Guestpost: Community empowerment and nationalism – a timely proposal?

The burd is delighted to welcome a guest post on proposed legislation on community empowerment and regeneration from Malcolm Combe, a Scots lawyer working at Aberdeen University who also dabbles in blogging.  And he dabbles rather well.  

Allow me to begin with an observation from the new but imaginary Scottish Ministry of the Bleeding Obvious. 2014 will be a huge year for Scotland. The Ryder Cup will see golf returning to its spiritual home, complete with a visiting entourage of our American cousins and our European brothers-in-golfing-arms. The Commonwealth Games will allow some of our slightly more loyal cousins (i.e. those who did not have the temerity to throw off the yoke of British rule at Yorktown, albeit with the help of their and now our French allies) a chance to enjoy a variety of sporting events at what some have called the second city of the Empire. This is on top of the regular and occasionally taken for granted cultural events, like the World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow, a typical hectic August in Edinburgh and the Gaelic music festival the Mòd, which will be at the capital of the Highlands that year. No doubt other events for the Scots and Gaelic diaspora will abound. That would be quite enough in most years, but add to those events the small matter of the opportunity for Scotland to remove the yoke it has shared with England, Wales and Northern Ireland for just a little while by way of a democratic referendum. 2013 is in severe danger of being a rather dull prelude to its successor, but no doubt it will be interesting enough as a run-up to 2014 for all that.

How that referendum will play out in 2014 is anyone’s guess, but it is fair to say there will be plenty guessing going on. Whilst that pointless but inevitable guesswork is ongoing, unionists and nationalists will be positioning themselves alongside whatever success story they can find or create to improve their chances in the poll. “Hooray” policies will be pushed for with gusto. “Boo” policies will be suitably hidden or attributed to the other mob. The SNP will no doubt seek to put plenty of populist ideas forward for the former camp after their time in minority and now majority government at Holyrood, but one less than headline grabbing proposal might also have a significant role to play. That proposal is for new legislation to empower and renew Scotland’s urban environment, in a manner that may just draw on success stories from rural Scotland like Eigg or Assynt. Planned or serendipitous, I think the SNP might just have conjured up something of a political masterstroke in terms of timing.

I have blogged about the proposed community empowerment and renewal measures at some length already. Broadly speaking, a wide variety of measures are contained in a consultation that is split into three parts: strengthening community participation; unlocking enterprising community development; and renewing our communities. All of these parts as broad propositions seem to fall into the “hooray” rather than “boo” category of politics. Of course, cynics might point out this sounds a bit like the Big Society (that so many are cynical of in itself), whereas others might point out that all this empowerment is great in theory, “you cannot eat engagement”. Society can only be expected to take up so much of the slack, and whatever slack is delegated must be carefully managed to ensure maximum and effective use is made of it.

All of these heckles deserve careful attention, but forgive me for glossing over them to look at the recently closed consultation on community empowerment and regeneration in a little more detail. The proposals in the three parts of the consultation, like an urban right to buy or a right for communities to make use of underused assets, lean towards giving local people control over their own destiny. This all sounds just a little bit like the nationalist cause in itself. That this should be so is not, of course, an unavoidable deduction. In a recent Holyrood debate celebrating ten years since the Isle of Gigha’s community buyout, the SNP’s Rob Gibson MSP noted no party had a monopoly on land reform. The now Lord Forsyth was anything but a nationalist when he shepherded the Transfer of Crofting Estates (Scotland) Act 1997 through the Westminster Parliament, but there is still a certain romantic analogy between winning your land for you and your community and winning your country for you and your countrymen. A report on the BBC website recently asked, “What motivates communities to buy land they live on?” Send your answers on a (scenic) postcard. You might find some of those answers are not too dissimilar to the answers offered by nationalists wishing independence for “their” land.

As a student, I visited Gigha to discuss matters land reform with representatives of the community. One person I spoke to was a Gaelic speaking, British forces veteran who had married an Englishwoman and was central to the community buyout of the island. This layered personality, who would no doubt be courted by both the Better Together and Yes Scotland camps today, took great pleasure in pointing out that every penny I spent on the island – his community’s island – would stay on the island, rather than leaving on the boat. That is what the community empowerment proposals seek to offer communities all over Scotland, not just Hebridean outposts. All of Scotland will be able to mobilise against figures like Raasay’s “Dr No” or the Grinch that almost stole the World Stone Skimming Championships.

I digress and I simplify, but will the ultimate legislation actually do that? Now here is the thing. I am not sure that it will. I am also not sure that it will not. The main reason I am not sure is the timing of everything. The initial consultation closed on 26 September. A fuller consultation on draft legislation is expected to follow in summer 2013. By the time that works through a further spasm of consultation and three stages of the Scottish Parliament, it will be comfortably 2014. Now, remind me what is happening in 2014 again?

If legislation is on the statute books, the SNP can (quite correctly) point at it as a legislative achievement. Let me suppose that the legislation offers something like the community right to buy that exists for rural communities (under Part 2 of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003) to urban communities. If it did, communities in places like Holmehill, Lochwinnoch, Kinghorn and Fairlie who have unsuccessfully wrestled with the bureaucratic right to buy (or, to be more precise, the right to register) might suggest it is not worth the hassle: 11 completed buyouts out of over 150 registered community interests in land is not a great conversion ratio.

But the most these communities could do is suggest. Provided any urban empowerment was packaged in a clever enough fashion to avoid any direct comparison to pre-existing rural legislation, no communities would have been tripped up by any bureaucracy or headed-off by a cunning work-around dreamt up by a canny legal adviser, quite simply because they would not have had time to unlock any legislative framework for community empowerment that is put in place. That being so, the bare fact of legislation to empower communities might just be enough to win plaudits (and with that win converts to the nationalist cause), without having to worry about whether or not the measures are actually going to be of immediate practical effect.

Now that would be a shrewd manoeuvre. Maybe I am reading too much into matters, but I do wonder. Of course, some would argue that the key goal of empowerment is more important than any overarching question of nationality. Others might note that is all very well, but true empowerment is more likely to happen when the constitutional arrangements that harness us to the rest of the UK can be undone, allowing us to pursue our own policy furrow without reference to the slightly different politics of other parts of the British Isles. This blog is not so presumptuous as to tell you which position is more meritorious. It is so presumptuous as to tell you that the community empowerment and renewal proposal is something worth watching in 2014. It might not be as exciting as the recent Ryder Cup at Medinah or as captivating as whichever moment is Gleneagles’ equivalent of Kaymer’s putt at the 18th, but watch this space as to which has a more lasting effect for Scotland’s (and, for that matter, Europe’s) future.


4 thoughts on “Guestpost: Community empowerment and nationalism – a timely proposal?

  1. Thank you for the comment. I can see why you might be a little cautious about whether empowerment will come, and indeed what that empowerment might be. The intermediary consultation exercise of the Scottish Government will be very interesting indeed.

  2. “… one of the significant failures in regeneration across recent decades is in the community engagement and community-led regeneration dimensions.”

    I included that statement, together with substantial supporting evidence, in my response to the Scottish Government’s 2011 consultation on a new regeneration strategy (the Cabinet author of which has since been moved on to another post). If there has been wholesale failure on even the intermediary steps of engagement and leadership roles for communities, where are the grounds for believing that community ‘empowerment’ will be delivered in Scotland?

    Empowerment and devolution have been enduring rhetoric among Scottish politicians and policy-advisors fro a couple of decades now – yet where are the demonstrable cases of realisation? The devolution of power is a specific term meaning that power has to be ‘given’ by those holding it. A fundamental step towards facilitating empowerment would be to lay out, in statute, the dimensions or characteristics of what ‘power’ are being talked about, and what the specific structures and process by which transfer will be facilitated (enforced?).

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