Opinion

Why won’t Scotland make the most off its people assets?

by | 15 Mar 2024

Officialdom in Scotland not only doesn't make the most of energy and drive in Scotland's communities, it tries to stifle them. Why?

First published by Common Weal

There is an idea that was kicking around in Britain not that long ago, an idea that has basically been completely devalued and discredited. No-one likes it because of where the idea came from, what the idea was really for and how little follow-through it involved.

And yet… it was a good idea in principle. Given Scotland’s budgetary woes it is an idea we should return to – yet we’re doing the opposite. The idea is ‘the Big Society’. Now bear with me…

The idea that we can have a better society if we enable and empower as many parts of that society as possible to do innovative, useful things in pursuit of the public good and stop imagining that the only good things that ever happen are ‘gifts from above’ from benevolent politicians is a good one. Yes, David Cameron used it as a smokescreen to maintain his sort-of progressive sheen in the face of biting austerity.

Yes, it was deployed ideologically as a means of undermining public service (as in ‘not Big Government, Big Society’). And yes it became a meaningless phrase with almost no real action or substance put behind it. That doesn’t change the value of the concept.

I really don’t know if you all get how serious the financial situation in Scotland is just now, but you wouldn’t miss it if you were round my way. In this corner of rural Scotland most of the villages I know are scrambling somehow to come up with some scheme to save their village hall. That is ‘crisis-induced Big Society’ I suppose.

But it certainly isn’t strategic and it isn’t really supported with action. This isn’t communities being empowered to protect themselves from budget cuts, this is disempowered communities in desperation mode over what is all-but the last piece of civic infrastructure in their community (unless they are lucky enough to still have a small, rural school).

So I want to be clear; by Big Society I do not mean ‘Glasgow City Council doesn’t seem to be able to afford people to remove litter any more so we’ll need to do it ourselves’. Down that route lies the death of public services. What I mean is that Scotland is littered with small NGOs and community organisations which are shaping their communities in ways that insulate them from these problems.

Community organisations almost all have one thing in common; they have no public funding by right and they have no power

One of my great pleasures in life is to be able to visit these initiatives – I get invited out to see things fairly often. I am almost always inspired by what I’ve seen and some of the high-profile examples like Climate Action Strathaven or the Stove Network in Dumfries have gained wider public awareness. But there are absolutely loads of these organisations, from food banks to development trusts, active community councils to community health initiatives, drug rehabilitation services to local arts organisations.

They almost all have one thing in common; they have no public funding by right (generally none whatsoever) and they have no power (other than the power anyone has, like Strathaven giving up on the local authority ever providing decent local public transport and buying their own buses and running the service themselves, very successfully).

That means they are very much reliant on goodwill and must accept a role as a supplicant. ‘Please can I get access to that totally empty building that has been empty for many years, a nice local businessperson has given us a donation and we’ve got something brilliant we can do with it’.

So how is that going for them? Basically it’s absolutely brutal. Over and over and over when I go to these initiatives they recount more obstruction from officialdom than support or help. I’m thinking of one local initiative which is convinced (and convinced me) that the local authority has actively been trying to close them down for years because one of the councillors has a competing pet project which the community doesn’t use because they use the other one. So obviously try and close the good one, eh?

I gave a speech at a conference and the session before me was a panel session of exactly these people. One woman on the panel was explaining her urban regeneration programme and then spontaneously burst into uncontrolled sobs. She had pushed this award-winning project so, so hard against so much intransigence from officialdom that she burnt out and her development trust had to send her on a recovery programme. Almost everyone in the large room nodded in complete empathy. It is the story of trying to do anything in your community in Scotland.

But perhaps it’s just me. Perhaps it’s the initiatives that struggle who invite me in desperation. Except it’s not, because a report by the Centre for Social Justice was released recently which largely flew under the media radar. It was a survey of 1,000 people involved in these kinds of initiatives – and 60 per cent of them reported obstruction from officialdom.

I write often about how Scotland is an oligarchy of unelected officials who preside over the nation and its communities while barely being touched by democracy or the interests of the communities. This culture traps the many good people in public service who are trying to make a difference. I spoke to one council leader who kept referring to what they couldn’t do as being ‘blocked by the opposition’.

But this was a local authority which didn’t have a particularly strong opposition group so I was a little confused. The council leader laughed; ‘sorry, when I say the opposition I mean the Chief Executive’s lawyers’. Literally an unelected official nominally working for the elected councillors behaved like their senior and could overrule them at will. The councillors have no access to competing legal advice.

Officials in Scotland seem to believe that they and their empires are the only things which have a legitimate role to play in shaping the nation

The stupidity inherent in this is frankly astounding. I speak to business leaders who are now notably more left-orientated than ‘official Scotland’. They look at wonderful stranded assets in our communities and can’t understand why we’re not leveraging them. If they ran their business like that, eschewing wonderful opportunities to develop which are right under their noses, they’d go out of business.

And while Scotland’s finances aren’t as grim as those in much of England, they’re not far behind. We’re not going out of business, but we’ve already had strong health warnings about the sustainability of our public services and public infrastructure as we understand them.

Of course, the root problem is Westminster. Scotland has managed (slightly) to mitigate the worst of the funding squeeze, but it isn’t going to be able to do that much longer unless things change in London (which they don’t seem likely to). So either we push on really quickly to independence or we look at where we are and do what we can now. Or better still, both.

We can never escape from a UK tax regime which protects corporations and the wealthy while loading more tax and cost on us. The budget is shrinking because both main UK parties are wholly bought into the ideology which is causing the budget squeeze (and don’t think the Scottish Government isn’t, freeports and all). That won’t change substantially any time soon.

But we can deliver much more public good much more efficiently if only we would support people not on the government or local authority payroll to do that good. If that is used to substitute for proper public service then we just unravel the welfare state model further. But if it does other, more creative things (particularly in local development and failure prevention) it adds greatly to what is there.

I will again highlight community health. Scotland has 89 different community health organisations which organise in a coalition called Scottish Communities for Health and Wellbeing. I spoke at their conference at the end of last year. They do truly amazing work supporting people in communities to help them with small, early interventions which prevent larger problems occurring.

I asked them what they could do with £100 million. That was how much the Scottish Government ‘found down the back of the sofa’ to reduce cancer waiting lists, waiting lists that are large mostly because of lack of cancer surgeons. £100 million doesn’t fix that.

But it would do more than support a whole ecosystem of local organisations which work in areas like supporting people with addiction, or encouraging them to get early screening, or helping them get to a surgery. It would transform them. All those things reduce the pressure on cancer services, forever.

Sadly this is miles outside the thinking of officials in Scotland. They do seem to believe that they and their empires are the only things which have a legitimate role to play in shaping Scotland. They say otherwise, but the report I referenced earlier exposes the reality.

For god’s sake let’s not call it Big Society, but let’s stop and recognise that phrase was a good idea, an idea which can leverage change and improvement in Scotland in an era of declining resources. Is our officialdom really so pig-headed it can’t see that?

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