Scots are working miracles in their local communities

Scots are working miracles in their local communities
The National, by Lesley Riddoch


IS the Scottish Government about to drop plans to bypass councils and hand responsibility and budget for service provision directly to development trusts, housing associations and other grassroots organisations?


And if those plans have been set aside – after furious representations by the councils’ umbrella group Cosla — what’s the future for local governance in Scotland? Right now, it’s stuck betwixt the largest, most centralised and remote councils and (as a direct result) the most vibrant community sector in Europe.


Is there a way to unpick the stifling bureaucracy of the first without losing the zest of the second? Yes there is. But Scotland needs some honest and vigorous debate to find it.


John Swinney vaguely outlined plans to work around councils at last year’s SNP conference and promised more detail in a Local Democracy Bill. Legislation appears to have been quietly dropped – instead the Scottish Government intends to consult with the community and council sectors to decide how best to devolve power to communities.


Local democracy campaigners will be relieved that a random system of workaround arrangements has been dropped. It might have given local power to some community organisations but would have weakened the democratic principle in local life (because few of their boards are elected by the public) and would certainly have left the problem of overlarge councils untouched. Furthermore, for every bunch of gallus community volunteers who are currently handling massive capital investments in housing, renewable energy, schools, libraries, parks, elderly and childcare there are hundreds that aren’t.


So what’s the plan now? Will the SNP keep trying to find ad hoc ways to mitigate the disempowering effects of 32 massive councils, whose average population is 15 times larger than the EU average?


Or will John Swinney bite the bullet and try to get the best of both worlds – substantial community control overseen by a new tier of powerful town and island-sized councils?


The odds are against it. Generations of Scots automatically suspect any claims made for genuinely local democracy, even though our European neighbours show how to do it with minimal costs through joint procurement, officials running several portfolios, and evening meetings which cut the cost of councillors’ lost daytime earnings. Still many Scottish politicians and voters believe more local democracy means higher council tax bills, jobs for the boys, bureaucracy gone mad, a greater chance of corruption and gate-keeping by self-appointed local leaders.


These are deep-seated and self-harming beliefs but they cannot be shifted unless local democracy is taken seriously. And at present it is not.


That explains the near total absence of publicity for the astonishing achievements of Scotland’s communities, recounted last week at the annual Development Trusts Association Scotland conference (DTAS).


Listening to myriad tales of determination, creativity and common cause it was clear that small, village/parish/city neighbourhood/island-sized groups are harnessing the human energy oversized councils can neither reach nor sometimes even register.


Take Biggar where the council closed local public toilets in 2015. The community used community benefit cash from the Clyde wind farm and individual businesses donated money to re-open them. The automatic 20p charge allows the loos to be cleaned, maintained and kept open 24/7.


Take Oban where Rockfield School was transferred to the community by Argyll and Bute Council for £1k. The trust realised the school car park was a huge asset. Now parking charges generate around £27k per annum – the cost of one community worker.


Take Applecross where the petrol station closed a few years ago – the next pump was 17 miles away, so the community took it over. Thanks to increased tourist volumes on the North Coast 500 route and a rural fuel subsidy, the amount of petrol sold has trebled, helping prices for locals to remain a fairly competitive £1.20 a litre. And when Scotland switches to electric vehicles, the local community hydro energy company Apple Juice will provide cheap electricity to charge vehicles.


But there are bigger and more urban projects too.


Take Glasgow’s Maryhill Road. Last Friday marked the 40th anniversary of the Community Central Hall, a community charity that manages and delivers childcare, after and out-of-school care, a youth club, job club, café and catering; over-50s activities and homecare for older people and a print shop. With 60 permanent staff it’s one of the largest employers in Maryhill, generating 80 per cent of its income through its own services and contract work. Twelve years ago the lion’s share of its income came from the council.


This kind of leap from dependency to self-sufficiency is happening all over Scotland. But since there is no single big bang – the kind of story the media understands best – no-one knows.


Amongst the most impressive bits of community action is the Sunart Community Company on Ardnamurchan set up in 2007 to buy a couple of bits of land for a village green and footpath. The management committee soon realised there was a much bigger possibility – a £800k community hydro scheme which could pump-prime community development for decades to come.


With a huge volunteer effort they raised the cash in community shares before Westminster cut tariffs and effectively halted community hydro.


Now they have £70k a year to spend on local projects. The community then went one better, creating a 50-page, lottery-funded 30-year development plan. Rather than use expensive charrettes (the formal and expensive way of mediating public opinion favoured by central and local government) the document was displayed at the local agricultural show and locals put beans beside their favourite options.