June 18, 2014 : Felix Spittal
A little less engagement, a little more actionFocus on engaging communities rather than enabling community action makes the Community Empowerment Bill frustratingly inconsistent
Page 3 of the draft Bill’s policy memorandum states:
“The Scottish Government is clear that it is important that community voices are heard in public sector processes, but that this engagement differs from community empowerment, where communities lead change for themselves.”
Given that the government is so clear about this difference, why do four of the eight legislative proposals in the bill focus on engagement and not empowerment? Engagement can be effective if carried out correctly, but ultimately it’s about involving communities in public sector agendas. When communities lead change themselves, they are in control and can pursue their own goals on their own terms.
The proposals putting Community Planning Partnerships (CPPs) on a stronger legislative footing are indicative of the the problem because they have the most tenuous connection to community empowerment. How will compelling public sector bodies to commit to community planning empower communities? Additionally, these proposals enshrine in legislation a process which Audit Scotland has heavily criticised for failing to have a significant impact on outcomes or inequality.
Thankfully, all is not lost as there are some solid proposals in the bill for asset transfer, land reform and allotments, which could provide genuinely useful tools for communities to empower themselves through land and other assets.
The ability of disadvantaged communities to access those tools and the effect this might have on inequality are top concerns for us in the third sector. In part this can be addressed by ensuring measures are in place to support the legislation and build community capacity.
This means acknowledging the problems people may face in accessing rights, while also appreciating the capacity in all communities and their ability to achieve extraordinary things. Support should be driven by community needs and must not be aimed at changing behaviour or influencing what action communities choose to take.
There’s a major role for established third sector organisations in making sure all this happens. We can support communities to achieve their ambitions by building partnerships and sharing expertise and experience. This will ensure as many communities as possible get the most out of the legislation.
Communities are empowered when they have a strong voice that has been built from their own ambitions. Enabling that type of independent community action by providing the space for those organisations to flourish must always be the focus. This bill has measures to help achieve those ambitions, it’s a pity they’ve been bundled up with others which bear little relation to genuine community empowerment.