Welcome to my Blog

I was the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland until my retirement in September 2018. I now work on several policy development projects, so all views are very definitely my own. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Monday, 17 August 2020

Building Stronger Communities

The COVID-19 Pandemic has highlighted the importance of strong communities, supporting and looking out for each other. However, strong communities do not happen by accident; they need to be nurtured and supported. In a paper published today by the Reid Foundation, I set out nine ways we can build stronger communities through a comprehensive programme of action.

Austerity has undermined many of the local institutions that bind our communities together. Cuts to our libraries, community learning, youth work, day centres and grants to voluntary organisations have all contributed to a weakening of local communities. These cuts impact adversely and more acutely on the most disadvantaged individuals, communities and groups.

That is why social infrastructure is vitally important to strong communities. Social infrastructure relates to the physical conditions that determine whether personal relationships can flourish. When social infrastructure is robust, it fosters contact, mutual support, and collaboration among friends and neighbours. When degraded, it inhibits social activity, leaving families and individuals to fend for themselves. The paper looks at a wide range of initiatives that can strengthen social infrastructure including, good housing, libraries, leisure facilities, voluntary organisations, community ownership and the role of planning. Social media can be part of social infrastructure but it depends on connectivity which can be limited and unequal in many communities.

A strong local economy is an important element of strong communities. Scotland’s high streets and town centres were struggling even before the pandemic with five stores a week closing. We need to rethink our town centres as places where people live and work, not just shop, although that will remain important. Community Wealth Building should be at the core of the measures needed to rebuild local economies, based on wellbeing and inclusion.

Stronger communities also have to be sustainable communities, based on more local (particularly food) production, community energy, developing a sharing economy, better public transport and support for active travel. Place also impacts on health and wellbeing and contributes to creating or reducing inequalities. Sufficient social infrastructure helps tackle isolation and improves physical and mental health. This includes how we design communities and create integrated local health and care services.

Providing better services is not enough to create stronger communities - citizens also have to be actively engaged. So, local democracy should sit alongside measures to decentralise powers and democratise the economy. A fairer Scotland where we care about each other, where people can pool their resources, demand accountability, build institutions and influence the decisions that affect them. This must include the decentralisation of power with national government to focus on setting frameworks, leaving the delivery of services to local democratic control. Local integrated services should be based around community hubs in recognisable communities of place. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of local services and the workers who deliver them - we should ‘Build Back Better’ based on the principle of subsidiarity.

It isn’t that nothing has been done about these issues in Scotland. There are many good initiatives highlighted in the paper that individually address many of the key issues. The problem is that many are small scale and process-oriented. What we need is a real focus on communities as the building block of society and a comprehensive programme of integrated support.

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