For many years, Rural Housing Scotland has held its hugely popular annual gathering in the beautiful Birnam Arts Centre. Perhaps it’s because of the regularity of the venue choice, or because each year’s programme gives vent to the same trials and tribulations of rural communities who struggle to have their housing needs met, but there’s something akin to Groundhog Day about all this. While the housing market in rural Scotland is quite different to that in the more densely populated areas of the country, it’s increasingly clear that both are utterly broken. News that volume housebuilder, Persimmon, has just posted pre-tax profits of £1.1bn (ironically, boosted by the Government’s help-to-buy scheme) and a £500m bonus pool for its senior executives, confirms just how dysfunctional the housing market has become. At Birnam, a new campaign – Rural Homes, Rural Lives - was launched. Highlighting the profoundly damaging impact that the absence of genuinely affordable housing has on any rural community’s potential to thrive, the campaign calls on Scottish Government to intervene much more forcefully in the rural housing market. Powerful vested interests will no doubt urge restraint, but eventually Scottish Government will need to decide whether it’s on the side of people or profits.
In the most recent briefing…
At first glance, the difference between a volunteer and an employee seems self-evident. But in the voluntary sector there is a tension between some of the roles and responsibilities within an organisation that often goes unacknowledged. If, as a volunteer you join the board of trustees you are in effect assuming a legal responsibility to run the organisation. And these legal responsibilities, depending on the organisation, can be both complex and onerous. A trend that is beginning to become the norm in some parts of the sector is to remunerate trustees. Paid volunteers or employees?
The Community Empowerment Act 2015 had a lot squeezed into it. One section that some folk speculated might be the surprise package was contained in Part 3 of the Act which gave communities the right to request to participate in public sector decision making with a view to improving outcomes. Participation Requests only came into effect in April 2017 so it’s still early days to make any judgement. All the same, it’s interesting to see which public authorities are receiving these requests and how they have responded.
Last week, for the first time in two years, Westminster debated climate change. This was in the same week that we experienced the hottest February since records began – a fact which most of our media reported as something to be ‘welcomed’. Despite the scientific predictions of looming disaster, climate change appears to remain a side show. The Scottish Government’s Climate Challenge Fund, currently the only public investment in community-based action on climate, is currently under review. Over 10 years, more than 1000 groups have received this funding. That’s a lot of knowledge and experience to feed into this important review.
Scratch below the surface of any community and you are almost certain to bump up against some form of activity that has a connection with the creative arts. The voluntary arts movement is reckoned to have the widest base of participation in the country – 10,000+ groups. Often organised on an informal, unfunded or unconstituted basis, they are nonetheless the bedrock of community life. But that informality, while often a strength, can also be a barrier for new people to get involved. To this end a mapping of who’s who and where, is being undertaken. It’s a big job.
The last edition of this briefing highlighted some of the key recommendations of the recently published Cairncross Review into the future of journalism. In particular, Cairncross identified the vital contribution of local journalism in holding the machinery of local government to account, suggesting that if necessary, it should be funded from the public purse. An illustration of precisely why this is so important comes from West Dunbartonshire where the Council appears to have blatantly disregarded its duty to be open and transparent in what it does. This is a slippery slope.
When the National Council of Rural Advisers was established to advise Ministers on the rural economy there was some consternation that the make-up of the membership reflected a somewhat lopsided view of rural Scotland – namely food and drink, farming and forestry. And so when they reported to Ministers, it was no surprise that their blueprint for Scotland’s rural economy contained a few ‘blind spots’. When challenged at Rural Housing Scotland’s conference for ignoring the important issue of land and land ownership, the response was that the issue hadn’t been raised with them during their consultations. Depends who you ask.
You’d be hard pushed to find a politician of any party who would openly take issue with any of the policy zeitgeists such as community empowerment, localism and the co-production of public services. Talking the talk is easy. But actually taking the steps to translate all the talk into action is another matter. Political power in Scotland has become so institutionally centralised (and tribal) that it has become virtually instinctive to criticise and oppose anything – even if it what you have previously declared support for. Think tank Reform Scotland call out the naysayers on localism.
The Planning Bill, which is readying itself for the final leg of its tortuous journey through the parliamentary process – already it is the most amended Bill in the history of the Scottish Parliament – has some elements that seem on more solid ground than others. One of these is the idea that the next National Planning Framework and Scottish Planning Policy should be more useful and connected to what actually happens in communities than has previously been the case. Scottish Government has commissioned some research into what this means from a rural perspective.