The Isle of Eigg, famous for its community buy-out.
The origins of Scotland’s Community Empowerment Act 2015 predated Scotland’s independence referendum, but like all things touched by that referendum, it grew in scale and imagination. What started as a few lines in the SNP’s 2011 manifesto about giving communities more power over eyesore land has become just one in a whole range of measures, united by one common thread – decentralising to communities at the most local level possible greater say and even direct control over what matters to them.
For far too long conventional social democratic thought focused on inequalities of income or wealth to the exclusion of concern about inequalities of power. Deprivation is also marginalisation. In those places where incomes are lowest so too often are hope and confidence. Without addressing one progress on the other is always going to limited. A line of thinkers from radicals like Jimmy Reid to Harry Burns, the previous Scottish Chief Medical Officer, point to the danger of this pernicious sense of alienation. The lesson we must all learn is that if regeneration used to be something done to people, instead today it must – it can - only be done with or by communities.
So the manifesto core remains. The Act creates a legal procedure for community takeovers, giving communities a proactive power to transfer assets into community hands. The idea at their heart is that public land or buildings can serve the public interest by being owned and therefore guided by the public in the most local and immediate way possible.
There have been many trailblazers. Scotland already boasts examples of community-owned sports centres, parks, nurseries, shops – even an airport. Each of these solves a problem recognised and defined by local people themselves. Each is to the credit of the superhuman efforts by small teams of volunteers. But people shouldn’t have to be superhuman to do it.
The safeguard has to be that the body must be genuinely controlled by that community. The purpose is to empower people who come together and work through collective action. Private interests, including charitable groups, can take part only as servants of that public control. No matter how well-meaning, a representative does not speak for a community if they are only self-appointed.
And as a land reform measure alongside, if there is private land that is abandoned, neglected or a blight on the local environment, the community will be able to buy it out, even without a willing seller. To help support communities make the budgets stack up, Scotland’s Land Fund is being tripled, by removing the exemption from business rates previously enjoyed by rural sporting and hunting estates and putting that revenue to a rather apt use.
Post-referendum Scotland has a society where citizens are engaged and vocal like never before, where turnouts are at their highest in decades and where people have shown that if they are afforded real power they take part. So community representative bodies – whether standing for localities or for communities of people sharing an interest, activity or characteristic – also through the Act gain a new route to take part in decision-making. This is focused on improvement – in part to avoid it becoming a blockers’ charter. If you think you can do better, then with community empowerment by all means you can try.
Indeed, one of the great advantages of Holyrood over Westminster is that we can practice governance at a more human scale. Scotland is a goldilocks nation, where the representatives of our communities can know each other and know their relevant government ministers and senior officials and all can work in partnership. That ‘Scottish Approach’ to decision-making needs to be embedded at the municipal level too.
Community Planning Partnerships, the statutory bodies that bring together the key players in each local authority area – like the council, the NHS, the police and Scottish Enterprise - are receiving a range of new duties to require them to support public participation in their decisions. They will also have to work at a more neighbourhood level too – coming together at levels like individual towns. Not only does this help ensure work tailored to the needs of individual communities, it creates structures that grassroots organisations can access more readily – just as Scotland-wide organisations can engage so much more easily with Holyrood than Westminster.
New powers will also allow the government to more easily introduce further innovations in participative democracy for these bodies. Chief amongst them is participatory budgeting, where communities decide directly on key local spending priorities running into hundreds of thousands of pounds. Real participation means entrusting groups of ordinary people with decisions, just as ordinary people had the decision over Scotland’s future. And participation also differs from consultation by bringing people in at the start when ideas are being conceived, rather than just asking for comments on proposals already drafted.
So the Community Empowerment Act is a big Act. It has to be. And there are other provisions, extending access to allotments, community woodlands, and greater supporter involvement – or even ownership – in football clubs. Even then, this Act is unlikely to be the last word on the matter.
Community Empowerment is more than a weighty statute, it is an agenda. The Act signals intent for how we as a government believe the public should be involved – not through the formulaic, almost ritualised process of certain consultations past but genuinely, truly involved. Scotland’s democracy is healthier than it has been in any of our lifetimes. We all have to see that for the wonderful, flowering marvel that it is, and make real the democratic promise that we all govern in partnership with the people.