­funding needed to keep the office lights on or maintain things.

We can get the shiny new minibus or the funding to build a much-needed fuel station, but the money to subsidise the operation of these things in an island ­context? No, that’s not on the table. So we do the things, and we build them – because we need them – and a voluntary board somewhere in the future will have to worry about running, insuring, and ­replacing them.

A wise man regularly reminds me: “We don’t do it because we enjoy it. We do it because it’s important.” It is important. And so we do it.

Anecdotally, the same 17% of people in any community are the ones getting things done – spread over multiple ­committees or groups. But volunteer burnout is real, and very present in the current climate. Some have incredible sticking power.

Others snap around the two-year mark.

If they all stopped tomorrow, the council and the Government would soon know about it. Creeks and paddles come to mind. Reading the Rural and Islands Housing Plan reminded me of those ill-fated island bonds … Imagine that £5 million had been labelled “capacity” and offered as core funding to existing development trusts.

Let’s say it costs £35k to fund a development worker and that there was a two-year funding offer. Some 70 different trusts could have gained some desperately needed financial confidence to deliver the things their communities need. That in turn would take a little of the weight off volunteers, as the frenetic funding ­applications slowed and time could be found for long-term planning rather than constant firefighting.

Empowerment is only empowerment if you are fully in control. Trusts and ­community organisations are shouldering a huge number of services and responsibilities which used to belong to statutory bodies but with one hand tied behind their back.

Many of us are making a decent fist of it, and progressing on lots of fronts ­despite the odds, but at what cost?