Stephen Maxwell describes the achievements of Scottish civil society and the role it plays in Scottish life in 2015.
(excerpt from an article in View magazine, No. 1, March 2005)
At last Scottish local government felt able to move from its traditional defensiveness to a more strategic and enabling role. And central government frustrated by the slow progress of decades of community regeneration initiatives led by the public sector and spurred on by the relative success of community empowerment initiatives south of the Border was ready to respond.
The most disadvantaged of Scotland’s communities now have the option of claiming direct control over a share of the public budget spent in their areas, now an average of £130m per 15,000 inhabitants per year.
If the community can demonstrate that it has the local governance structures to secure proper accountability to both its local population and the national auditing authorities it now has a right to control up to 10% of its public budget on its own local priorities. A revitalised Communities Scotland now functions as the sponsor and support of communities ambitious for their own empowerment.
This empowerment option has transformed the prospects of many local communities. Energised by the opportunity to control a significant local budget a new generation of local activists has emerged to replace the depleted ranks of the previous generation worn down by the frustrations of working through bureaucratic partnerships.
Empowered communities are choosing to spend their budgets in many different ways. Some have introduced a system of part-time street wardens or stewards as an immediately accessible source of advice and informal help; some have employed extra night-time security services; some have employed dog wardens; some have bought in additional support for the frail elderly in their communities; others have invested in additional childcare or in recreational and sports facilities for their younger members.
Others have chosen to make a major investment in developing and maintaining local representative structures to strengthen the voice of their community to the public authorities, in some cases supported by a professional Community Manager and/or Planner. In some cases the generation of local employment opportunities has been a priority.
With their new power to purchase at least some of their own services, many local communities have experimented with voluntary organisations as alternatives to traditional public sector providers. Some have invited established organisations to bid for contracts while others have given priority to developing new community based organisations with the aim of maximising employment opportunities for members of their own community.
So in 2015 the feeling is strong in that a threshold has been crossed and that through the revitalisation of national, local and community institutions supported by a growing civil society an open and participative Scottish democracy can still be won.
‘View’ is published by the Scottish council for Voluntary Organisations, SCVO, www.scvo.org.uk.