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The latest consultation on the Scottish Government’s Community Empowerment Bill closed on 24th January. While there are some good ideas there, I’m not convinced it makes it “easier for community organisations to get involved in designing and delivering public services”.

At MainStreet, we believe that in many instances it is users, staff and community organisations that are best placed to plan, organise and run services locally.  In times of real financial pressure, we should be exploring new ways of working that harness the resources, talents and interests of all those who use and benefit from local public services. This is very much in line with principles of Asset-Based Community Development supported by the Scottish Government.

So I was excited about the Community Empowerment Bill, the consultation for which was introduced as “potentially the biggest transfer of power since devolution, transferring power from central and local government to Scotland’s communities”.

The latest version of the consultation falls a bit short of that. There are some good proposals in there:

  • Strong commitments to ensure that Community Planning is genuinely a joint endeavour – the NHS, Fire & Rescue, Police, Colleges, Scottish Enterprise and the Third Sector must share the load and accountability for outcomes with local authorities in future. Community Planning is meaningless if only one or two key bodies are actively involved in the work
  • The Land Reform suggestions are backed up with links to finance from the Scottish Land Fund and specific targets of 1m acres in community ownership by 2020
  • Considerations on Local Relief Schemes for non-domestic / business rates does at least provide more flexibility in funding and local taxation powers locally, and could help promote growth locally.

But the wider document doesn’t live up to initial expectations set by the Government on ‘empowerment’. If that term means anything, it should be about liberating communities; enabling and encouraging local people to do new and different things. Instead, there are several references to ‘rights to request’, or ‘rights to participate’ which in many instances formalises something that community organisations can in practice do already.

My biggest frustration is the absence of discussion or ideas in this paper about how we involve and incentivise local people and community organisations in running services. The original consultation papers in late 2012 referenced ideas of communities as providers, taking on contracts themselves – but in the new iteration, nothing.

That is disappointing. Community-led organisations do already take on the delivery of some public services here in Scotland – in some social care contexts, and in related areas of social transport – and do it well. Their proximity to users ensures an effective and efficient service.

But there so many other facets of service delivery that they could be actively involved in – parks & open spaces maintenance; roads maintenance; local halls, libraries & museums; sports & leisure; local events & festivals; other local transport provision.  But in the main, they aren’t.

The Government’s aim was to make it “easier for community organisations to get involved in designing and delivering public services”.  There isn’t a uniform, ‘one-size fits all’ approach for that – healthy communities are by definition unique. But at the very least, it should be ensuring that our Community Planning Partnerships proactively explore how to get others to take on the budget and responsibility for delivering public services. Some suggestions would be:

  • As part of its planning rounds, CPPs evaluate all community service provision, and ask what would need to be done to get the community and third sector more involved in actual delivery
  • Creation of pioneer pilot schemes to encourage innovative community service models; these could be mutuals, social enterprises, voluntary organisations or something completely different – as long as they deliver more effectively and efficiently and from which lessons can be applied elsewhere
  • A fund to help build capacity for local community organisations, allowing them potentially to take over the running of local public services

If we are serious about Community Empowerment, we can’t just commit to give communities a voice in how services are run but support them to run them too.

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