I recently attended Empowering our Communities, an event organised by the Scottish Government’s Ingage team.
The event was billed as ‘a pop-up day of advice, inspiration and connections’. Like many of the delegates present, I’ve attended quite a few of these ‘inspirational’ events over the years, only to later be deflated by the grinding reality of funding cuts, tokenistic consultations and partnerships that are really partnerships in name only.
Community planning systems and structures come and go, but one key element crucial to making it work is so often the thing that’s missing: the community! There are reasons to be optimistic that the new Localities being introduced across the city could see this change, however.
Recent legislation like the Christie Commission and the Community Empowerment Act has given communities substantial new powers. Statutory agencies are now obliged to work with communities to produce community plans that have communities at their heart. And with an emphasis on genuine partnership working, we should see an end to top-down community planning, with councils and other statutory services doing things with communities and not to them.
And given austerity and funding cuts in statutory services over recent times, there’s an acceptance that councils and statutory agencies simply can’t deliver services in the way they have in the past. There is a realisation that there really has to be a new way of working.
Some local authorities have readily addressed these changing circumstances, and one of the highlights of the Empowering our Communities event was the premiere of Rocky Road, a short film made by Media Co-op.
Rocky Road tells the story of a ‘switched-on’ Council – East Ayrshire – working alongside community activists, supporting them to help save their local community centre. Without wishing to spoil the ending (!) the film illustrates just what can be achieved through trust and by genuine partnership working.
The film had a particular resonance for me as community centres in my own neck of the woods are currently going through challenging times as a consequence of the city council’s ‘transformation’ programme. They face uncertain futures as the number of front line Community Learning and Development staff has been slashed, with no indication yet of how centres which provide vital community services are to be managed and run in the future. The film, at least, had a happy ending – it remains to be seen if our local community centres will, too.
The film demonstrated that with enlightened thinking things can change, but there needs to be a will to bring about that change. That will is certainly there in the third sector, where partnership working has been the norm for as long as I can remember. But this time, there are encouraging signs that the will to work together is also there within the statutory public services – they are certainly talking a good game.
Talk is cheap, of course, and ultimately we must judge our partners not on what they say, but on what they do. Localities are in their infancy, but if communities are engaged from the outset maybe this time we can get community planning right. After all, no-one deliberately sets out to deliver poor public services, so it’s in all our interests to make this work. And wouldn’t we all love a story with a happy ending?
The film can be found at
Dave Pickering, Community Action North (CAN)
Chair, Forth & Inverleith Voluntary Sector Forum