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One of my highlights at the recent Transition Roadshow at the University of St Andrews in Scotland was a workshop led by Angus Hardie, Director of the Scottish Community Alliance.  He talked about the forthcoming Community Empowerment Bill.  "I like the sound of that" I thought.  The workshop proved fascinating, as did some of the powers under consideration.  The following week, by email, we went into it in a bit more depth, and Angus was able to tell me more about the Bill, and what it could mean for Scottish communities.   

What is the current status of the Bill, and where did it come from? What has motivated it? 

The Bill is currently in Stage 1 of the legislative process. A committee of the Scottish Parliament – Local Government and Regeneration Committee – is scrutinising the Bill and taking evidence, both written and oral, from a range of stakeholder groups. Stage 2 and 3 follow before it becomes law which is expected to happen early summer 2015.

In terms of what has motivated the Bill there are perhaps two answers to this. On the one hand it can be seen as just another milestone on a journey which Scottish Government started in 2009 with the publication of the Community Empowerment Action Plan – which was significant not for what it contained by way of action (wasn’t much) but because it was the first government strategy to mention community empowerment specifically. The other answer is that the Bill should be viewed as a central strand of the Government’s approach to public service reform. The Christie Commission report made it clear that radical reform was required and that communities needed to be at the heart of the design and delivery process. Austerity measure have just reduced the wiggle room for the public services to argue for the status quo.

Angus Hardie delivers his workshop at the Transition Roadshow.

Angus Hardie delivers his workshop at the St. Andrews Transition Roadshow.

The Minister responsible for the Bill has been very positive about its potential throughout the consultation period, frequently stating that he expects the Bill  to be the single most significant transfer of power since Devolution.

What are the key new powers that it gives communities? 

The headline new powers are

  • the extension of the Community Right to Buy to all of Scotland – previously this had been restricted under the Land Reform legislation to rural communities with a population less than 10,000
  • a new right to request the transfer of a public asset into community ownership, management or use with a presumption that such requests will be granted unless there is good cause to refuse it
  • An Absolute Right to Buy (without the sellers consent) where an asset is vacant and derelict and causing blight on the local area
  • A right to request to participate in a process to improve the outcome of a public service

The view is that the devil will be in the detail of the regulations that accompany the legislation. Also, in terms of ensuring that all communities are able to take advantage of these new rights, there is a serious question of what resources will be available for capacity building and support. 

What new powers do communities have in relation to planning? Do these genuinely give communities additional say in shaping planning?

The Bill does not provide new direct powers in relation to planning. References in the Bill to planning are in relation to Community Planning which in itself is a bit of a misnomer. Community Planning refers to the better integration of efforts by public service providers through the mechanism of a Community Planning Partnership. The Bill has a provision within it to make it a legal requirement to formalise the structure of the CPP.

One of the key powers is the Community Right to Buy Land, which includes a Community Compulsory Purchase power.  How binding is this?  What are the circumstances in which it can be used?  Can a community group now compulsorily purchase any piece of land if their case is strong enough? 

This refers to the Absolute Right to Buy Land which has been determined as land or buildings that have become vacant and derelict ( and considered to be causing a degree of local blight). Within the written evidence submitted during Stage 1, this was one of the more contentious areas with stakeholders concerned about the lack of detail laid out in the Bill. It is not yet clear under what circumstances this power can be invoked or what will be defined as vacant and derelict. The regulations that sit under the Bill are going to be crucial in either strengthening or weakening the impact of the Bill. 

What additional power does the Bill give to communities in relation to allotments? 

The main impact of the Bill on allotments is that it has been used as an opportunity to modernise the existing legislation from 1892 and 1922. New responsibilities have been created for local authorities in terms of the how they manage waiting lists but there is no requirement to acquire new land for release as allotments and therefore there is concern that, in its current form it will not generate any meaningful change. 

The Independence Referendum in Scotland has reportedly done a huge amount to engage people in revitalising democracy across the country.  This Bill appears to reflect that spirit.  What else is emerging, or close to being approved, that would add other useful new powers to this Bill?  Do you feel Scotland is genuinely moving to give more meaningful powers to communities?

Prior to the referendum, the turnout at local and national elections had been consistently low and there was widespread concern that the electorate had switched off from mainstream politics. The phenomenon of widespread self-organising groups around the independence debate – mainly around the Yes side – such as Women for Independence, Radical Independence Convention, Muslims for Independence, National Collective etc was anticipated by no one and the political parties were to a large extent side lined by it.

It would be wrong to view this Bill as being connected to any of that democratic activity. It has been argued that because of the highly centralised system of local democracy that Scotland has – just 32 local authorities – this focus on community empowerment and a more participative form of democracy is actually little more than a compensatory measure for the complete lack of effective lack of representative democracy.  That said there are other processes such land reform which has created a thriving movement of community land owners and the development of community owned energy that have contributed momentum to this bottom up process.

The Community Empowerment Bill needs to be seen as part of a wider portfolio of measures designed to invest local people with more resource and opportunities to have greater control over their communities. A new Land Reform Bill is expected before the end of the current Parliament which will be based on the recommendations of the Land Reform Review Group. 

As someone who works for the Scottish Communities Alliance, what additional powers would you like to see in subsequent legislation?  

The Smith Commission has been give the job of working out what new powers should come to Scotland. If the management of Scotland’s Crown Estate was devolved to the Scottish Parliament along with the powers that currently sit with DECC around the subsidy regime and the management of the energy distribution, this would open up a whole new range of development opportunities over and above what the CEB might propose. 

You may not have an answer for this, but why don’t we have anything like this south of the border? 

 Who knows? Could be any one of a number of factors, such as the London-centricity of English politics, or that we have more panda bears than Tory MPs, or that we had the highland clearances for which there is residual and enduring guilt? But remember the grass is always greener…..