Community Empowerment: Critical Perspectives from Scotland

Community Empowerment: Critical Perspectives from Scotland

Edited by Akwugo Emejulu and Mae Shaw
02.11.10

 

Trust in the community? Development Trusts in Scotland
Ian Cooke

 

Introduction: The background

 

Over the last 25 years, an increasing number of communities throughout the UK have established development trusts as a framework for community-led regeneration or as a means to address key community issues. On the face of it this seems to have been a largely organic development, and much of this activity has taken place with limited support from ‘professional community development’. But what exactly are development trusts, what historical, economic and political influences have shaped the development trust movement and what potential do they have to offer within a community development context? Development trusts come in a number of shapes and legal forms, but essentially they can be distinguished from other types of community organisations. Firstly, they are community-led and community-owned; this is enshrined within their constitutional arrangements. 

 

In the main, Scottish Development Trusts represent defined geographical communities and are seeking to either regenerate these areas or address a number of local concerns. Development Trusts are, therefore, multi-issue in nature. In seeking to address these multiple issues and concerns, they work in partnership with public, private and other third sector organisations – from informal working relationships to joint ventures. Finally, development trusts are committed to reducing their dependency on grant income through the creation of independent income streams from trading and social enterprise activities. Importantly, this explicit enterprising approach is oriented towards the acquisition and ownership of assets in order to deliver a long-term and stable income stream for the organisation. 

 

In this  way, the community ownership of assets can provide a foundation from which to launch community-led social enterprises and deliver sustainable transformation for a local area. The community ownership of assets also has the potential to increase the sustainability, independence and status of the organisation because community groups with assets are players – rather than tokenistic or peripheral participants – in the decision-making process with public, private and voluntary sector partnerships. The Development Trusts Association (DTA), the UK-wide body for these organisations, currently boasts a membership of 466 (this includes the 143 Scottish members); this gives some indication of the scale of the national movement. Within England, development trusts are more prevalent in urban, rather than rural, communities. This position is reversed north of the border for a variety of reasons. Scottish Development Trusts are more common in island and rural communities. The current membership level of the DTA significantly underestimates the extent of development trust activity in the United Kingdom as there are many community organisations who do not call themselves ‘Development Trusts’ but exhibit all the key characteristics which define the mission and scope of these types of organisations. For instance, West Kilbride Community Initiative conforms to the four principles of development trusts discussed above, but their name reflects the circumstances in which they were established. 

 

What is particularly striking within the development trust movement is the variety of communities and organisations participating, the array of issues addressed and the diversity of activities and services undertaken to tackle these issues. In terms of size and scale, Development Trusts range from those covering small rural settlements of between 40 and 50 people to the large, well established development trusts such as Coin Street Community Builders in central London. Formed over 20 years ago as a community response to the lack of affordable rented housing for local people in the centre of London, Coin Street now has extensive commercial and property interests on the South Bank such as the Oxo Tower and Gabriel’s Wharf. The income generated from these properties has enabled the Development Trust to establish 4 housing co-operatives and other state of the art community facilities for local people. 

 

The 2009 annual membership survey of the DTA calculates that the combined turnover of member Development Trusts across the UK is £275 million (of which £136 million is earned income) and that the asset base of members is currently worth around £565 million. In addition to land and buildings in community ownership, the assets of development trusts in Scotland include woodlands, harbours, housing, renewable energies (wind turbines, hydro schemes and bio-mass initiatives), castles, swimming  pools and other sports facilities, shops, post-offices, hotels and former Ministry of Defence bases. 

 

The changing context of Development Trusts 

 

The growth of Development Trusts within Scotland has taken place within (and arguably as a response to) a difficult and challenging context for many communities. Development Trusts often operate around the area of market failure and many have acquired, and successfully run, a range of commercial businesses, in many cases maintaining vital local services and safeguarding local employment. For many urban communities, and particularly the poorest urban communities, the last 25 years have been characterised by a succession of regeneration partnerships and initiatives by governments of different political complexions. 

 

While the experience of these partnerships, including their limited impact, has been well documented, the top-down nature of these arrangements has frequently required communities to engage on the terms of the paymaster, with issues, problems and the required solutions invariably being defined in advance by politicians and civil servants. Out-with housing funding, major public sector investment has usually taken the form of grant funding, and as a consequence, vital local services are being delivered by fragile community-managed voluntary organisations that are almost 100% grantdependent. The longer-term sustainability of this community infrastructure will be tested to the limit given the looming public sector budget cuts.

 

It is interesting to note that over the same period, the issues facing rural communities has been virtually ignored within contemporary community work literature in Scotland, yet the experience of many island and remote rural communities has been not that dissimilar to poor urban areas – effectively abandoned by the market (apart from the second home/holiday home market which has contributed further to the de-stabilisation of fragile rural communities) and systematically failed by central and local government. Arguably, the major exception to this public sector failure is the approach of Highland and Islands Enterprise (HIE), who have for some years encouraged and supported community-based social enterprises as a key element within their economic development strategy. 

 

Given these different, yet in some ways related, contexts which many communities have experienced over the last 25 years, it is perhaps unsurprising that a new approach – the Development Trust approach – has emerged: a framework which enables communities to define and prioritise issues for themselves, engage in genuine partnership by working on their own terms, release the creativity of local people, reclaim the idea of ‘enterprise’ from being the sole preserve of the private sector and increase the community ownership of land, buildings and other productive assets.  pools and other sports facilities, shops, post-offices, hotels and former Ministry of Defence bases. 

 

The changing context of Development Trusts The growth of Development Trusts within Scotland has taken place within (and arguably as a response to) a difficult and challenging context for many communities. Development Trusts often operate around the area of market failure and many have acquired, and successfully run, a range of commercial businesses, in many cases maintaining vital local services and safeguarding local employment. For many urban communities, and particularly the poorest urban communities, the last 25 years have been characterised by a succession of regeneration partnerships and initiatives by governments of different political complexions. 

 

While the experience of these partnerships, including their limited impact, has been well documented, the top-down nature of these arrangements has frequently required communities to engage on the terms of the paymaster, with issues, problems and the required solutions invariably being defined in advance by politicians and civil servants. Out-with housing funding, major public sector investment has usually taken the form of grant funding, and as a consequence, vital local services are being delivered by fragile community-managed voluntary organisations that are almost 100% grantdependent. 

 

The longer-term sustainability of this community infrastructure will be tested to the limit given the looming public sector budget cuts. It is interesting to note that over the same period, the issues facing rural communities has been virtually ignored within contemporary community work literature in Scotland, yet the experience of many island and remote rural communities has been not that dissimilar to poor urban areas – effectively abandoned by the market (apart from the second home/holiday home market which has contributed further to the de-stabilisation of fragile rural communities) and systematically failed by central and local government. 

 

Arguably, the major exception to this public sector failure is the approach of Highland and Islands Enterprise (HIE), who have for some years encouraged and supported community-based social enterprises as a key element within their economic development strategy. Given these different, yet in some ways related, contexts which many communities have experienced over the last 25 years, it is perhaps unsurprising that a new approach – the Development Trust approach – has emerged: a framework which enables communities to define and prioritise issues for themselves, engage in genuine partnership by working on their own terms, release the creativity of local people, reclaim the idea of ‘enterprise’ from being the sole preserve of the private sector and increase the community ownership of land, buildings and other productive assets. 

 

Because of the different elements within the approach it is difficult to place Development Trusts neatly on the political spectrum. Indeed the fact that Development Trusts talk of enterprise and assets in the same breath as cooperation and mutuality perhaps presents a challenge to the nature of the political spectrum itself. Despite this, the Development Trust movement seems fairly comfortable with itself, where it has come from and where it is going. In terms of the community ownership of assets it can point to a rich historical tradition emanating from the struggles of various groups from as far back as the 17th century (the Levellers, the Ranters and the Diggers perhaps being the most well known). 

 

Over the centuries, the community ownership of land and assets has run ‘like a golden thread through our social history’ remaining a consistent issue within progressive political thought, and subsequent struggles and movements (Wyler, 2009). The concept of community-based social enterprise can arguably be traced back even further – to the 12th century medieval guilds that owned and regulated their craft. Since then, the concept of social enterprise has informed the development of successive progressive movements (including the Chartists, the Rochester Pioneers, Robert Owen’s villages of cooperation, the trade union communities of the 1840s, and the early Co-operative movement), often being interwoven with ideas of community ownership. While the impetus for many of these social movements was the eradication of poverty and exploitation and a desire for transformative social change, Development Trusts within the current context make no such claims, preferring to draw on their rich historical legacy to provide practical and creative solutions to both traditional community issues and new, emerging issues, such as climate change, with an approach that is both proactive and often opportunistic in nature. 

 

As has been described above, the Development Trust approach is not rocket science and indeed part of the attraction for communities may lie in both the simplicity and the flexibility of the framework on offer. The current economic crisis has arguably posed more fundamental questions about the nature of the society we live in than any other event in recent years, summarised in the following editorial from The Independent (29th March 2010), ‘The present situation has shown us that the purely profit-motivated business model hasn’t worked. It never worked for the poor and excluded, but now it can’t even survive on its own terms. It has over-borrowed, over-promised and finally the bubble has burst’. If ever there was an opportunity to re-focus on the concepts of co-operation, mutuality and social enterprise and the re-emerging economic ideas of thinkers such as Ernst Schumacher (1999), then this is it. 

 

Faced therefore with the consequences of further potential economic crises, an increasingly  ageing population, and the twin threats of climate change and peak oil, it is fairly safe to conclude that communities will increasingly require to be stronger, cohesive, creative, more autonomous and more resilient. 

 

Conclusion 

 

While the development trust approach seems to have much to offer within the above context, it should be stressed that it is not a panacea for all of society’s ills. It does, however, offer a new framework for community development which draws on the strengths of effective and progressive grassroots-based practice. Importantly, the Development Trust approach also addresses many of the problems within contemporary community engagement work such as imposing change through top- down decision-making, tokenistic and marginal community participation and imposed partnerships and agendas. 

 

The Development Trust approach is not, of course, without its challenges. There is a fragility about some of what has been achieved to date and, like much other community activity, it runs the risk in some instances of community activist burn-out. In addition there can, at times, be a tension between the Development Trust being both democratic and enterprising. However there is no doubt that increasing numbers of local people are drawing inspiration and motivation from both the Development Trust approach and each other, and using this to achieve all kinds of success in their communities – often in very adverse circumstances. As more and more communities vote with their feet, professional community development would do well to, at the very least, ascertain why. 

 

References 
The Independent (10th March 2009) ‘Corporate social responsibility is vital for business survival’ http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/ sustainit/corporate-social-responsibility-is-vital-for-business-survival- 1640429.html 
Schumacher, E. (1999) Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. London: Hartley and Marks Press. 
Wyler, S. (2009) A History of Community Asset Ownership. London: Development Trust Association. 

 

Download full paper here http://www.povertyalliance.org.uk/ckfinder/userfiles/files/research/TheGlasgowPapers.pdf