Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Community empowerment - optimism?

So, we have a Community Empowerment ACT now in Scotland. And the Scottish Government are very proud of it too, as Minister for Local Government and Community Empowerment Marco Biagi writes. They should be proud too. Scotland has a long history of community empowerment. The minister highlights the example of community land buy-outs. I find the example of community-based housing associations more impressive – they are predominantly urban and commonly created by people in quite marginalised, deprived neighbourhoods being supported respectfully.* They’ve also managed to avoid the pitfalls of legislation such as this, such as the Localism Act’s “Right to Challenge” which is actually a right to have your services privatised due to European Union procurement rules.

I’m also quite impressed by the Scottish Government trying to use the engagement in political issues that emerged with last year’s referendum to try and deepen democracy and democratic engagement in Scotland.

However, I have two problems with the Act that means I cannot share the Minister’s optimism (not that I’d expect a Minister to be critical of their own Act, you understand). Firstly, unsurprisingly, given my interests, is the issue of possible injustices. As my colleague Prof. Annette Hastings said in her submission and oral evidence to the committee scrutinising the original bill, without adequate community learning and development support it is going to be the most affluent and able communities that will be able to take most advantage of these provisions – they could widen inequality not challenge it (as argued in this paper which you can download for FREE).

But, if you don’t know that argument you’ve not been paying enough attention to my stellar academic career, or this blog, so I don’t want to over-rehearse it again. I want to suggest another reason why I don’t share the optimism of the Minister. I just don’t think people are that bothered. It should also be noted that the Scottish Government listened to the concerns of people about the risks around equity and changed the Bill substantially.

I often find myself at events about participation, occasionally asked to speak (though Oliver Escobar is quite rightly Scotland’s go-to man on that count at the moment), and whenever I do I ask the other folk if they ever attend their local community council, PTA, neighbourhood partnership/committee etc. etc. Invariably, these people who are imploring Scotland to be more participatory and deliberative don’t attend such events because they’re too busy and not interested. I honestly say, from spending 15 months of doctoral fieldwork going to such meetings (the endless debate about a grant to a local Budgerigar fanciers organisation was a particular highlight – community budgeting is the future) you’d have to drag me kicking and screaming to such events.

Even if these organisations were given substantial budgets and power over local service areas, I still wouldn’t be bothered to get involved – I want my local services delivered well without me having to tell the local authority that I’d quite like clean streets, good local schools, and enough activities and youth work to prevent youth anti-social behaviour. Why should I attend a meeting to get good local outcomes if we know how to deliver those outcomes?

And this is where I think the Government have made a bit of an error of identification. I was a presiding officer on 5 May and, it is true that representative democracy has been invigorated in Scotland. Unlike every single other election I’ve worked, I had no time to stop and relax really – there was a constant stream through the doors. In my constituency there was a massive swing to the SNP, but the Labour candidate actually increased his number of votes compared to 2010. Everyone was voting more, because it’s easy.

The sort of participatory democracy the Scottish Government wants to create through the Community Empowerment Act isn’t that easy to get involved with. It requires giving up time and effort. It also involves thinking about issues in a very complex way. I’m a policy scholar – I get paid to think about these things. Most folk don’t.

The Scottish Government are attempting this participatory approach in their new National Conversation on a Fairer Scotland – my colleague Prof Paul Cairney has written well about this. I saw a tweet from the Scottish Government official account the other day:
And I was just thinking, well? Yes? What about these things? Can we have a policy discussion about these? How about evicting older people who are under-occupying massive homes and distorting the housing market? What kind of jobs do we want to create? Those that match the skills of the labour market now, or plan for the future? These are just a handful of the litany of difficult policy questions that spring to mind when you immediately start to think about what a “Fairer Scotland” might be. And heaven forfend that you might suggest some of these debates might cause conflict and rancour and people might disagree! In the New Progressive Scotland we just need to talk more (but not to persuade people, just to listen to them) and hug a bit more. 

Getting mass participatory democracy to discuss such issues is just utopianism, and I say that even though I’ve dabbled in Habermas. For me, Habermas and the political theory of Iris Marion Young are yardsticks, not blueprints.

To be a little bit more critical, I do have to put the ScotCEA into the same category of policies in Scotland that blurring accountability (Paul Cairney again and again). For me, the broader community empowerment agenda has to be seen as part of Cruikshank’s will to empower. Quite often I’ve heard people say that we need participation so people can meet outcomes. I’m sure this is commonly meant in a positive, co-producing way. But I believe it is also about dumping responsibility onto communities – want the council to do something about the closed primary school in your neighbourhood that’s being vandalised and is an eyesore then you should get together and buy it yourself! What? You don’t have enough money? Well, you’re not empowered enough then, are you.

* I used Richard Sennett’s idea of respect in an age of inequality, I used it in my doctoral thesis to argue in favour of a social democratic regeneration policy.

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