How we can learn from the Scottish experience

How we can learn from the Scottish experience


by David Donnison


from: Lest we forget: democracy, neighbourhoods and government

Ed. John Benington, Lucy de Groot and Jane Foot

Solace Foundation

November 2006



Contributing from north of the border to a pamphlet that will be written and read mainly by the English, I have to start by reminding them that Scotland is a different country. The Scots still believe in government. People working for the central and local authorities and in the public service professions form a larger part of the labour force than they do south of the border.


More Scots live in social rented housing and more send their children to state schools. The public services in Scotland contract out less of their work and rely less on private finance.


The Scots’ greater trust in the state

There are good reasons for the Scots’ greater trust in the state. One is that, in a smaller society, people know their colleagues and their politicians better. Peer-group pressures do not always guarantee good practice, but they work better here than in a society that is 10 times bigger, and the cruder disciplines of the market seem less useful. In a smaller country with a proportionately bigger state, do mobilised communities and loyalties rooted in neighbourhood play a weaker part in governance? That may be too complex a question to answer with certainty. But although parts of Glasgow and Dundee used to look and feel like cities of the former Soviet Union, many would argue that community-based patterns of governance have always been livelier in Scotland than in England.


Long before large-scale transfers of public housing to private landlords began, community based housing associations, largely managed by their residents, were set up all over Glasgow with strong support from the city council. Community councils have gained considerable influence in many parts of Scotland. Planning aid, set up by volunteers in the planning profession to help local communities grapple with the planning system, got off to an impressive start. Other community-based enterprises that owe nothing to the state also thrive. The proportion of people who play a musical instrument, often in ceilidh bands and less formal sessions in pubs and kitchens, is greater in Scotland’s central belt than anywhere else in Britain.


Scotland’s new parliament built on this tradition. From the start it encouraged petitions from any group wanting to talk to politicians. It set up a petitions committee to respond to them, which forwards the more significant appeals to relevant specialist committees, and the petitioners are invited to come and participate in that committee’s discussion.


Communities have to get their act together

A Land Act has given local communities a right to register an interest in the land on which they live, or in just one building standing there. The owners then have to offer the community a first opportunity to buy the property if they ever decide to sell it. Communities seeking to use these rights have to get their act together, raise the money they need, and therefore prepare agreed business plans that show how they would use the property and meet the costs of developing and maintaining it. Growing numbers of communities are achieving that.


A Mental Health Act was passed, which is helping to move large numbers of hospital patients into the community, and transfer decisions about compulsory medication and confinement from the courts to specialist tribunals. To make these provisions work fairly for people with mental illness or learning disorders the act requires health and social work authorities to ensure that their patients and clients have the help of independent advocates who can enable them to say whatever they want to those on whom they depend (parents, employers and landlords as well as doctors, nurses and social workers). The nationwide network of agencies which has grown up to provide this free service relies heavily on recruiting, training and supporting volunteer advocates. In many places this has been a community-based enterprise, involving groups of volunteers and groups of patients, bringing spokesmen of both into the boards directing the agencies, and collectively seeking improvements to the services involved.


It was a historical accident that this service began by helping people with mental disorders. It cannot be confined to them. Already it is being extended in different ways in different places – to help frail and elderly people, homeless people, parents whose children have special educational needs, and others.


There are many examples of such community based initiatives in Scotland, such as collective mediation between disorderly youngsters and local residents disturbed by their behaviour. There is also the campaign to eliminate religious bigotry and violence that Scotland’s first minister and his executive are mounting with the help of football clubs, youth groups and others; and the ‘Bridges Project’ which has mobilised employers to help refugees and asylum seekers find appropriate jobs. Qualifications must be added to this optimistic story. As in all voluntary movements, the character and vigour of these initiatives vary greatly from place to place. They tend to work better in the remoter villages and small towns than in Scotland’s biggest cities.


Political control of those cities usually rests with the Labour party, and Scottish socialism tends to rely on the state and be suspicious of voluntary agencies. Highlanders have an even longer tradition of hostility towards authority of every kind, including the state. They have always had to work with their neighbours to cope with their own problems. That may explain why the directory of Scottish voluntary advocacy services lists more agencies (in relation to population) in the Highlands than anywhere else; why the powers offered by the Land Act have been mainly used in remote places; and why the National Lottery, which at first sent outreach workers to every part of Scotland to help people apply for its grants, soon withdrew them from the remoter communities because they found them so much better equipped for the task than the people in poorer city neighbourhoods.



Seven lessons from Scotland

Does the Scottish experience provide lessons that will help people throughout Britain? I will confine myself to seven.


First, community action, which is to make an impact on public policy, requires an intelligent and consistent response from the state. With no friends in the corridors of power it withers, or turns to other issues that evoke a warmer welcome. So community action, like voluntary service generally, thrives best where the state has invested most resources and thought hardest about its own priorities and strategies. It is not an alternative or a rival to the state. It is an essential collaborator.


Second, now that central government is belatedly rediscovering the importance of action taken at neighbourhood level, some people at the centre will see this as an opportunity to speak over the heads of civic leaders in local government and to erode their powers even further. They must be resisted. It is a more responsive, more community-based form of civic leadership that we need, embedding local government more deeply among the people it serves, not some alternative, competing layer of micro-politics.


Third, demands for public services are limitless. There is no way in which the state, central or local, can meet all of them by hiring paid staff to do the job. Increasingly becoming an enabler rather than a direct provider, government will have to develop other strategies – many of them relying on volunteers. Our experience, in the difficult and fairly unglamorous work of advocacy for people with learning difficulties or mental illness, is that excellent volunteers come forward, and they bring us capacities that the paid professional may lack. They are less likely to become acculturated into accepting unattractive bureaucratic practices, more willing to challenge them: to assert that ‘it doesn’t have to be like that’.



A new profession is emerging

Officials in the services funding this work are sometimes uneasy about the numbers of volunteers involved and press the agencies on their payroll to become ‘more professional’. We have to tell them that a new profession is emerging whose skills include a capacity to work with local communities and their volunteers, which means listening and responding to them as well as offering leadership and training. Some people, feeling this argument is getting a bit out of hand, will remind me that I would not want my cancer treated by briefly trained, unpaid, parttimers. This is, of course, true. But I would hope to find doctors who listen, who respond to my circumstances, needs and wishes, who help me decide on treatment rather than just prescribing for me, and who put me in touch with other patients who can support and advise me.


Fourth, every public service is learning – some faster than others – that it needs the help of its local communities to achieve its objectives. The police were among the first in this field. There are fire services that spend more on teaching people how to prevent fires than on putting them out. (The fact that arson in schools has in many places increased suggests, not that this is a mistaken strategy, but that they may be talking to the wrong members of the community. 


It also poses challenging questions about the reluctance of many schools to engage with the communities in which they stand.) Environmental cleansing services might do better to spend more on persuading people not to drop litter than they spend on picking it up. It is the services that are, in the old-fashioned sense, most ‘professional’ which have often been slowest to learn these lessons.


Fifth, when vulnerable people seek improvements in services to meet their own needs they are not just acting as selfish pressure groups. They bring insights to the table which ultimately help all of us. A group of people in Dumbarton who have learning difficulties were recently invited to help in training bus crews. They said: ‘remember that some of your passengers cannot run along the street to catch the bus; some may have difficulty mounting the step to board your bus; some will have difficulty handling money; some need time to sit down before you let in the clutch; and some may not know where to get off unless you shout the names of your stops’. Which of us will not be grateful for bus crews trained in this way?


Sixth, I believe that it is very important to keep community-based initiatives flexible, innovative, experimental, and open to new ideas and new people. It is their sense that they are given considerable responsibility to work with colleagues, paid and unpaid, on the frontiers of practice in their field that attracts and retains such good people.


Seventh, the ‘academy’, meaning research and higher education in general, has so far made little contribution to these developments. (None at all to advocacy for people with mental disorders.) In time, the universities must help, if only because exposure to such ideas will help them. They are a striking example of a service committed to expansion targets which cannot possibly be met by simply multiplying present teaching and staffing arrangements many times over. Moreover, no one can properly teach political science, medicine, law, social work and other subjects which deal with an evolving society unless they are aware of the developments discussed in this pamphlet.


But the universities’ involvement must be cautious, modest and shrewd. If we end up with a new profession of highly-trained, communitybased, public service workers that can only be entered by people who belong to the right professional institute and have the right letters after their names – we shall have failed! And if students graduating from medical schools, law  schools, planning schools and other parts of the university go forth to practice their professions without a thought for the communities in which they work, we shall have failed twice over!


Daniel Barenboim, speaking of music in this year’s Reith lectures, offered us a philosophy that every profession should learn from. ‘Music’, he said (I noted it, but do not have short-hand), ‘is something we try to do professionally. But it’s not a profession. It’s a way of life. There is no special niche, excluding all others, for what we do. It encompasses musical traditions of every kind, and welcomes everyone to share in it’. Much the same could be said about healing, teaching, social work, law and other ‘ways of life’.


Thanks to Geoff Fagan for help with an early draft of this article


David Donnison is emeritus professor/hon. Senior research fellow in the Department of Urban Studies, University of Glasgow, He was previously chair of the Supplementary Benefits Commission, director of the Centre for Environmental Studies and professor of social administration at the London School of Economics. The latest of his many books is Last of the Guardians. A story of Burma, Britain and a family. (Superscript, 2005)


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