Today, 17 August 2020, the Jimmy Reid Foundation releases a new report called ‘Building stronger communities’ by Dave Watson. Building upon his earlier papers for the Jimmy Reid Foundation, in this new paper, he argues the pandemic has highlighted the importance of strong communities for supporting each other despite communities of place having been undermined by recent austerity. The pandemic has also highlighted that political opportunities are opening up for society to be organised in new and quite different ways from before. In this context, he puts forward a set of proposals to create stronger, self-sustaining communities. Summarising the paper (available immediately below):
- Watson makes the case for a comprehensive programme to rebuild communities as the building block of a more equal, democratic, healthier and sustainable society. To do this, he deploys the concept of ‘social infrastructure’, namely, the physical conditions that determine whether personal relationships can flourish. When social infrastructure is robust, he argues, 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. Watson looks at a wide range of initiatives that can strengthen social infrastructure including housing, libraries, leisure facilities, voluntary organisations, community ownership and the role of planning.
- In this context, he argues that it has to be recognised that the governance of public services in Scotland is one of the most centralised in Europe. Consequently, he makes the case for national government to focus on setting frameworks, and leaving the delivery of services to local democratic control. And so, local integrated services should, he argues, be based around community hubs in recognisable communities of place. But this also includes, he suggests, repurposing our town centres in Scotland via community wealth building based on wellbeing and inclusion.
- And, given the impact of austerity, Watson also recommends that stronger communities require fair funding for local services. Therefore, in addition to a fairer allocation of grant support, he argues the reform of both the council tax and business rates is long overdue and as are considering local levies for revitalised Common Good funds and the taxation of digital services. He adds that accompanying measures to decentralise powers at the local level are essential to democratise society and economy.
Commenting on his paper, Dave Watson said: ‘The paper argues that stronger communities will not happen by mere accident or as a result of more political rhetoric. Instead of a series of piecemeal initiatives, we need a comprehensive programme of action that covers all the factors that help build stronger communities. By making communities the building block of our society, we can create 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 responds to evidence from polling that people want to be more engaged, but generally don’t feel part of the decision-making process.’
Professor Gregor Gall, director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation, added: ‘Progressive political change happens when progressive forces fully recognise the opportunities for advancing their agenda and are prepared to take advantage of them. We are now living through such a period and, therefore, the Jimmy Reid Foundation welcomes Dave Watson’s new paper in laying out what is wrong with the current situation and using this opening to set out an alternative agenda. He concretely puts forward a number of proposals that different organisations and groups within various communities can work towards to achieving.’
About the author
Dave Watson was the head of policy and public affairs at UNISON Scotland until retiring in September 2018. He has been a government advisor on public service reform, health and energy policy. He was an expert advisor to the Christie Commission that set the current framework for public service reform in Scotland. He now works on policy development, human resource and pension consultancy projects and is Secretary of the Socialist Health Association Scotland.
His previous papers for the Jimmy Reid Foundation papers are ‘Public Service Reform’ (2017) and ‘Municipal Socialism for Modern Scotland’ (2018). He blogs at http://unisondave.blogspot.com