Alan Leslie summarises the key points from SURF’s conference but notes a trend that could be seen as a return to a top-down approach and calls for investment in community development.

Alan Leslie MA Hons, PhD, FSA Scot is a professional archaeologist and heritage practitioner for 35 years, working in academia, tertiary education and archaeological consultancy and contracting.  Co-founder and director of Northlight Heritage (2011-17) and Inherit (Institute for Heritage & Sustainable Human Development) (2017-19) and, before that, managing director of GUARD and lecturer in archaeology at Glasgow University.

There’s a lot of reading in Community Wealth Building (CWB) and Levelling Up, as each paragraph draws you inexorably into the Wellbeing Economy, Inclusive Growth, Progressive Procurement, The Preston & Cleveland Models and much more. Before you know it, you’re half way to a Masters degree. But, as Martin Avila noted wryly on the day, this is information we all need to populate our funding applications, so this conference was timely – and merciful, sparing us from having to navigate the more tortuous explanatory texts.

In the morning session, devoted to CWB, after a useful summary of the government position from Tom Arthur, we were treated to some illuminating thoughts from Martin Avila (CEIS), followed by some helpful “real world” examples from Emma McMullen & Jude King – on developments in Ayrshire – compared and contrasted with useful perspectives on approaches and achievements in Dunoon from Ann Campbell (Dunoon Area Alliance) & Tacit Tacit’s Hannah Clinch. Collectively these contributions revealed CWB to be neither rigid methodology nor toolkit but rather an adaptable framework for evolutionary place-based change driven by local organisations and people. Martin Avila’s contribution was illuminating in identifying that CWB is not just about financial value but rather aspires to the development of a common language and approach for maximising local benefit, incorporating social and environmental values as well as traditional economic requirements.

In the afternoon we were similarly well served with explanations of Levelling Up, from the UK Government’s Lauren Bruce, and the Scottish Government Funding Context, from David Cowan, together with notes on the numerous programmes and pots of funding available for community and place-based renewal, regeneration and revitalisation. My slight problem here is that while the intentions, and the range and value of the sums involved, sounded impressive, without knowing precisely what these sums need to address, it is difficult to know if they are impressive or not. In fact I suspect it is not so difficult – more difficult perhaps was avoiding a shiver at the spectre of EU Structural Funding haunting the room.

The presentations nevertheless mostly adopted a positive tone, though the challenges remaining were openly acknowledged by all present – speakers, panellists and delegates. Numerous significant observations were made, amongst which was concern at the creeping return to top-down attitudes and behaviour by some anchor organisations, despite the widely acknowledged successes of local organisations as deliverers to their communities at the height of the pandemic (an observation which drew the first spontaneous cheer of the day). Kate Christie observed that, for many people, some of these anchor organisations are de facto “authorities”, with the negative connotations hardly needing spelled out. Calls for a simplified funding and procurement landscape, especially for smaller organisations, was also vigorously applauded, while Karen Dick from Creative Scotland rightly noted the importance but frequent omission of culture from serious consideration in the CWB process. Quote of the day though came from Martin Avila, expounding on the need for community development not engagement, defining the latter as “those events with more sandwiches than delegates”.

Two points of broad consensus seemed to emerge. One is the need to enshrine – in practice – recognition of the knowledge, wisdom and efficacy of specific local people and organisations in determining and delivering to their communities what they need, how and where. This I take to mean supporting the effective ones to gain the stability to remain the anchor organisations they have already proved to be. The other, which will ultimately provide the best chance of achieving that stability, is establishing and supporting paths for local entities to control their own assets – land, property, energy and so on. Community development, in other words. Oh yes – and catch the poet Kevin P Gilday whenever you can; he’s very good indeed.

If you would like to join SURF’s Community Wealth Building Network please email emma@surf-old.local