SURF is contributing to a Scottish Consortium for Rural Research (SCRR) consultation on the benefits and drawbacks of applying similar regeneration approaches to rural and urban places. In this article, SURF Chief Executive Andy Milne sets out SURF’s general views on the issues, and responds to some specific questions set by the SCRR.
In Summary: SURF’s Role and Outlook
SURF is Scotland’s independent, cross sector, regeneration network. Its diverse membership encompasses all levels, areas and disciplines of regeneration activity. Since 1992, SURF has been networking people, information, experience and approaches with a view to enhancing understanding and improving policy and practice across Scotland; particularly with regard to the most disadvantaged communities.
Based on that experience, SURF views the main task in regeneration as being a concerted effort to overcome the impacts of degeneration; the root causes of which are most frequently externally enforced upheavals, disconnections and deprivations. Meaningful responses therefore first focus on stemming the ‘upstream’ causes before considering any deficits in the education, health and employment of individuals and communities that have been disadvantaged by factors and forces beyond their control. The shared priority focus should be on tackling poverty and inequalities with a view to enhancing individual and community wellbeing and autonomy.
Bearing that broader aim in mind, successful community based regeneration is rooted in the particular identity, culture, assets and connections of people and place. Similarly, sustainable regeneration requires the meaningful involvement of the community of focus in both planning and delivery.
Key Questions and Responses
Q: Are rural and urban actually on a spectrum or are they really different?
A: They are very much on the same spectrum. In addition to broadly shared services, assets, interests and aspirations, residents in disadvantaged rural and urban communities experience much the same degenerative dynamics of poverty, inequality and isolation. There can be differing degrees and manifestations of impact, resulting from variations in local culture, connections and environment.
In drawing out useful learning from these similarities and contrasts, SURF has benefited from productive working relationships with both rural and urban focused regeneration partners. In close cooperation with Highlands & Islands Enterprise (HIE), SURF has used its networks, publications and events to promote readily evident learning opportunities based on urban and rural regeneration challenges and approaches.
The main areas of shared interest have included the role of culture and of community and social enterprise in supporting the regeneration of vulnerable places and communities; particularly the smaller towns and villages, which are still home to more of Scotland’s population than its seven cities are.
Q: Should rural and urban be looked at differently or is this an outdated approach?
A: SURF’s experience has demonstrated that there is considerable value in exploring the nature and effectiveness of different approaches being taken in the contrasting contexts. In collaboration with other partners, SURF has been able to promote constructive consideration of what is relevant and transferable but also, crucially, why some approaches and models appear to be more appropriate and successful in some contexts and less so in others.
This has been a valuable ‘control experiment’ medium for considering not just the contrasts and similarities but in challenging some orthodoxies, assumptions and prejudices that can be evident in the thinking and approaches of some key players.
Q: Can the Scottish Government’s over-arching targets (sustainable economic growth, fairness and social justice) be met by continuing to look at them separately?
A: As referred to above, that would be an inefficient and divisive approach. The evidence of success in community based regeneration in rural or semi-rural settings has been frequently evidenced in the annual SURF Awards for Best Practice in Community Regeneration. In collaboration with others, SURF has been able to promote constructive examination of the roots of those successes and the scope for successful transfer to urban social, economic and political contexts. That learning supports the Scottish Government’s expressed desire for greater community participation and empowerment across Scotland.
In terms of effective support for community regeneration, the inclusive regeneration perspective and relative stability of HIE over recent decades, is in contrast to that of Scottish Enterprise. To a substantial degree that contrast reflects the differing history and resultant psychological and political culture of rural and urban Scotland, which is often reflected in the outlook and operation of local authorities, agencies and communities. Again, this is fertile ground for productive reflection and challenge on meeting shared aspirations for more cohesion, solidarity and empowerment.
Q: Is a place-less approach more appropriate?
A: It is important to promote awareness of the national and international shifts in policy, resources and demographics which affect the resilience and wellbeing of communities across Scotland the UK as well as the rest of Europe and beyond. The Scottish Government and its agencies have a vital leadership role in considering how the still substantial resources of the seventh richest nation on the planet can be best organised and applied to meet its central aim of an enhanced and sustainable economic performance through a fairer and more engaged society.
Those national and regional policy decisions have the greatest impacts on lives and opportunities on a population wide basis. However, consistent with SURF’s view on the necessity of the active engagement of people and assets for achieving authentic and sustainable community based regeneration, it is important to support the better appreciation and engagement of the particular assets, culture and connections of place. To that end, the maximum involvement of different groups of local people is essential; and people generally understand and engage with concept of regeneration, and their potential role in supporting it, in relation to the places and circumstances they live within.
Some Relevant Further Information
In the last two years, SURF has undertaken a new stream of place focused work called ‘Alliance for Action’. It provides a practical collaborative framework for shared investment, learning and influence. It does so by creatively linking local assets and initiatives with national policy and resources. An interim report based on the first 18 months of operation is available on the SURF website’s Alliance for Action section.
SURF is currently expanding the range of practical Alliance for Action settings and the associated learning and influencing processes in collaboration with HIE and the Scottish Government.