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Is this power to the people?

This opinion piece is over 10 years old

Can legislation really help to empower communities? Ian Cooke, director of the Development Trusts Association Scotland, believes so

THE term community empowerment must be one of the most misused and abused terms within UK social policy, invariably used glibly to mask sloppy thinking and justify all sorts of activity.

Often claimed by those who hold power as a core intention of successive regeneration initiatives or various forms of community engagement, the reality for communities on the ground has seldom come anywhere close to the rhetoric. And yet community empowerment is quite a simple concept – it’s about giving communities power to make decisions on their own account, and supporting their capacity to implement them.

If ever society needed strong, independent and resilient communities it is now: financial crises, growing inequality, sustained reductions in public expenditure, demographic challenges, climate change and falling electoral turn-outs. As Tony Hawkhead, argues “a broken society won’t be mended from Westminster or the town hall. Society has to mend itself. This means those people with the most challenges being given the best tools and support to increase their self-reliance… a community that is empowered can effect real change”.

So how should we regard the Scottish Government’s new community empowerment bill – yet another rhetorical policy or a serious attempt to improve the circumstances under which communities can become stronger, more autonomous and more resilient?

If ever society needed strong, independent and resilient communities it is now

The community empowerment bill draws considerably on what has been happening in communities throughout Scotland over the last couple of decades. From Govanhill to Gigha, from South Uist to West Kilbride, communities have begun to take control and lead, rather than participate in, local regeneration processes. With an approach based largely on community ownership and community enterprise, an increasing number of communities are now achieving positive change, some of which has been truly transformative.

Over the last few years the Scottish Government has increasingly recognised this latent potential which exists within communities, and how this can be harnessed through the establishment of community anchor organisations, and this realisation has led to a clear change in policy direction towards community-led regeneration.

The community empowerment bill proposes a range of new rights for communities, and places new duties on public bodies, around the transfer of assets into community ownership and the ability of communities to be involved in the delivery of public services. While there is room for improvement in the wording of the draft legislation, there is no doubting the policy intention, and in this respect the bill has the potential to deliver a step change in the balance of power between communities and local authorities and public sector bodies.

Equally encouragingly, the bill proposes to extend the Community Right to Buy to urban as well as rural communities and proposes a welcome overhaul of the Community Right to Buy, making it a clearer and less onerous process. The bill recognises that in certain circumstances the public interest can greatly outweigh any private interest and seeks to explore when a more proactive approach is appropriate, and what that might look like. This area is a bold but necessary inclusion in the draft bill, and one for which the Scottish Government should be applauded.

The draft community empowerment bill does have some weaknesses. It has nothing to say about the future of community councils, and confusingly continues to refer to community planning as a community empowerment measure! However, the bill does seem to be a genuine attempt at real community empowerment, which following further work, should provide a much more supportive legislative framework for the future delivery of community-led regeneration.