4 June 2019

Community-led activity: time to invest in expansion

As part of What Works Scotland community sector inquiry work, Ian Cooke, Director of the Development Trust Association Scotland – one of the advisory group for What Works Scotland’s community anchor organisation research and report analyses the current context for community place-making and calls for a commitment to investing in the significant contribution anchors can make to building community infrastructure. 

The recent research by What Works Scotland highlights the important role of community anchors as catalysts for local democracy, local resilience and social change. This places communities at the heart of social policy development and implementation in Scotland, and the question of how communities respond to this challenge will be a major determinant of the kind of society which emerges from the current context.

The research set out to explore the potential role of community anchor organisations within public service reform and, while communities clearly have a key role to play within what is a national political priority, they also have a role to play within some of the other major challenges facing society in Scotland. These challenges include addressing climate change, responding to an aging population and creating greater economic opportunity for marginalised groups of people and communities. But communities are also increasingly at the heart of the place-making agenda, and so are addressing the issues of urban blight, rural de-population and re-localising economic activity.
Indeed, it is difficult to think of many policy areas where communities do not have a role, or potential role, to play.

Community-led place-making: innovative but fragile 

Community-led activity has not emerged from policy development – although the policy context has certainly become increasingly supportive in recent years. It has largely been a bottom-up, organic activity, as local people have responded to threats, challenges and opportunities. As such there is no blueprint for community anchors – and certainly not one which can be imposed from the top. The motivation must come from communities themselves. This community-led activity is often characterised by creativity, innovation and enterprise. It is resourced through enterprise activity, short term grant funding, local fundraising and voluntary effort – and as such there is a degree of fragility to much of it.

Community-led development to date is clearly a Scottish success story, and it would seem everyone, including the Scottish Government, wants more of it. But are we prepared to properly resource it? The What Works Scotland research correctly identifies a number of key barriers to progress, but core funding of community anchors – or more correctly the lack of it – is at the heart of the fragility mentioned above. It is difficult to see how community-led activity can develop and grow, without a corresponding development of organisational capacity within community anchors.

Piecemeal investment or long-term commitment?

It would seem that community-led activity is at a crossroads in Scotland.

We either continue to resource it entirely through fragmented and short-term funding – resulting in at best a plateauing of the current level of community-led activity – or we invest in it to build the organisational capacity within community anchor organisations which enables them to expand their contribution. Despite receiving annual budget settlements, the Scottish Government has always invested in large infrastructure projects which carry across a number of financial years. Is there a more important infrastructure project currently than investing in our communities to build the kind of leadership and resilience which will drive forward change at a local level?

See the community anchor report Transforming communities? Exploring the roles of community anchor organisations in public service reform, local democracy, community resilience and social change on the What Works Scotland website.

See the other blogs in the community sector inquiry series

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