The Scottish Government are currently consulting on a Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill. I see this as a sort of Scottish Localism Act. A couple of my colleagues have done very good blog posts on the consultation and I’d recommend you read them: Dr Kim McKee and Malcolm Combe.
I thought I’d add my tuppeneth worth here as well. Most of my response is going in as part of an AHRC Connected Communities project, Reframing Citizen-State Relations (see job advert for that project here as well) so I’m not going to be answering every question here. I just want to raise three points on: community empowerment; processes of community participation in different services; and Scottish Government consultations.
Firstly, throughout the consultation document and implicit in many of the questions is the presumption that community engagement is a good thing. I have a couple of problems with this. From our work on middle-classcommunity activism I do not think community engagement and empowerment is always a good thing. In fact, it seems to me that in many ways it can just recreate and reinforce inequalities in wider society – empowering the already powerful. This comes across in the discussion around Community Councils. We know that middle-class people are more likely to join groups such as Community Councils (a bit like English Parish Councils). What is needed is much greater investment in community development resource to bring in those who wouldn’t get their voices heard. I’d also be interested in if there is community development literature on getting people to shut up. One of the most interesting bits of my doctoral research was watching an Inspector from Lothian and Borders Police calmly tell a very middle –class person that the police would not routinely patrol by their allotments to combat a spate of stealing from sheds, as every evening the police were completely stretched maintaining a level of normalcy in less affluent neighbourhoods. The police officer recommended the purchase of insurance. A much braver person than me! But an extremely valid point.
There is also the point, made quite often during the heady days of the late 1990s and early noughties of the New Labour government, of community engagement seen as a way to improve communities themselves as well as services. I ended my PhD thesis with this quote from a document produced by the Scottish Social Inclusion Network that neatly summarises my views on this:
‘…community participation should not be seen as a pre-requisite for the delivery of decent services. People living either in poor or more affluent areas are entitled to both quality services and an acceptable living environment. We should not accept a situation where people living in more deprived communities have to go to countless meetings or engage in endless arguments with decision makers simply to receive a level of service that other people take for granted.’
Scottish Social Inclusion Network, Strategy Action Team (1999). Inclusive Communities. Edinburgh, p. 23
Another way to put it is “you can’t eat engagement”. I see a worrying trend along these lines in the proposals for community ownership and communities being given the right to run services. What I fear is that while affluent communities will be able to choose what services they want to run public services will use these provisions as an excuse to disinvest from services only used in less affluent neighbourhoods (such as community centres) and then “offer” them to the community to run. This is not empowerment but injustice.
Secondly is the actual process of community engagement in different services. One of the proposals is to place a general duty on engagement across all public services. I disagree with this and will probably be copying and pasting this into the consultation form for my own response. I disagree from my perspective as a planner. I’ve never worked as a planner, and am still not a member of the RTPI, but I still call myself a planner. Planning in the UK is interesting as, as far as I’m aware, it was the first public service in the UK to include a statutory right for the general public to be consulted on policies and decisions. Since the Skeffington Report in 1969 a vast chunk of planning research and practice has been done on public engagement. And a lot of it is quite atrocious and the system is still balanced towards developers. But the statutory right exists and the statute, especially in Scotland since the Planning etc. Scotland Act 2006, say when the public can expect to be engaged. From this a whole host of policy on engagement, specifically focused at the planning system has been developed. My fear is that a general duty would lead to a race to the bottom on community engagement and all services would revert to worst practice (not mentioning any large organisations of three letters beginning in N and ending in S).
Finally, in a Twitter conversation between Kim, Malcolm and myself Kim mentioned how badly the consultation document has been designed. This is becoming an increasing bug-bear of mine. The document is huge, but what is even worse is there are more pages of questions than of text being consulted on – 49 questions in total. It takes someone quite dedicated (sad?) to fill in that consultation, not your average community activist. I worked on the consultation analysis for the Scottish Government’s tackling poverty framework in 2007. If I remember rightly, this was led by the Poverty Alliance and it showed – a few broad questions that produced really interesting responses (still didn’t stop my analysis being broadly slated, but hey-ho). Now, the Scottish Government approach seems to be “we don’t know the answer to a question, so we will shove that in the questionnaire” rather than actually letting us respond to the issues that might interest us within the consultation document. Something needs to change in Scottish Government Towers if consultation is going to be worthwhile.