Scotland’s community sector needs to find its voice

AngusScotland’s community sector finds itself in a strange place.  For many years its relationship with government, and in particular local government, has been problematic. Either ignored or subjected to various attempts to co-opt or subsume it into the agenda of our highly centralised local government system, the sector has nonetheless remained remarkably resilient and has achieved much given the lack of a more encouraging policy environment.

But slowly all that has started to change and in recent years, two factors in particular have been responsible for accelerating the pace of that change.  Firstly the Christie Commission’s work on the future of Scotland’s public services and its recommendations for wholesale reform.

And secondly, the financial crisis that has wrought havoc across the economy and inflicted long term lasting damage to the UK’s public finances.

Without the financial crisis and the ensuing austerity providing the backdrop, it is inconceivable that the Christie Commission’s calls for such a radical overhaul would have been greeted with anything like the same degree of widespread support. A fundamental rethink of our public services had become not only essential but inevitable.  As a result an opportunity has presented itself for new ‘players’, including the community sector, to be seriously considered for the first time as important contributors to this new era of public service provision.

‘It has taken nothing less than a global financial crisis

for the contribution of the community sector to

finally force its way under the spotlight of government policy.’

As this enforced shift in the emphasis of government thinking began to be reflected in public policies and practice, such as the most recent national regeneration strategy – for the first time placing community-led approaches at its core – or the new Community Empowerment Bill currently with the Scottish parliament, there has been an understandable frustration that it had taken so long, and nothing less than a global financial crisis and a system of public services that had drifted way past its sell by date, for the contribution of the community sector to finally force its way under the spotlight of government policy.

This sense that the community sector had been operating at some distance, and for such a long time, from mainstream policy thinking had been felt so keenly within the sector that its achievements were often referred to as Scotland’s silent revolution.

Silent because despite what had been happening in communities across the country, with steady growth in the number, scale and complexity of locally-led initiatives, with community-owned assets running into the 100’s of millions, and with communities taking on more and more responsibility and control of services that in the past would have automatically been seen as the preserve of the state, it had barely merited a mention in terms of the national media or in any official government consideration of its potential to deliver even more.

Indeed it was because of this lack of recognition nationally, that a number of Scotland’s community-based networks recently took the decision to work more closely together, initially under the loose campaigning banner of Local People Leading and more recently by establishing the Scottish Community Alliance.

Although hugely diverse in terms of their areas of specialist interest, these 18 networks have a common cause in achieving ever greater levels of local empowerment. Their principle purpose in coming together as the Scottish Community Alliance was to present a more coherent and cohesive community sector to government and, where opportunities present themselves, to collaborate across the sector more effectively. In the past, the aim of having the potential contribution of the community sector more widely recognised had always felt like it is working against the tide of mainstream policy thinking but circumstances appear to have conspired to finally change all this.

And this is happening at a time when the country is locked in a national debate about its constitutional future. Regardless of the outcome of the vote on September 18th, a broad consensus is emerging that Scotland will be a very different place in its aftermath. The extent of grassroots engagement in the debate from both sides has been impressive. Polls suggest that more than 80% of the electorate plan to cast their vote. For large sections of the population, the independence debate is forcing them to consider some fundamental questions, possibly for the first time, about their personal relationship with the state.

If citizens begin to consider actively what their preference might be within that relationship, then it is but a small step for them also to begin to consider how they as citizens should relate to their community and beyond that to what kind relationship they want to have with the democratic structures that Scotland currently operates.

This debate will have important and lasting implications for Scotland in ways that we can’t even begin to predict. However, it is reasonable to surmise that a country which rediscovers an interest in how it is governed will result in an even more animated community sector than we have at present, and that is a prospect to get truly excited about.


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Edward Harkins
Edward Harkins
9 years ago

Cannot disagree with the sentiment but does it not beg the question; ‘will those in policy-making power listen’? Even within areas of the broad community and voluntary sector fields, the constituent communities’ voices have mostly been disregarded – or indeed never been meaningfully engaged with in the first place. For example, in the regeneration field across the UK, a single common failing has been on community engagement – even more so on the much over-used concept of community ’empowerment’. The-then Minister in the Scottish Government on his ‘consultation’ on a community regeneration strategy in 2011, said that ‘Scotland has never had a community regeneration strategy that’s worth the name’. In my own submission for the consultation I provided a detailed bibliography on the history of failure of UK regeneration on community engagement and empowerment (a history barely admitted in the realms of government agencies and even of some well-established third sector intermediaries). Nothing at all of either what I had written nor the history was reflected in the subsequent ‘strategy’ (where that now?). No reasons there to not seek the voice or not shout it out – but let’s be pragmatic about how to get those who need to, to listen to that voice.

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