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13th December 2017

Last week, I encountered one of those rare moments when the gap between policy rhetoric and experience on the ground actually seemed to narrow. In the space of a few hours, I attended a press launch arranged by Scottish Government and COSLA announcing new plans to cede more decision making powers to communities, before heading off to a conference that showcased precisely the sort of can-do spirit and entrepreneurial energy that this proposed devolution of power is intended to unleash. Rhetoric and reality almost (but not quite) as one. Not quite because while the mood of the conference – Senscot’s annual bash – was unashamedly positive and full of collaborative spirit, a note of caution was also being sounded. Which is that much of the sector remains desperately fragile – both financially and in terms of its capacity to step up to all the challenges coming down the line. And so at a time when expectations of what communities can do are about to be cranked up even further, it has never been more important that the rhetoric of policy begins to align itself much more closely to the fragile reality on the ground. Can-do communities simply cannot do it alone.

In the most recent briefing…

  • Wester Hailes – the last great housing scheme to be built in Scotland – was originally designed to accommodate almost 15,000 people. The planners at the time were famously criticised for building a community the size of a medium sized town with none of the facilities you might expect – other than a few shops, one hotel and some schools. The community has worked tirelessly for over 40 years to build Wester Hailes into a place that people are proud to call home. No surprise then that the Council’s proposal to close the secondary school has gone down like a lead balloon.

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  • Earlier this year, Fergus Ewing MSP Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy appointed his National Council of Rural Advisers. Their job was to advise on the implications of Brexit and to make recommendations about how Scotland’s rural economy could be supported going forward. While it would never have been practical to include all rural interests in such a group, it doesn’t explain why farming and the food and drink industry fill almost every seat. With an interim report now published, is it time for a more diverse range voices to be heard?

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  • The Scottish Government’s programme of design-led place making aka Charrettes is something of a mystery. Earlier this year, with no warning, the latest iteration – Making Places – was launched. This time, with little obvious budget in sight, it was offering community capacity building to encourage new charrettes and help for communities to deliver plans that have been drawn up in years gone by. Some cash was also available for new charrettes. Two questions arise. Firstly, why does this continue to feel so disconnected from other parts of Scottish Government and secondly, why call it a charrette?

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  • Some parts of the third sector, such as community transport, operate in a highly complex and regulated market. The rules have worked well for community transport for over 30 years – ‘benign ambiguity’ is perhaps the best way to describe their interpretation by both government and transport operators alike. In other words, ‘don’t ask or you might get the answer you don’t want.’  This leaves the sector somewhat vulnerable to ill-informed civil servants asking those unwelcome questions and that’s exactly what has happened. The answer has gone all the way to PMQs at Westminster.

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  • One of the sessions at last week’s Senscot conference focused on business failure. The frank, and at times highly personal accounts of how hard it can be to keep a small social enterprise afloat were powerful. The importance of cash flow was a recurring theme. Someone proposed that some kind of collectively owned fund should be established to offer relief from these short term financial pressures. Hey presto – Pauline Hinchion at Scottish Community Finance Ltd has been working on an idea that might just hold the answer.

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  • Since its collapse, Royal Bank of Scotland has accepted billions of taxpayers’ largesse – to the extent that we currently own 73% of it. All of which puts last week’s announcement to close a quarter of all its branches and sell off the buildings, in a rather different light. If RBS has any interest in public redemption, it might like to think again about who actually owns these buildings and the vital role that branches play, particularly in rural communities. If not maintaining them as branches, the very least RBS should do is offer them up as community assets.

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  • Next time you’re walking through a woodland, stop and have a look. And then look again. Really, really closely. There may even be something to listen to which is more than the sound of the wind. Peter Wohlleben, the author of a new book, The Hidden Life of Trees argues that trees talk to each other, care for each other and even collectively manage their resources together.  Given half a chance, they might even teach us something about how to organise our communities. What’s more, Wohlleben claims the science is on his side. Not everyone agrees.

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  • In the years ahead we can expect to hear much about how Scotland is moving towards becoming a circular economy. That means wasting less, using things for longer and finding new uses for things we have finished with. All of which seems to contradict the dominant economic model based on the pursuit of never stop economic growth.  But it’s a contradiction that Scottish Government seems happy to live with as it has just announced that three more Zero Waste Towns will join Dunbar and Bute as pioneers of the community led circular economy.

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