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SOME THOUGHTS ON THE COMMUNITY EMPOWERMENT BILL

I spent tonight’s train journey re-reading the Scottish Government’s Community Empowerment Bill (in fairness, my iPod was knackered). We at MainStreet have been planning to respond to the Local Government & Regeneration Committee’s requests for written evidence and we may yet do so. But I thought I’d post a few immediate observations:

 

  • It’s a turgid document.  No one expects sparkling prose but since one of the aims of the Bill is to increase involvement of communities in local planning and services, the call to arms should be obvious and the language a lot more accessible. For example, one of the main provisions in the Bill is in giving community groups the right to be involved. The relevant section starts with: “A community participation body may make a request to a public service authority to permit the body to participate in an outcome improvement process. In making such a request, the community participation body must (a) specify an outcome that results from, or is contributed to by virtue of, the provision of a service provided to the public by or on behalf of the authority”.Legal definitions are important of course but surely we can do better than this? Couldn’t the Scottish Parliament pioneer accessible legislation, without recourse to ‘easy read’ supplements?
  • It’s a weird hotchpotch of ideas: a bundle of plans and objectives with no real connecting thread other than they involve community groups in some way.  Are there really links between commitments on Community Planning Partnership memberships, national Non-Domestic Rates (NNDR) and the right to buy allotments?
  • That said, some of that stuff is good. The principles of subsidiarity, community empowerment and improving outcomes are clear and laudable. And there are strong policy commitments too: more wide-ranging Community Planning Partnerships (CPPs); the right for community groups to request involvement in local planning activities; extending community right to buy rights across the whole of Scotland (and not just rural communities); well-defined procedures for asset transfers to communities; and – given that the current SNP Government’s insistence on a Council Tax freeze, which flies in the face of genuinely local democracy – a welcome new power for flexibility on local reliefs on NNDR (local business rates).
  • It could have been more ambitious. My experience of working across five CPPs in Scotland is that they could be a lot more effective, with the active involvement of the NHS in particular – and its willingness/ability to commit resources – being patchy at best. While the Bill says that partners “must co-operate” with each other and contribute funds, staff and other resources as needed to deliver local outcomes, there is no guidance on how that should work. While it should be for each CPP to agree, many have struggled for years to sort this out, with a critical Audit Scotland report in March 2013 saying that: “All community planning partners need to work together to overcome the barriers that have stood in the way of this happening. For example, shifting the perception that community planning is a council-driven exercise, and not a core part of the day job for other partners”. What is the sanction if the other partners don’t step up?

But there are two big implications for local authorities and their partners:

  1. Firstly, who pays?  These proposed changes will not be cost neutral. While it is difficult to quantify demand, it is likely at least that there will be a spike in the number of participation or asset transfer requests from local communities. This could potentially be similar to the administrative burden elicited by the Freedom of Information process that our local authorities and other public bodies needed to fund. The Scottish Government and our councils would do well to model that overhead now.
  2. Secondly, andmore importantly, these changes will require a real shift in mentality by our local authorities and other public sector partners. It will mean recognising that managed systems of people, land, resources, assets and services are all unique. It opens the door to genuinely diverse communities – with no nationally-prescribed plan and no top-down approaches locally – and occasionally unpredictable events and unforeseen opportunities.

Is Scottish local government ready for those kind of changes?

David Welsh

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