With Harvey Weinstein finally called out for his predatory behaviour, the lid has been lifted on many other walks of life, revealing just how endemic sexual harassment really is. Of the many comments that have been made, the most striking for me came from theatre director, Vicky Featherstone. Trying to make sense of why she feels such anger she thinks it is because, despite everything she believes in and as a feminist to her core, she realises that she always knew this was going on and yet somehow, had accepted it. She finds this self-revelation deeply shocking and wonders what else we simply ‘accept’ until someone has the temerity to ask why, as a society, we tolerate it. She cites as one example, our attitude towards homelessness. Social Bite’s Josh Littlejohn, organiser of next month’s mass Sleep in the Park may not succeed in his ambition to eradicate homelessness – the factors that lie behind homelessness are often incredibly complex – but at least he’s had the pluck to challenge it. How can it ever be OK for a person to sleep on a pavement? All of which begs the question, how many other wrongs that bedevil our communities need to be called out too?
In the most recent briefing…
The idea of the sharing economy holds great appeal – less need for the personal acquisition of ‘stuff’ and the growth of new networks of mutual support. What’s not to like? But as with any innovation in the market place, the profiteers have been quick to exploit the opportunity. Airbnb have fast become a behemoth in the property market, distorting the supply of private rental properties by facilitating the proliferation of highly profitable short term lets – and in tourist hot spots the impact on communities is often devastating. Andy Wightman MSP is taking up the cudgel.
Electing a new government every five years or holding an occasional referendum on a binary yes-no, in-out question doesn’t seem to produce either a satisfied or an engaged electorate. There are of course other ways to invigorate democracy and even (whisper it) make better, more informed decisions. Sometimes referred to as deliberative democracy, new approaches are beginning to emerge that could have far reaching effects on the way our democracy functions. A Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit has just finished deliberating on how we should exit the EU. Some fascinating insights.
Everyone understands that it’s important for public assets to be managed efficiently and responsibly. Equally, everyone understands that the management of those public assets involves, to an extent, keeping an eye on what is in the public’s best interest and recognising that often transferring that asset to the local community is in the public interest. What is less accepted is that community ownership is simply another a form of public ownership and that this should be reflected in any price paid for the asset. Which is why this transfer of forestry land is worth a special mention.
A long list of Scottish public bodies fall within the scope of the Community Empowerment Act, but one is notable by its absence - Crown Estate Scotland (CES). Following the Scotland Act 2016, control over Scotland’s Crown Estate was devolved to Scottish Ministers although a final decision has still to be taken about how these valuable assets should be managed in the future. CES is wasting little time in aligning itself with national policy, signalling both to local authorities and communities everywhere that it wants to explore much greater local control of its asset base.
In his recent memoir, Gordon Brown highlights how little has changed since our bankers devastated the economy and left us with more than a decade of austerity to deal with. He’s bemused by the absence of criminal prosecutions and the fact that the number in receipt of £1m+ bonuses has increased by 50% since the crash. But it is the lack of structural reform that he is most worried about. Common Weal and others have long argued for a banking system that serves the common good. Encouragingly, Scottish Government seems to be warming to the task.
Presumably at some point in the not too distant future we will look back with utter incredulity at the way in which most of our recent major public infrastructure projects have been financed. The profit margins that the many Public Private Partnerships (PPP) consortia have managed to write into their 30 year contracts are eye watering. Instead, perhaps the day is not too far off when not-for-profit Community Finance Initiatives (CFI), like the Strontian Community School, become the norm. Until then, stories like this will continue to run.
In its Programme for Government, Scottish Government committed itself to ‘reviewing’ how local decisions are made and how local democracy is working. It’s the sort of exercise that could equally achieve next to nothing or become the catalyst that changes everything. At the end of the day, if real change is to happen, local government will have to be prepared to engage in a fundamental reappraisal of its role and the nature of its relationship to the local economy and the communities who live there. And if anyone’s looking for clues, all paths seem to be leading to Preston.
The announcement from COSLA that 1% of local authority spending is to be allocated through some kind of Participatory Budgeting process heralds a step change in terms of the scale of ambition for this method of allocating public funds – 1% equates to roughly £100m. To date, it’s probably fair to say that most activity has centred on the allocation of relatively small pots of funding to local projects. This 1% commitment takes it to another level. What’s not yet clear is what that level might look like. There should be some pointers in the mid-term evaluation of recent PB experience.