The Demise of Community Empowerment

The Demise of Community Empowerment
Stephen Maxwell, TFN

In its 2007 election manifesto the SNP proclaimed that its aim ‘was to give individuals, families and communities more control of their own destiny’. This resonated well with a wider SNP theme of National Empowerment embracing a popular referendum on independence, an extended role for voluntary organisations in service delivery, the extension of direct payments to people receiving long-term support to live in the community, the promotion of community owned renewable energy schemes, and direct elections to health boards.

Under the heading New Powers for Communities the manifesto committed a SNP government to greater responsibility for community councils including the option of a £30 per resident budget. It expressed a particular interest in empowering Scots living in areas of deprivation, promising to pilot a scheme giving communities the power to opt for ’empowered status’ carrying a right to co-manage a proportion of public spending and services in their area. It proclaimed a belief that such measures of empowerment would lead to better service outcomes and build community capacity and self-reliance.

Now read the letter from Maxwell and McGuigan. It won’t take long as it’s only four hundred words, surprisingly short for a policy statement on a significant theme of the party’s manifesto which was the su.bject of several months’ post Election consultation.

The fourth paragraph is where sensitive stomachs may begin to slide. In place of the manifesto’s endorsement of direct empowerment the signatories recommend community empowerment ”as a process where people work together to make change happen in their communities by having more power and influence over what happens to them.’ They emphasise the ‘central representative role of councillors with community empowerment cast as a way of complementing this. They announce that they are eschewing new short term initiatives in favour of ‘strategic leadership’ which will celebrate the vibrant work already being done across the country.

So out go the ideas to give community councils some spending power, out go the pilots for empowered status for disadvantaged communities -and with them out goes most of the commitment to direct community empowerment. Instead the government’s effort is to be devoted principally to the established agenda of capacity building for communities, an integrated programme to develop skills in networking for community engagement, and working with Audit Scotland to assess progress. Game, set and match to COSLA, the Concordat and Community Planning Partnerships.

The disappointment is not that the government is intent on doing what it can to strengthen communities’ voice in CPPs. Rather it comes from the government’s failure to acknowledge that engagement in public sector led structures can never be a substitute for giving communities their own power to act and from its capacity to surrender so casually the cause of decentralisation it champions in its manifesto, in the process leaving Scotland one of the most centralised of all the Western democracies.

No doubt ministers see this concession to Scotland’s councils as a necessary part of their strategy for their first term. But they have other aims to pursue, among them the reduction of poverty and disadvantage and winning public support for independence in a referendum in 2010.

The empowerment of the least empowered of Scots has a vital role to play in achieving both those aims. By compromising the community dimension of their vision of national empowerment the government may have missed an opportunity to stir Scotland’s ambition for wider changes.