The idea that hard pressed communities can or should provide a substitute for the state must be challengedTom Lloyd Goodwin
Another Scottish Government budget, another round of council cuts followed by calls of alarm and pain as this year’s hard reality of above-inflation tax rises hits communities across Scotland.
As always, local council cuts clash with central government’s warm rhetoric of empowering local communities and creating an inclusive economy where successful prosperity is measured by wellbeing rather than GDP. Once again the urgently needed reform of local government funding is kicked into the long grass.
But how? Will communities gradually take over responsibility for delivering essential local services? In this blogpost, Tom Lloyd Goodwin, associate director of CLES makes a vital distinction between the potentially enterprising and innovative value of ’empowered’ local communities and the statutory responsibilities of democratically elected local government.
An economy for all: the role of community power
Inclusive economies are about growing community and democratic ownership forms within the private sector economy.
Recently, however, there has been a resurgence of ideas that see a greater role for the community in commissioning and delivering public services. The central claim is that the state and the market are both discredited and are unable to tackle injustices and stem rising public service demand. As such, it is proposed that communities are best placed to “take control”, leading to the emergence of a new “community paradigm”. Echoing ideas reminiscent of David Cameron’s “big society”, this has been posited as a solution to the conjoined issues of less public money and growing social need.
The ideas posited by the community paradigm have dangerous flaws.”
While it is true that we must genuinely empower citizens and communities and that they must have a decent say in how our public services are run, the ideas posited by the community paradigm have dangerous flaws.
With huge pressure on our public services, cuts in welfare and the social safety net, communities and individuals are now suffering immense social pain. The idea that hard pressed communities can or should provide a substitute for the state must be challenged, as there is little benefit in devolving the remnants of a broken social safety net to communities that are often themselves time- and resource-poor.
We should be wary of any slippery slope in which a struggling community sector delivers less with less […] dressed up in the language of empowerment.”
Furthermore, austerity and cost cutting pressures have eviscerated our public services and it is deeply unfortunate that in many instances local communities have been expected to fill the service delivery gap. Attempts to place even greater demands on communities under these conditions will surely serve to deepen marketisation as they are forced to compete for scarce public resources. We should therefore be wary of any slippery slope in which a struggling community sector delivers less with less – and inadvertently contributes to the weakening and hollowing out of local government – dressed up in the language of empowerment.
There is no doubt that the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector should play a role in some aspects of public service delivery – particularly in services such as adult social care and public health, for example. However, we must be very clear: divesting swathes of public services to impoverished communities under a so-called community paradigm is not the answer.
New municipalism seeks to build a broad and deep local democratic state.”
So what should be done? Moving forward, we must stop any further hollowing out of the state and build an economy for all. Communities across the land deserve and must demand generous provision of services that are properly funded. Moreover, with so much promise offered by new economic democratic agendas such as new municipalism, communities can have a key role as partners with the state against the cosh of market liberalism and declining public services. New municipalism seeks to build a broad and deep local democratic state. It does this by focusing on people power, fair wages, and on more local democratic enterprise acting with environmental responsibility within the private sector.
The real prize lies […] in growing community and democratic ownership forms within the commercial economy.”
The real prize then lies not in expanding the involvement of the community into the delivery of public services, but rather in growing community and democratic ownership forms within the commercial economy. This is where energy and vim should be directed. At CLES, we have long advocated for an economy based on more plural forms of ownership. When it comes to the private sector, co-operatives, social enterprise and other forms of community businesses should therefore be leading the charge. This is the pathway to resilience and prosperity for all.
Communities must be empowered to take the economy on.”
A more community-based and democratic economy is a prerequisite to a flourishing society. Communities must be empowered to take the economy on. They should not be expected to augment its decline through managing public sector austerity.
This was first published on CLES website and is reproduced here with permission
Local government blame game: Professor James Mitchell
Local government in Scotland: Financial overview 2018/19: Audit Scotland
Scotland’s Wellbeing: Rhetoric and Reality: John McLaren