27 November 2015

Community Anchors and Opportunities for Locally-led Public Service Reform

Reflecting on his recently published Think Piece on this subject, James Henderson, Research Associate with What Works Scotland, considers the potential for community anchors and the community sector to be central to local democratic and inequalities-focused approaches to public service reform in Scotland.

Urban deprivation and racial discrimination, rural deprivation, the American Civil Rights movement, 1968 and all that, economic and political crises during the 1970s and 1980s, New Labour communitarianism … each can be woven into the complex story as to how the community sector has become a key element in the modern UK policy landscape. John Pearce’s (1) 1993 research into ‘the community economy’ illustrates the community sector’s own experience of such change and the diversity of community organisations and enterprises that arose from the 1970s onwards … community housing associations, development trusts, community coops, credit unions, community enterprises, multi-purpose community organisations and so on.

The Scottish Community Alliance calculates there now to be over 2000 community-based organisations and enterprises working across urban, rural and remote Scotland. Its 18 member bodies include organisations and networks working on housing, social enterprise, community finance, health and well-being, renewables and recycling, community ownership of land and property, transport, farming and food, community arts, retail, sustainability and the environment and more. So offering significant opportunities to lead and support local service provision, local economic developments, community-building, and community leadership and advocacy.

Perhaps no surprise then that the Christie Commission’s 2011 report recognises the opportunity that independent community sector organisations present to Community Planning Partnerships (CPPs). Indeed it advocates and illustrates community-led approaches to service design and delivery; to regeneration, prevention and place-based working; and to increasing local democratic accountability and planning.

What Works Scotland’s research agenda is therefore committed to explore the roles of community and third sectors; for instance, recently holding the People Making a Difference in Communities conference. Here university researchers – including What Works Scotland’s Oliver Escobar – actively engaged in discussions with participants from across the public, third and community sectors about forms of leadership and participation in neighbourhoods and communities. Similarly the What Works Scotland publication Reimagining Community Planning discusses the development of empowering local democratic spaces through an increasing third sector role.

Crucially, the community sector has its own long-standing tradition of developing thinking, practice and research. John Pearce, again, writes in 1993 from experience of locally-owned community enterprises able to facilitate wider local community economic and social development, calling these ‘core community enterprises’. Such thinking continues through the community anchor ‘model’ of multi-purpose, community-led organisations – promoted by the Scottish Community Alliance and, likewise, in the Scottish Government’s 2009 Community Empowerment Action Plan and 2011 Community-led Regeneration Policy.

Community development trusts and community housing associations are particularly well-suited to the anchor role, although other multi-purpose community organisations can fit the bill too. Many of these organisations have been able to establish long-term financial strength through significant community asset ownership. They are then able to undertake a wide range of: service provision and welfare advice; local economic development and community-building; and community leadership, advocacy and local democratic activity.

In a longer Think Piece on Community Anchors for What Works Scotland, I consider in more depth the roles of and evidence for such independent community organisations. I indicate the crucial role of joined-up CPP and public sector working in enabling the longer-term development of such anchors across Scotland. I point, as well, to the potential for anchors not only to take forward very practical community-led activity but to keep the focus on actual progress in tackling inequalities. Such ‘empowered local democratic spaces’ within working class and marginalised communities would provide invaluable partnerships with CPPs; particularly as the latter seek to reduce socio-economic inequalities of outcome, in line with the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015. A locally-led ‘Scottish Approach’ to public service reform …


(1) For more information on the work of John Pearce, see details of the first John Pearce Memorial Lecture organised by Yunus Centre for Social Business and Health at Glasgow Caledonian University.

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