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What will it take to mainstream community empowerment?

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There’s a buzz in the air in Scotland: proponents of community empowerment argue that it will address all manner of ills from democratic deficits to poor quality of life. 

Successful initiatives such as the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust are regularly cited as examples of how community bodies can benefit local people. Yet despite the popular, academic and policy interest in these developments, there has been little work to date to survey the whole population of community bodies that exist and operate throughout Scotland.

The research that does exist focuses on particular case studies (e.g. see academic papers by Aiken 2014 or Creamer 2015), on specific sectors (e.g. community renewables – see Harnmeijer et al 2015) or on certain community-focused policies and their effects (e.g. Markantoni & Woolvin 2015 or Hilliam et al 2015). So when my colleagues and I surveyed a sample of 65 different community-based initiatives in the Aberdeen region of Scotland as part of exploratory work for the EU-funded TESS project, we realised we had a unique dataset in our hands that could paint a regional picture of the community sector as a whole. The detailed analysis of that survey has been published in a ClimateXChange report but I want to use this blog post as a space to reflect on some questions that I have been mulling over as a result of this work.

In the latest instalment of what I call a community empowerment agenda, the Scottish Government passed the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 last year, with most of its provisions planned to be in place by the Summer 2016. Communities are being given the right to participate in the delivery of public services, the right to buy land and the right to manage public assets, amongst several others. So far, so promising, but based on my research, I wonder about how many organisations will truly be in a position to engage with these new rights.

My first question is around capacity. Half of the initiatives in our sample were entirely volunteer-based with no paid staff. Yet, delivering public services or managing public assets entails a high level of responsibility that is probably best borne by employees. My second question regards scale. The vast majority of the initiatives in our sample operated at a much smaller scale than the local authorities, health boards, police departments and other organisations that they are being encouraged to interact with. This means that any successful collaboration with a community body is likely to cover only a small part of the area for which the larger bodies are responsible.

The last question I have relates to funding. Fully a quarter of the organisations in our sample did not have significant financial activity because they were volunteer-based and relied on donations to cover costs. Of the remainder, the vast majority drew on funds from central or local government or from other public funding bodies to finance their activities. This begs the question: if many community bodies are reliant on public funds for their survival, can asset transfers or service delivery agreements really be called transfers of responsibility from the public sector to communities?

These issues do not mean that we should not be celebrating and encouraging community-level empowerment.  Personally, I believe that the principle of community empowerment is a good way to address a potential local-level ‘democratic deficit’, which arises from the relatively large scale of our lowest tier of government (as discussed by Andrew Copus on this blog). However, the results of our work advise caution. Certainly, there are a few community-based organisations that are well-established, financially sustainable and have the capacity to engage in community empowerment as it is currently envisaged.  However, this is not the case for many of the existing community bodies around Scotland. I suggest we will need to take more account of their much more diverse capacities and expectations if we want to see community empowerment become mainstream.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are the views of the author(s), and not an official position of the institute or funder.

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Printed from /blog/segs/mainstreaming_empowerment on 28/02/24 07:17:43 PM

The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.