Malcolm calls for rights for urban communities to have local assets transferred to them
Debate on Community Empowerment & Renewal Bill Malcolm Chisholm (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab):
Engagement and empowerment are ideas that we have been talking about in different contexts for many years in this Parliament. They have led to important documents such as the current Government’s “Scottish Community Empowerment Action Plan”, and a previous Government’s “National Standards for Community Engagement”, which I seem to remember launching in 2005.

Notwithstanding the good examples that the minister has given, it is fair to say that policy and practice have often diverged over the years. The important thing in this debate is to ensure that we come up with practical ways of driving forward the agenda.

To be fair, the consultation paper is full of many such suggestions. I will deal with the three parts in reverse order.

On part three, I welcome the additional powers that are suggested to sell or lease long-term empty properties, which picks up on a theme that we debated in the Parliament last week. I like the idea of communities having the right to request local authorities to use compulsory purchase orders, although we must look at strengthening them. I welcome question 38, on the recovery of costs in relation to dangerous and defective buildings, although I gently suggest that the minister looks at David Stewart’s bill for an answer to that question.

Moving on to part two, there is the fundamental concept of the transfer of assets. As a city MSP I would be delighted if the right to buy that rural communities have had was extended to urban areas, as we all know about the success of that policy in rural parts of Scotland. I received a communication this week from Maggie Fyffe of the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust. I do not have time to read it all out, but she said:

“Eigg is a different world than it was 15 years ago - owning Eigg has opened up so many opportunities for development ... because confidence has grown, a lot of new independent businesses are springing up & because there is so much happening, we’re seeing young people return & settle here which is probably one of the most important aspects”.

I like the idea in part two of communities having the power to request that the public sector transfer underused or unused assets, but in that regard we must confront the issue of state aid rules, which are often a barrier. In my own constituency, about two years ago a community group wanted the transfer of land at Granton, but the council invoked state-aid rules as a barrier to that. My understanding is that those rules apply only when there is a commercial competitor, which probably means that there is not an issue in many situations. I suspect that the state aid rules are being overused by some public authorities, so I hope that the Government will look at that.

Given that there are general block exemption regulations at a European level, I wonder whether the Government could take action by asking for a GBER notification for all community assets. I do not know if that is possible, but perhaps it could be explored.

Part one, about strengthening community participation, is of course central to the whole consultation paper. I welcome the idea of a duty to follow the national standards for community engagement. This is not mentioned in the paper, but I also think that we should look at using and developing the co-operative model that Sarah Boyack mentioned. I am glad that the Scottish Government has accepted that amendment. I suggest that the Government looks at what is going on in Edinburgh at present - of course, there is a council coalition in Edinburgh between Labour and the Scottish National Party, although it is fair to say that the co-op model was a flagship policy of the Labour manifesto earlier this year.

We should also build on the work of community councils. I regularly attend them - I have a high regard for their work - and building on their work is the right way to go. In relation to strengthening participation, I also want to highlight that effective participation starts with effective communication - that should be central to policies in this area. There are examples of best practice that we can learn from, where community activists are using the tools that they have to hand to improve communication in the hope that that will strengthen local interest and participation.

As we begin to adapt communication technologies to aid participation, a large number of independent sites that allow for highly localised content have started to emerge. One such site is The Edinburgh Reporter, which provides regular updates through a hyperlocal news site. The focus is on the activities of community councils and news stories that are of particular appeal to local residents. If participation can be improved through developing greater links to an open and accountable council system, straightforward reporting of council and community council meetings can help to achieve that.

Some of The Edinburgh Reporter’s most popular stories have come from a comprehensive coverage of campaigns, as well as an unbiased account of what is really going on in the city council. That news can be delivered immediately using Twitter and live blogs and can invite responses from any interested party.

I am not saying that in order to give The Edinburgh Reporter free publicity - I believe that the success of this local online news service should be an example for the whole of Scotland. I appeal to the Government to do everything that it can to support and encourage the development of such services.

In that context, I should also mention Greener Leith, which provides a similar local news service, and the Greener Leith social website, which is an interactive forum for raising awareness of local concerns. If such a format can be applied to hyperlocal news, why not to community councils or to local social events as well?

I can see that I am running out of time to talk about my suggestion of an online hub that could be established to provide a two-way flow of information between community councils, or community planning partnerships, and community members. I cannot say more about that, but new technologies can help to change the culture of “doing to” to a culture of “doing with”. At the end of the day, that is what this debate is all about.
September 12th 2012