So, what do you do (for work)? Over the years that simple question, when asked of me, has provoked many a mini-existential crisis. My favoured response, that I’m a community worker, invariably draws a blank, at which point I’ll fumble my way through various sub-plots of the job until something eventually connects. But lately I’ve noticed it’s not just the nature of the work that’s proved a challenge to describe, it’s actually becoming quite hard to find anyone who still calls themselves a community worker. Not so long ago, local authorities and communities used to employ a small army of them, but a decade of austerity and a fast-changing policy landscape has seen virtually an entire workforce disappear without trace. The extent to which communities have felt the impact of this loss is somewhat unclear but what we do know is that over this same period, communities have become increasingly networked with each other. And through these networks, knowledge and expertise has started to flow – local people sharing what they have learned with their peers and building the capacity of other communities. Perhaps a new generation of community worker is starting to emerge. Local people leading the way.
In the most recent briefing…
So, it’s farewell to What Works Scotland. Its funding is up and a final newsletter has dropped into the inbox of all its followers. Over the years this collective force field of academic energy has made quite an impact across many areas of inquiry. Making public services more effective may have been its central mission, but that broad remit gave them licence to stray into many other areas of civic interest – always adding value along the way. The contribution of the community sector became a particular focus and the work they produced will be useful for years to come.
40 years ago, 49% of qualified architects worked in the public sector. Today, that figure is 0.7%. Which might explain why so many of the large housing developments that are being thrown up around the country by the volume house builders are so devoid of anything that resembles good design. An interesting initiative from down south is re-introducing designers of all descriptions back into local authority planning departments. As one urban designer now with a planning authority put it, “I’m asking whether people would feel joy when walking about their development”. And if not, why not.
Amidst the growing clamour for genuine and far reaching democratic reforms that would make our systems more inclusive and prevent the current drift towards a self-serving and self-perpetuating political class, one idea keeps surfacing without quite catching fire. And that is the idea of randomly selecting a group of citizens to sit on a local parliament or council either to complement or supplement our elected representatives. It’s an idea that’s due to be implemented later this year in a small region of Belgium. It’s called the "Ostbelgien Model". Worth keeping an eye on.
EU auditors have suspended payments on the £22m that Scotland receives from the European Social Fund due to concerns over the programme’s management. Unease around the internal systems that were being designed for the European Social Fund stretches back to when the original rules for the management of the programme were being drafted. Advice from experienced third sector representatives at the time predicted that problems could arise and unfortunately that’s exactly what has happened. The very existence of some third sector organisations is now in jeopardy due to delayed payments.
In conversation with someone who used to run one of Scotland’s largest housing associations, he recounted the time he had argued against a proposal by some of his Board members to introduce payments for certain non-executive roles. He won the argument – but only just (his resignation letter was in the desk). It’s a measure of how strongly some feel about this issue. I’ve always sided with my housing association friend but having read a recent blog on the matter by Julia Unwin who has just completed her work on Civil Society Futures, I’m not so sure.
Island communities are well rehearsed in identifying the big issues that need to be addressed in order to make life less of a perpetual struggle. The thousands of post-it stickers and flip chart sheets consumed over the years stand testament to that. So their willingness to keep engaging is either a measure of islander optimism or some new found conviction that finally, with the Islands (Scotland) Act on the statute books, this latest foray (63 events on 46 islands in 12 weeks) by a civil servant team is not just another post-it paper exercise.
Our trains get a bit of a bad press. Whether it’s cancellations or delays or the variable and exorbitant price of a ticket, it’s not difficult to find fault. But many people clearly have a great deal of affection for the railways and in particular their local stations. Last Friday saw the first annual Scotrail in the Community awards ceremony and by all accounts it was a heart-warming affair. Over 1,200 people volunteer across Scotland’s railway network, many of whom are involved in the upkeep of the 275 stations that have been adopted so far by local people. Who’d have thought?
In a recent edition, it was suggested that someone might consider mapping the growth of community ownership of assets. A couple of eager beaver consultants got back in touch to register an interest (sorry, no budget as yet). I also got a call from the folk from the Community Land Team in Scottish Government to say that they’re working on something very similar and that we can expect this to be published later this year – so watch this space. In the meantime, I came across this very nicely put together series of blogs covering some of the latest community acquisitions. Here’s the most recent.