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15th January 2020

Just before Christmas, I was invited to join the Board of a longstanding local organisation that serves one of Edinburgh’s most disadvantaged areas. I’d been vaguely aware of its existence but not so that I knew very much about what they actually did. Now that I’ve visited a few times, it occurs to me that this organisation (I’ll spare their blushes by not naming them) manages to be both completely ordinary and extraordinary at one and the same time. Ordinary because Scotland has so many of these locally run anchor organisations, each rooted in their community, each striving to improve quality of life for local people by helping them to help themselves. Extraordinary because it gets by on such a thin gruel of short term, project-based funding – with nary a thought from funders as to how its core costs might be covered. Extraordinary also because of the local voluntary effort that sustains it. But most extraordinary of all, is our system of public funding that compels organisations like this to teeter perpetually on the brink of financial collapse. How much would it cost to sort this out? Not very much when compared to the true cost of losing them.

In the most recent briefing…

  • On the ground

    Local vexillology

    Some years ago I cycled through the Pyrenees.  Apart from the steepness of the hills, the thing I remember most as we made our way through small French and Spanish villages was the different flags that each village would be flying. Hanging out of windows, on flagpoles or just stuck in the ground, they seemed to signify some sort of particular civic identity for each village. It seems that a similar vexillological ( word of the week) trend may be taking root in Scotland. Sitting below the saltire, Scotland now has 11 localised flags, 8 of which have been registered in the last three years.

  • On the ground

    Spin or breakthrough?

    A while back, we reported on a piece of research from four European cities – Glasgow, Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Birmingham – exploring a complex and highly skilled role which had been identified as making a potentially critical difference to development work in some of the most challenging neighbourhoods in these cities. The researchers christened the role Smart Urban Intermediary. Whether this phrase represents anything more than a new spin on an old idea or is indeed a breakthrough in our understanding of communities is open to debate. To help you decide, the Scottish context of the research has just been published.

  • On the ground

    Stop asking permission

    With the General Election happening so close to Christmas, the return to work after the New Year has been clouded (more than it usually is) by everyone trying to work what exactly happened at the election, how the land lies now and what might happen next.  Writing in the Scotsman, Joyce MacMillan suggests that we have all become too complacent and trusting in government to deliver in our best interests. Moreover she argues that now we need to stop waiting for permission to do things and just get on with taking whatever action we feel is necessary within our communities. Fighting talk.

  • On the ground

    A Resettlement Act for the 21st century?

    Last month saw the centenary of the passing of the Land Resettlement Act- legislation driven by the need to provide homes for returning soldiers from WW1 but in some respects was also seeking to put right some of the terrible injustices of the 19th century clearances. The Scottish Land Commission have commissioned and published a paper by the historian Prof Jim Hunter which reflects on the impact of the Act and asks whether there are any lessons to be learnt in the context of current concerns about depopulation in remote rural Scotland.

  • Policy talk

    Regulator under spotlight

    Public accountability and scrutiny is essential where public money is concerned. No one would disagree with that and indeed it is why the Scottish Government has established any number of regulatory bodies to ensure standards of performance are maintained across the sector. But regulation also needs to be proportionate and balanced so that those who are being regulated can retain trust and have confidence in the regulator. Recently, some concerns have been aired in the press that all is not well in the relationship between the Housing Regulator and our Registered Social Landlords.

  • Policy talk

    Universal services

    When Labour published its manifesto for December’s General Election, one of the commitments that caught the eye of the commentariat was the promise of free broadband for everyone. Given the extent to which the internet has become so intensely marketised, the notion that everyone might be provided with high speed broadband free of charge seemed utterly implausible. And yet we have come to accept that healthcare and education should be provided free at the point of delivery. So why not other basic services as well?  Why not indeed.

  • Policy talk

    Citizens’ voice

    What must rank as the most ambitious democratic innovation ever undertaken in Scotland, the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland is about to convene for the third time this coming weekend. At the end of the process (6 sittings), a report will be laid before Scottish Parliament containing whatever conclusions the Assembly arrives at. How Scottish Government responds will be a real test of its commitment to this new form of deliberative democracy.  President Macron has already declared that France’s response to the climate emergency will be determined by the deliberations of their Citizens’ Assembly. Interesting times. 

  • Policy talk

    The problem with happiness

    Now that global happiness rankings are being taken semi-seriously (Finland are currently top) some consensus is emerging as to what the core ingredients of happiness should be. But a new book – The Happiness Problem – takes issue with this overly simplistic approach to measuring our collective wellbeing. It recognises,  for instance, that more income from a perspective of living in relative poverty, will only make a short term difference to a person’s happiness. This book argues that we need to focus both individually, and collectively through our institutions, on our capacity for qualities such as humility and curiosity.