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You take the high road, I'll take the low road, and we'll see who's more democratic when we get to the other end…

Updated Tuesday 25th November 2014

While there are many apparent similarities between the rhetoric of ‘Localism’ in England and that of ‘Community Empowerment’ in Scotland, a closer look reveals striking contrasts in the ways that these policies have been developed and what they mean in practice.

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Community participation and the nature of democracy have hardly been at the heart of the independence referendum debate in Scotland, although there are some notable attempts to create innovative and constructive dialogue around the issues. As the days count down towards the Scottish independence referendum in September, much of the debate focuses on economic factors. In particular, both sides have been keen to argue that people in Scotland will be better off if the vote goes their way – that there will be an 'independence bonus' or a 'UK dividend'. And both camps have tried to recruit prominent business people to support their arguments, alongside the inevitable cocktail of A, B and Z-list celebrities.

However, beyond the pounds, shillings and pence (or is that euros and cents?) and the celebrity endorsements, there are much broader issues of policy divergence between Scotland and the rest of the UK which are getting less attention, but arguably have greater implications. And looking beyond September, regardless of the outcome, the developing policy differences between Scotland and England, not to mention Wales and Northern Ireland, provide fascinating test cases for comparison as varying ideas are tried out in nations with such a wealth of shared culture and institutional history.

Crucially, Scotland already looks like a different type of democracy. Proportional voting systems at national and local levels have brought smaller parties to the table, disrupted Council fiefdoms and generated effective coalitions in ways that Nick Clegg can only dream about south of the border.

Perhaps more importantly, though, the Scottish Government (and to a certain extent the Scottish Executive prior to 2007) has made a concerted effort to create a more participative culture of community involvement and democracy in Scotland. And while there are many apparent similarities between the rhetoric of ‘Localism’ in England and that of ‘Community Empowerment’ in Scotland, a closer look reveals striking contrasts in the ways that these policies have been developed and what they mean in practice.

How (not) to develop community participation

Much satirical mileage was made of the fact that David Cameron had to launch his Big Society agenda four times and even after the fourth attempt to get his big idea across, few people really understood it and even fewer appeared to care. Meanwhile, the less nebulous programme of Localism has had a number of teething problems, with Neighbourhood Planning being stymied for some time by the legal might of the big housing developers and the Community Right to Challenge proving about as popular with community organisations as a politician at a dinner party. Although other factors undoubtedly played a part, some of these hitches were perhaps inevitable given the disjuncture between means and ends. If the Big Society and Localism were really intended to be the start of a revitalised civil society and a rebuilding of local democracy, it is not hard to see the irony in their emergence from centralised government pronouncements and pre-election strategising in a darkened room somewhere in Conservative Central Office.

By contrast, the Community Empowerment approach of the Scottish Government has been developing much more smoothly over the last seven years, despite the radical nature of some of its proposals. The Community Empowerment Bill which is currently on its way through the Scottish Parliament provides a case in point. Rather than developing the legislation centrally with the statutory minimum level of consultation, the Bill has evolved over a year and a half of discussion with communities, activists, practitioners and agencies across Scotland.

And although only time will tell whether it will significantly alter democratic culture, it seems that this discursive creation process has created a broad base of support. Even the more controversial points of the Bill, such as giving communities the power to compulsorily purchase 'abandoned and neglected' land, have generated discussion rather than squeals of complaint from the property owning lobby.

Balancing power and responsibility

When it comes to implementation, at the heart of Localism, Community Empowerment and similar community-focused policies elsewhere, lies a tension between power and responsibility. On the one hand, many communities have a keen interest in gaining more power over their own destiny (not always for nimby-ish reasons), while on the other hand, there are concerns that governments want to shift responsibilities onto communities as they hollow out public services in a context of austerity. Crucially, in order to really understand how particular policy regimes manage this tension, we need to explore in some detail how they are structured and implemented in practice.

As an example, Moore and McKee point to the very different ways in which asset transfer and ownership is being encouraged in the different parts of the UK. While communities in Scotland are to be given more powers to purchase assets from the public and private sectors at a fixed price decided by independent valuation, communities in England only have the right to slow down asset sales before bidding on the open market. It is hard to imagine how communities such as the Assynt crofters or the islanders of Eigg would have been able to raise the necessary funds to buy their land without the certainty of a fixed price. Clearly there is a difference in power here, but there may also be a difference in responsibility, with communities in England being pushed towards paying too much to secure things that they see as assets, which then become liabilities.

Moreover, this example also hints at a much more fundamental difference between the two policy agendas. Whereas much of the rhetoric of Localism emanating from the Westminster Coalition presents the state as a barrier to community action, which needs to be dismantled to give community enterprise space to develop, the Scottish Government are clear that community empowerment can happen in partnership with the public sector. So although the Scottish Government is not averse to a bit of neoliberal austerity (the level of cuts being applied to local government budgets is substantial on both sides of the border, at around 30% between 2008 and 2015 in England and 24% over the same period in Scotland), the assumption of the Community Empowerment agenda is that empowerment happens through influencing and working in partnership with public services, rather than replacing them with a patchwork of voluntary effort. So the Council library that is operated by volunteers has a very different sense of sustainability from one being run in isolation by a community organisation after enforced closure by the local authority.

On both sides of the border there is a considerable risk that policies aimed at improving services and outcomes through community participation are tangled up with, if not driven by, a primary agenda of cost-cutting.

And such confusion has implications for the effectiveness of community participation policies – survey evidence suggests a considerable degree of cynicism about the Big Society being just a cover for the cuts, and support for community involvement only insofar as it is augmenting rather than replacing public services.

This is particularly problematic for the Coalition, given the explicit connection they draw between greater community participation and their critique of state centralisation and bureaucracy. Though, once again, it pays to examine how the rhetoric and the policy play out in practice. Perhaps because of suspicion among communities that they are being offered responsibility rather than power, the latest manifestation of Localism in the Our Place programme, which purports to 'give people more power over local services and budgets in their neighbourhoods' appears to be dominated by projects led by local authorities or larger voluntary sector bodies, rather than neighbourhood-based community organisations. It remains to be seen whether the Scottish Government's approach of giving communities a right to participate in improving services will be more widely welcomed by communities.

Implications

So as the evolving Localism and Community Empowerment agendas manage the balance between power and responsibility in different ways, there are important implications for the success or failure of these policies. Perhaps underlying these diverging approaches are different conceptions of how community participation might work as a policy lever. If governments at national or local level are serious about involving communities effectively to transform services and improve outcomes, they need to move beyond the traditional mindset which utilises just three tools – carrots, sticks and sermons.

Working with communities to enable them to take more power and/or responsibility sets a challenge for politicians and civil servants who are accustomed only to funding, regulating and lecturing. And from the perspective of communities, there is negotiation and manipulation for political ends.

While the Localism agenda includes a whole array of new community rights, it seems that the lack of dialogue in designing these rights may mean that they are less attractive to communities, whereas the participative approach to developing the Community Empowerment agenda in Scotland has given it a very different starting point. Perhaps ironically, the very state centralisation that the Coalition so vigorously critiques makes it difficult for Whitehall to engage people in policy development.

When the people of Scotland cast their votes in September it seems unlikely that they will be thinking too hard about the diverging forms of democracy and community participation on either side of the border. But the questions of whether continuing within the UK limits the space for innovation in these areas, or whether independence might undermine the participative ethos of policy development in the Scottish Government are surely relevant. And whatever the outcome of the referendum, there are substantial opportunities for fruitful comparison and policy learning between Holyrood and Westminster as the issues of power and responsibility play out in communities.

References

  • Moore, T. & McKee, K. (2013) 'The Ownership of Assets by Place-Based Community Organisations: Political Rationales, Geographies of Social Impact and Future Research Agendas', Social Policy and Society
  • Defty, A. (2013) 'Can You Tell What It Is Yet? Public Attitudes Towards ‘the Big Society’', Social Policy and Society, 13(1), pp.13-24.
  • Bemelmans-Videc, M., Rist, R. & Vedung, E. (1998) 'Carrots, sticks and sermons: Policy instruments and their evaluation', London: Transaction

This contribution has been commissioned for an editorial partnership between Participation Now and openDemocracy.net.

 

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