4 June 2019

Tackling inequalities by supporting 'enterprising' communities

As part of What Works Scotland community sector inquiry work, Pauline Hinchion, Director of Scottish Communities Finance, returns to the Christie Commission's report to consider the fundamental challenge of empowering low income communities and the potential for asset-based approaches to work alongside public services.

The Christie Report placed people and communities at the heart of its vision for innovative 21st century public services in Scotland when published in 2011. Communities are written into the very DNA of the Christie Report and, in particular, the grassroots knowledge inherent in all communities is singled out as a source of agency and power which, if harnessed, could transform our public sector reform agenda. The role of communities in undertaking activities that ultimately act as preventative approaches to addressing public and social health issues resulted in the Christie Report recommendation:

"We recommend that, in developing new patterns of service provision, public service organisations should increasingly develop and adopt positive approaches which build services around people and communities, their needs, aspirations, capacities and skills, and work to build up their autonomy and resilience" (p27)

By allocating a proactive role to communities and by default individuals, the Christie Report recognises that 21st century public services can no longer be 'done to' people. Rather, the stronger and more empowered they are, and the more that people are involved and in control of services that directly impact upon their lives, the better public services will serve them.

The Christie Report was quickly followed by a community empowerment agenda, resulting in: an updated Community Empowerment Act (2015); an extension to the Land Reform Act (2016); and the currently emerging Local Democracy Bill. These Acts provide essential regulatory frameworks for expanding the influence and role of local people and their communities in the delivery of public services and the improvement of their neighbourhoods.

Community asset ownership as a complement to public service provision

Subsequently, the ingenuity and entrepreneurship shown by some Scottish communities in embracing both the public service reform and community engagement agendas is evidenced by the depth and breadth of their actions – including:

  • the acquisition and refurbishment of harbours, woods and land; 
  • the purchase and operation of local shops, pubs and post offices; 
  • the creation of community energy companies and the takeovers and; 
  • the management of both a ferry service and a caravan park.  

In one case a community has built its own school, which it leases to the council and can be converted to houses, if it is no longer needed to fulfil an educational role.

These assets have become the vehicles that have allowed communities to address their own social and economic issues in bespoke ways.

"Positive approaches are already being taken forward in Scotland at a local level under a variety of names, perhaps best expressed as an asset-based approaches" (p27)

Community assets used in this way address some of the structural issues that are known to have an impact on public services - in particular health and welfare services.  The emergence of new forms of locally-based services such as the 'Buurtzorg' social care model and social enterprises that address issues such as loneliness not only complement state provision but can have a positive effect upon reducing the demand for public services. 

Supporting low income communities to make the most of local resources

In many of the cases mentioned above, the communities themselves have pooled their own money to fund the purchase and building of these local assets via Community Bonds and Community Shares. This is a source of finance that the Christie Report highlights as being under developed.

"Contributions from other sources are under developed. Individuals, communities, businesses, voluntary organisations, social enterprises and charities all have resources and capacities that could be utilised more fully" (p21)

Yet, nearly eight years after the publication of the report and despite some early evidence of community success, their capacity to be able to fully undertake their anticipated role was and remains uneven. Many of those communities most dependent on public services have not had the opportunity to fully embrace the community empowerment or public sector reform agendas.  The chance to shape public services to meet their needs has not been properly grasped. Similarly, the opportunities available to them via the community empowerment agenda have not really taken hold. 

The Christie Report anticipated the unequal pace of reform and recommended:

"action to build community capacity, recognising the particular needs of communities facing multiple social and economic challenges" (p36)   

An explicit acknowledgement by those in power that ALL communities have a wealth of resources available for utilisation in public service provision is crucial to upending the status quo and perception of low income communities.  This extends to a wealth of history; knowledge; kindness; shared experience; infrastructure; economy and money. Realising those assets can be difficult but it is vital to reform our public services.

The role of Scottish Communities Finance is to work with communities across Scotland to assist them to pool their available financial resources. This money is then made available to social/community enterprises in order to address issues at the local level. This offers people opportunities to 'invest' in their own solutions at a local level. This is one mechanism of releasing some of that inherent wealth.  With a little bit of creativity, other instruments such as creating community endowment funds can also play a part.

The failure of the state to materially and financially support communities directly is a failure to recognise that our poorer communities are not just a drain on public services but rather, with their own assets and resources, can actually ameliorate need and assist in meeting the demand and delivery of public services.

The Christie Report focus on communities coupled with the empowerment agenda has unleashed the power of some communities to engage in very innovative and creative actions, when the appropriate tools and mechanisms are available. However, the journey towards the report's public service vision could be advanced significantly if the dedicated resources, support and commitment needed to increase capacity, confidence and address power inequalities of communities across Scotland were further developed.

See reports and resources for the community sector inquiry on the What Works Scotland website.

See the other blogs in the community sector inquiry series

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