empowerment

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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