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Community empowerment

The Scottish Parliament yesterday passed a landmark bill on community empowerment which will change the way local communities in Scotland are able to assert themselves in the ownership and management of local assets, and be genuinely involved in local services and decision -making.

Iain Gulland | 18 Jun 15

I’m a long-time supporter of community-led action so I am naturally delighted the Bill has passed.  There’s often an environmental benefit of ‘acting locally’, but more significantly, community-based solutions can bring greater opportunities in jobs, training and social inclusion. I believe that empowered communities have a key role to play in ensuring Scotland moves forward in an equal and sustainable way.

While the main focus of the Bill is around ownership and transfer of assets and involvement in decisions, there is an opportunity to use this to encourage even greater involvement of communities in the resource and circular economy agenda.

Scotland has a rich history of such endeavour.  It underpins the success of our Revolve re-use standard, for example, which involves individual community businesses, which in many cases exist to support the more vulnerable members of our society, working together to drive repair and re-use as a cornerstone of our circular economy. 

Like these organisations, I believe that what we might commonly see as ‘waste’ is in fact a resource or an asset which flows through our communities.  Like wind or water, for example, we can make a choice whether to harness it for local gain, allow others to benefit from it or simply waste the opportunity.  

Councils currently have the de facto responsibility to manage waste through the Environmental Protection Act.  But I’ve always thought there is an opportunity for communities to have a much greater stake in how their resources are managed. 

It might be a big step to consider communities taking on the management of recycling, like they would their community centre or village shop.  But the new Act includes provisions around participation rights – essentially giving interested community representatives a right to be involved in designing services at the very outset.  If they have an idea for how to improve a service, and better harness opportunities for local jobs, training and economic renewal, they have a right to be heard.

This is an idea ripe for our times.  I am encouraged by discussions at the recent SOLACE Scotland conference in North Berwick around subsidiarity and community partnership.  There seems to be a unique ‘meeting of minds’ here which gives an opportunity to push new opportunities for community engagement and empowerment.  So why not recycling? Why not the circular economy? 

Could we encourage community resource companies, in a similar vein to community energy companies, to help shape the use of resources locally for local benefit?  Of course, there’s a balance to be struck – not all our resources are the same. Some may be best channelled nationally into a ‘resource grid’, while others could be best used to harness local opportunity and social inclusion.  The important thing will be for councils and communities to engage openly and to find shared objectives that increase the benefits for all.

The new community empowerment approach is enabling.  It puts the power to bring about change into the hands of those who see opportunities and want to grasp them.  If we respond openly to such ideas, the possibilities could be huge.

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