In light of the independence referendum, a central point of interest for the SURF network is the recurring question of whether either outcome will deliver any meaningful change to existing relationships between communities and regeneration agencies. In this article, SCDI Policy Executive Iain McCreaddie considers the potential impact of the Scottish Government’s forthcoming Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill and the important supportive role of the COSLA Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy.

In December 2011, the Scottish Government published its Achieving a Sustainable Future Regeneration Strategy, in which it stated a commitment to:

“ensure that all of Scotland’s communities are sustainable and promote well-being and that, in pursuit of sustainable economic growth for Scotland, no-one is left behind.”

At the heart of this objective is an emphasis on ‘community led regeneration’. For the Scottish Government, this is about:

“local people identifying for themselves the issues and opportunities in their area, deciding what to do about them, and being responsible for delivering the economic, social and environmental action that will make a difference.”

Asking the Right Questions

The economic development and urban policy expert Geoff Fordham suggests that there are three questions that we should ask ourselves when assessing the sustainability of a regeneration project:

  1. Have individual projects achieved lasting benefits?
  2. Has the initiative changed the underlying cause of the problem?
  3. Has there been a wider impact on the long term behaviour of the actors?

Answering these questions suggests that community participation in regeneration projects is imperative if we are not to misunderstand the issues facing a community. Fordham, author of the 1995 Joseph Rowntree Foundation report Made to Last: Creating Sustainable Neighbourhood and Estate Regeneration, also said that correctly diagnosing the problem and providing an informed solution is not enough. What is also important is that there is both “provision of resources commensurate with both problem and remedy” and an “exit strategy”. 

Oban Phoenix Cinema Winner of the 2013 SURF Award in the Community Led Category

Oban Phoenix Cinema Winner of the 2013 SURF Award in the Community Led Category

Resolving an identified problem through the investment of resources recognises that sustainable community led regeneration has to involve some level of partnership working with private investors. As external private funding for regeneration is not indefinite, there ultimately needs to be a successor in place to take over a regeneration project at some point to maintain that project for future generations. The community, with a long term presence and investment in an area, would seem best-placed to take this baton at the appropriate point.

In her famous 1969 Ladder of Citizen Participation journal article, the American public policy and planning analyst Sherry Arnstein described the levels of participation in a partnership where the parties have different levels of power. She recognised that: “participation without redistribution of power is an empty and frustrating process for the powerless.”

For Arnstein, participation only truly starts to exist once there is an agreement between the powerful and the powerless to share planning and decision making responsibilities through, for example, joint policy boards and planning committees.

Legislation Can Be Changed – But What About Culture and Trust?

At present, community participation is perhaps seen as a hegemonic project whereby the corporate and political players use it as a mechanism to legitimise decisions which would have been taken anyway regardless of the community’s involvement.

The Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill, alongside COSLA’s Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy, demonstrate a commitment by the Scottish Government to meet the vision set out in its 2011 Regeneration Strategy and address this problem.

The Bill outlines a clear intention to shift power into the hands of the community through legislative changes such as ‘right to requests’ in relation to property and to participate in processes to improve outcomes of service delivery. However, for these powers to be effective in practice, the Commission has an important role to play in ensuring the necessary culture change also takes place. Its mission statement is:

“Identifying a route map to deliver the full benefits of a shift in power towards local democracy for the people in Scotland.”

It will not be easy for the Commission to bring about this culture change, nor do I think that there is a uniform answer that can be applied to all communities and regeneration processes. There are, however many lessons to be learned from regeneration initiatives which the Commission should take on board.

Research suggests that where there is a deficit of trust between the community and the decision makers, then this needs to be addressed, otherwise a project will ultimately fail because the animosity of the residents and stakeholders has not been addressed and respect for the regeneration partners has not been harnessed. Where trust is present, you need to ensure that the project is built around the existing community in order that they don’t feel ostracised and overwhelmed and that the project develops at a pace they feel comfortable with.

Diverse Communities Need Diverse Solutions

It needs to be acknowledged that not all communities will require the same level of involvement in every project in order that they feel engaged.

In some cases this will involve elected representatives feeling empowered to act for the greater benefit of the community, and ensuring that there is a mechanism in place for them to communicate the reasons behind their decisions to them.

PRYDE Winner of the 2012 SURF Award in the Community Led Category

PRYDE Winner of the 2012 SURF Award in the Community Led Category

This recognises that at present, too much time is perhaps wasted on feasibility studies when the appropriate solutions and options have already been tried and tested elsewhere. Elected officials however, often want to avoid the risk of making decisions without a bespoke study to back them up. In other instances, such as those highlighted in Lawson and Kearns, it is possible for communities to feel empowered without formally participating in both the decision-making and implementation stages of the project. Ultimately, the Commission must therefore recognise that the way in which individual communities feel empowered is very much dependent on their make-up and their people.

In conclusion, the Community Empowerment Bill is a step in the right direction in so far as it offers communities a new mechanism through which they can get involved or take ownership of local assets and services and build a future which takes account of their own needs and desires. To grasp this opportunity, it is important for the Commission to develop a route map which is both flexible and responsive to how it involves communities in regeneration projects. Only by acknowledging how particular communities feel engaged and empowered will the full benefits of community participation in regeneration be realised.