community

Consultation on the Community Empowerment & Renewal Bill – a missed opportunity?

Posted by admin on August 21, 2012
community, community assets, governance / 1 Comment

Finally got a chance to sit down and read the Scottish Government’s consultation on the proposed Community Empowerment & Renewal Bill. Underwhelmed is the adjective that first springs to mind. Whilst many of the sentiments are in principal fair enough, there is not really any new thinking or innovation on display here (the Community RTB, enforcing sale of empty buildings, community budgeting, asset transfers – have all been talked about, or are already being taken forward elsewhere in the UK). Given Scotland has historically been a leader in thinking about community asset ownership in the UK context (e.g. CLTs, CBHAs), the lack of new thinking is dispiriting.

Worst still, there is a surprising lack of connection being made between community empowerment and other government policy areas. The obvious one being the Scottish Government’s recent Regeneration strategy with its focus on community anchor organisations as key regeneration vehicles, supported by the new People & Communities Fund. Why is there no discussion of community anchors in the consultation document? It’s a very useful concept for talking about community controlled and owned organisations that are committed to transforming their local area for the benefit of the people who live there [see my previous post on this]. And there are already lots of great examples of this across Scotland in a multitude of different sectors that could be drawn on.

But the major problem with this document for me, is that it takes as its starting point Community Planning Partnerships (CPPs) which are ultimately local authority vehicles operating at the municipal scale. I would argue if you are genuinely interested in devolving ownership and control to local people then you need to think at a much more local (i.e. neighbourhood) scale, and also give more of a leading role to the voluntary and community sector. Neither of which are common occurrences in CPPs. That’s not to say CPPs don’t have their utility, but promoting grass-roots community engagement doesn’t strike me as one of them.

Another important issue that isn’t picked up in the document is the negative side of the localism agenda. Devolving power downwards may actually exacerbate existing social-spatial inequalities within and between Scotland’s communities. There are several reasons for this, not least the fact that some communities may be more able than others to articulate their needs and command resources (issues such as skills, education, capacity, experience are all relevant here).

Moreover, we should not assume that communities necessarily want to take control – if you look at research in the housing field in many instances local people supported community ownership of social housing as a mean to an end (i.e. to secure investment and improvement in their houses and communities). Where local people are already receiving a good service from public sector providers there may not be any demand for asset transfer -and we should avoid foisting it upon them simply so that assets can be removed from public sector budgets (and thus reduce costs to the public purse).

On a final (slightly left-field) note, I have to say I’m really put off responding to these Scottish Government consultations because of the nature of the respondent form/consultation questions – these are too pre-determined (and often quite technical in focus) and shut off a lot of avenues for debate and discussion…. rather ironic for a consultation on community engagement and empowerment. There is a real need for more open-ended questions that allow some flexibility in how to respond, for responders may wish to respond to different questions to those raised in the document for example.

If you’ve not yet responded to this consultation you still have time to do so. Closes 29th August. (now extended to 26 Sep).

For an alternative analysis of the consultation document see @BaseDrones blog: http://t.co/w37E4VWe and that of @urbaneprofessor: http://t.co/dvWt0JeK

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Housing Associations and the Big Society: lessons from Scotland

Posted by admin on May 08, 2012
community, housing policy, regeneration, social housing / No Comments

Last week I launched the findings from my Carnegie funded research on housing associations and the big society, which focused on the role of community anchor housing associations in Scotland.  My motivation for the project was two-fold:

1)      It strikes me the policy rhetoric on the Big Society is very English focused, and I was interested in the extent to which these ideas had any relevance north of the border within Scotland’s rich and diverse voluntary and community sector.

2)      The concept of community ‘anchor’ organisations, which first originated in a Home Office report in 2004 has now filtered through to social policy in Scotland through the Scottish Government’s focus on community regeneration and their proposed Community Empowerment Bill.  The recent Christie Commission into the reform of public services in Scotland also called for services to be rebuilt around communities.

Against this policy backdrop, I decided to focus on the community-controlled housing association (CCHA) sector in Scotland, which is one of the strongest examples of community ownership in the UK today.  CCHAs are place-based organisations governed by a committee of local residents.  They are key agencies in Scotland’s low-income neighbourhoods, undertaking an important social role by acting as catalysts for community regeneration and development.  Many are already anchor organisations.

Five key findings emerged from this qualitative study with senior housing association staff and national membership organisations:

  •  Although sceptical of the relevance of the Big Society, interviewees were positive about the potential of housing associations to act as community anchor organisations; with many expressing that they already fulfilled this role.  This suggests there is much the Big Society agenda in England can learn from the Scottish experience, as illustrated by the seven case study profiles featured in the report.
  • Key strengths of CCHAs, which made them ideal anchor organisations, were identified as: community governance structures and being embedded in the local community; housing assets and independent revenue streams; ability to mobilise cross-sector partnerships; strength of relationship with tenants and their credibility in the local community.
  • A number of challenges and barriers to developing associations’ potential as anchor organisations were however also articulated: funding constraints; lack of institutional support from within government (at both the local and national level); and the regulation of social housing.
  • The reality of doing housing in ‘hard times’ meant associations were being forced to think about their future role.  Embracing the community anchor role was identified by some as one avenue of ‘diversification’ that would allow CCHAs to remain true to their core values and ethos.
  • There remained scepticism about why associations needed to adopt a new label for what they did, and also concerns about the level of expectation placed on them by government.  This was linked to an awareness of the limits of area-based approaches to addressing entrenched and persistent structural inequalities.

These findings are important not only in the Scottish context, given their relevance to the proposed Community Empowerment bill and the Scottish Government’s focus on community regeneration.  They also offer important lessons for policy across the UK, given the policy rhetoric around Localism and the Big Society, both of which emphasise devolving decision-making downwards from the state to local people.

Crucially, the project highlighted real concerns about an increasing blurring of the boundaries between the public and voluntary sector, and also the challenges of delivering community projects in hard times (for HAs are also facing cuts to their budgets).  Returning more specifically to the issues for Scotland, whilst the ‘community anchor’ idea clearly has much merit, more definitional clarity is needed if it is to play a significant role in policy terms and a means of accessing public funding.

 

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Housing Association as Community ‘Anchors’

Posted by admin on January 21, 2012
CBHAs, community, housing policy, regeneration, social housing / 1 Comment

Taking advantage of the inter-semester break I’ve been out and about doing fieldwork for my current Carnegie funded project on the contribution of housing associations to Cameron’s ‘Big Society’.  One idea that has really taken my interest is that of housing association’s as ‘community anchors‘.  As regulated, financially stable, social businesses with effective local partnerships and a commitment to transforming their communities for the benefit of local people, this ‘anchor’ concept seems a useful one for describing the work of the sector.  It showcases what can be achieved through community asset ownership and community governance, and underlines the importance of connecting housing to other social policy agendas around health, education and so forth.

The idea that housing associations are more than just landlords is not a new one.  Many have long been active in community development and community regeneration projects to tackle the social and economic challenges within their neighbourhoods as well as the physical ones.  But as social housing budgets shrink whilst at the same time the relative poverty experienced by Scotland’s most fragile communities grows, the need for associations to connect the dots between housing and regeneration becomes even more critical.

In our most disadvantaged neighbourhoods housing associations are quite often the only agency with a physical on the ground presence.  The relationship they have with their tenants mean they are often the first port of call when problems arise. Whilst many directly provide support services to local people, they are also enablers working in partnership with other agencies to deliver services such as money and debt advice, childcare, education, employment training, welfare rights etc.

Whilst I have been really impressed at the depth and range of community projects offered by the case study organisations I have been visiting in recent weeks, I was also struck by the sheer scale of the issues they have to deal with on a daily basis.  Whilst they can use their skills and experience to attract funding and work with partners to alleviate some of the worst effects of poverty, on their own they cannot address the root cause of the issue.  And for me, this is where Cameron’s Big Society falls down.  I’m all for ‘local’ solutions and decentred decision making, but it is not cost free and it needs resourcing if it is to deliver real change.  The long-standing, entrenched inequalities experienced in many of Scotland’s communities (which are still experiencing the fall-out from de-industrialisation) cannot be effectively tackled by volunteering or philanthropy alone; what is needed is a serious commitment to tackling the growing inequality in this country: and the ever widening gap between rich and poor.  Given the changes afoot in the UK Welfare Reform bill it seems hard to imagine this will be achieved during the lifetime of the current coalition government.

 

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Achieving a Sustainable Future? the Scottish Government’s regeneration strategy

Posted by admin on December 12, 2011
CBHAs, community, regeneration, Uncategorized, Urban / 2 Comments

The Scottish Government launched it’s Regeneration Strategy today: Achieving a Sustainable Future?

No big surprises; rather it represents a reply to the previous discussion document and the responses received to this.

Whilst I was pleased to see a strong emphasis on Community-led Regeneration I find this at odds with the emphasis on Local Authorities and Community Planning Partnerships (CPPs) as lead agents of regeneration. There is an important question of scale here in terms of what is the best ‘scale’ at which to deliver regeneration. To me, ‘community’ and ‘municipalism’ aren’t the same thing (although I imagine there are people who’d disagree with me on this) … indeed many community organisations report very negative experiences of CPPs, not least because of local ‘politics’. Alas, it seems however that the re-establishment of a national regeneration housing agency (a la Scottish Homes) is not on the cards.

A major criticism I had of the previous discussion document (as outlined in my response to it on behalf of the GWSF of HAs) was a surprising lack of awareness of the contribution community-based houisng associations (CBHAs) have made to Scotland’s renaissance over the last 30 years. Thankfully this iteration of the document demonstrates a more nuanced and informed awareness of the contribution of Third Sector organisations and their capacity to act as ‘anchor organisations’ in a regeneraton context. I was also genuinely excited by the prospect of the new People and Communities Fund and the Community Ownership Fund. Nonetheless, the SG’s assertion that an “asset-based approach will also help to overcome stigmatisation and will support communities to have a positive identify in the future” (p19) seems at worst ill-informed with regards to the research on poverty and place, or at best very naive.

At the end of the day Scotland’s deprived communities are the product of deeply entrenched material inequalities. Giving people more control over local assets and decision making although important and welcome, cannot on its own address poverty and its damaging effects. This requires redistribution of wealth. Something that was largely absent from the regeneration strategy discussions. Perhaps this reflects the limits of the currenty devolution settlement, for control over the benefits and tax system (which are key tools for redistributing wealth) are preserved powers of the Westminister Government. Targeted place-policies, I fear, on their own are not enough to tackle the scourge of poverty in Scotland. We need to think about people as well as place policies.

On a final note, I was extremley pleased to see the point about the negative effect of stigmatising language (p46) as this was something I stressed in my own response to the discussion document. Nonetheless, despite this insightful reflection the document then continues to use exactly the type of language it admits to be stigmatising (‘disadvantaged communities’, ‘our poorest places’), so still more thinking needed on this one me thinks. Perhaps they should read the excellent report they commissioned from John McKendrick earlier in the year on ‘Writing and Talking about Poverty’.

Overall, an interesting paper which ticks all the regeneration buzz-word boxes, but I would have liked the SG to be bolder in its vision for regenerating Scotland’s low-income neighbourhoods, and to not shy away from talking about inequality. After all, as recent reports from the OECD and the JRF highlight the UK (and Scotland as part of that) is an increasingly divided nation.

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‘Mixing it Up’ – Can Tenure-Mix Help Overcome Social Distance?

Posted by admin on December 01, 2011
community, housing policy, housing tenure / 4 Comments

Last week I was teaching my class about mixed communities policy, and in the seminar that followed we were discussing our own attitudes towards living in socially mixed neighbourhoods and how tenure-mix might alleviate poverty. Now, as a housing researcher I am very critical of the evidence base underpinning this idea:

Mixed Communities

  • I find the ‘role model’ idea very patronising (in a nutshell this theory suggests social renters can become better citizens by living next door to home-owners … seriously?!)
  • I don’ think housing policy on its own can address the problems of concentrated poverty (wealth also needs to be redistributed via person centred as well as place-based solutions)
  • Research suggests home-owners and social renters don’t really interact on mixed-tenure estates (there still seems to be segregation within some estates)

Despite all of the above I still find the ideal of social mix an attractive one because of its potential to help overcome social distance.  And here’s why …. one of the things that struck me in the conversations with my students is that social housing is very much an alien concept to them. Few of them know social housing tenants personally, and so are too ready to accept popular stereotypes perpetuated in the tabloids which renders such people and places as ‘problematic’ (see Sean Damer’s class book for example).

This is in stark contrast to my own childhood experience in North Lanarkshire – a local authority dominated by council housing. I grew up in social housing and even now live in an ex-council house. My housing estate (or ‘scheme’ as we would call it in Scotland) is comprised of a mix of renters and owners, and to be honest that’s one of its endearing features. You can’t tell (aesthetically) which homes are bought and which are rented, and both are pepper-potted at the street-level, which allows more social interaction across tenures. Having experienced social mix first-hand I have a very different view of social housing from my students, because I can more easily separate the moral panic about ‘sink estates’ and ‘schemes’ from the reality of life in working class communities.

To me, mixing people of different backgrounds together (whether in the context of housing & neighbourhoods, comprehensive schools, a national health service etc) is key to bridging social distance and emphasising the common bonds that bind us all together.  Physical segregation by contrast reinforces differences.  Arguably one of the strengths of social housing in Scotland in its hey day was that it was home to a broad cross section of the population (it wasn’t just for the ‘poor’).  In a Scottish context tenure-mix has also been really important for social mobility by allowing ‘aspiring’ households to remain in their local community, instead of leaving it in search of better (often private) housing markets elsewhere.  This is probably the bracket I’d put myself in, as where I live now is only a few miles away from where I grew up as a child.  And I have a strong place attachment to the area.

So despite my hostility to the evidence base surrounding ‘tenure-mix’ as a solution to concentrated poverty, I have been pondering that perhaps mixed communities aren’t always a bad thing.  Nor does it always equate with gentrification as some on the left have argued (although in some circumstances it can do – see for example the work of Kirsteen Paton on Partick in Glasgow).  Would be interested in other people’s views on this, as I know many housing researchers are critical of tenure (and social) mix  – often for very good reasons.

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How Much is too Much Regulation?

Posted by admin on November 27, 2011
community, governance, regulation, social housing / 4 Comments

The importance of community

The Scottish Housing Regulator’s current consultation on reforms to the regulation of social landlords in Scotland has sparked controversy within the sector (see for example, recent articles in the Glasgow Herald and Inside Housing, and briefing papers by the community housing sector).

The biggest moot point is over plans to introduce a mandatory fixed-term for committee members (who make up landlords’ governing bodies).  This change is especially problematic for small, community-based housing associations (a dominant governance model in the west of Scotland), because their management committees are drawn from ordinary local residents.  The passion, commitment and local knowledge of these individuals, combined with the partnerships they forge with local housing staff have been central to the success of this governance model; and the skills and experience these community leaders develop over the years is invaluable. That the Regulator wants to consign this to the scrap-heap is sad indeed, especially when most committee members are already subject to regular, open elections.  A second related concern is the proposal to pay governing body members.  This not only contradicts the ethos of volunteering and place based social capital that underpins the community housing sector in Scotland, but seeks to introduce a ‘private sector’ governance model which is inappropriate for community organisations, many of whom are also registered charities.  There seems to be a real tension between the Regulator’s desire for ‘professional’ boards and the benefits of community governance through the community ownership of social housing.

Beyond this immediate issue, the consultation also sparks questions about how much is too much regulation?  There have long been concerns that housing associations are over-regulated compared to other independent, third sector organisations. Whilst housing association do receive financial support from the public purse does that mean the Regulator should be able to dictate the terms of their constitution, or how they govern themselves?  Or would the regulatory gaze not be better directed on the Private Rented Sector which is where the real rogue landlords are to be found?  Answers on a postcard …..

(for further discussion of mandatory terms see the excellent paper by GWSF )

 

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