Community Empowerment Bill: the importance of strong local communities

Community Empowerment Bill: the importance of strong local communities
Holyrood, by Kate Shannon

In the introduction to the seminal report produced by the Commission on the Future Delivery of Public Services in 2011, the late Campbell Christie said: “Reforms must aim to empower individuals and communities receiving public services by involving them in the design and delivery of the services they use.”

A year later, former Local Government Minister Derek Mackay introduced the Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill, as it was called then, by saying: “The Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill is potentially the biggest transfer of power since devolution, transferring power from central and local government to Scotland’s communities.”

So where are we now? Last week, the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill was passed by MSPs at Stage 3 and the week before that, Holyrood’s Community Empowerment Conference discussed the issues around the Bill in more depth.

Current Minister for Local Government and Community Empowerment, Marco Biagi MSP, told delegates at the conference: “It has been a long process of development from the start to where we are now. Like communities themselves, the Bill wasn’t conceived overnight. It has been led through a very open process which has involved communities at every stage, it has had waves of consultation and participation. The overarching vision behind it has been to free those communities, to empower those communities and has been motivated by a desire to decentralise power and responsibility to the real grassroots, the very local, the neighbourhoods and communities that are the building blocks of this country.


“It is based on the fundamental belief that no one knows an area better than the people who live there and so they are often the best people to be in charge and certainly always the best people to be in the driving seat of how areas move forward into the future.


“People can’t be forced into communities any more than I could use this Bill to force people to get around a table and like each other. What it can do and what we should be doing is creating the space and the opportunities so that those relationships can develop and those communities can come forward. Nowhere is that support element more important than for those communities which are and always have been, less prosperous.


“We talk a lot about inequalities of wealth and income but those are also manifested in inequalities of power and we know the importance for community health and actual physical health in feeling part of your community and in charge of your own future.”


Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) president, David O’Neill, chaired the Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy, which published its findings in 2014.


He told the conference: “I believe in strong democracy and when I talk about democracy, I don’t just mean institutions or politicians, I mean a whole system of democracy. That system includes people and communities and I believe communities are at the heart of a strong democracy. I believe we need a radically different mindset to the one we’re so familiar with. It’s time for us all to argue for a rebuilding of democracy and to empower our system in its entirety.


“I’m not looking for a trickle of power from governments to councils and from councils to communities. And not a trickle of power from governments to communities while local councils remain tightly controlled. I mean taking as a starting point, that the democratic power lies with people and communities. The change I envisage means some institutions and politicians give the power they’re used to having, and I include local councils as requiring to challenge their own thinking and the way they do things.”


Much of the discussion at the conference was centred on the role of community councils. Answering questions from the audience about why community councils weren’t included in the Bill, Biagi said: “Community councils are not the explicit focus of the Community Empowerment Bill, although, as community participation bodies, they gain the right for participation requests and if they set up community development trusts or arm’s length organisations, they can take advantage of asset transfer. 


“While this hasn’t been directed at community councils, community councils do get some benefits. Community councils are an area of grassroots representation which I want to get right and I recognise that there are massive variations across the country. In some cases where there is little community capacity, there are struggles to recruit. In other areas where there are healthy, flourishing community councils, there are perceptions that they are not listened to as much as they could be, then there are wider concerns about who takes decisions and at what level. These are big decisions and at this point all I can say is that the issues are on the radar.”