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Agenda: Wanted ... a poverty commissioner to secure community empowerment

Not all communities have equal influence.

It is time we stop acting as if they do. So it is with the latest consultation document for the Community Empowerment Bill, published by the Scottish Government.

As it stands, the paper contains some positive, if worryingly weak, measures. For example, it would give community bodies the right to "request" land from public authorities. Elsewhere, communities can again "request" a greater say in efforts to improve public services in their area.

While welcome, the proposals make Local Government Minister Derek Mackay's claims the Bill would be "potentially the biggest transfer of power since devolution" look somewhat premature.

Putting that aside, it is the lack of analysis when it comes to poverty which is most concerning.

The Bill largely ignores the very real impact poverty has on a community's ability to fully engage and influence the decisions that affect them.

In fact, in the entire 70-page document, poverty is mentioned once and inequality just twice.

We already know that relying on the tried and tested processes of old will fail to engage a substantial section of Scottish society in the decisions that affect them.

A single mother on a low-income, without a car, who works on the other side of town, faces greater barriers to engaging with public services and community groups than a middle-aged, middle-class, confident man.

We cannot ignore such realities. Doing so will only cement the pernicious inequalities and democratic deficits that undermine Scotland's communities and its future.

Nor can we ignore the glaring health inequalities which mean someone in Calton in Glasgow is on average likely to live 28 years less than someone eight miles down the road in Lenzie, East Dunbartonshire.

So what should the Scottish Government do?

First, we need to ensure policies and procedures are designed with our poorest communities in mind from the outset through the creation of a new poverty commissioner in Scotland.

Such a commissioner would have the power to scrutinise the performance of officials, take feedback from communities and investigate complaints.

But we must also recognise the barriers faced by many communities when it comes to poverty and explicitly resource "community engagement" in these areas. This might require paying people who give up their time and providing childcare.

The Scottish Government should also consider giving local communities the power to decide how to spend public money.

Known as participatory budgeting, this means actively devolving money, power and resources to our poorest communities.

In parts of Brazil, this has had tremendous success stimulating engagement and subsequent investment in public services, particularly for the most deprived communities. And we have seen the benefits, on a small scale, in Govanhill, here in Scotland.

While this measure featured in the previous Scottish Government consultation, it seems to have been quietly dropped - that is a mistake.

Unless there is an explicit recognition of the ways in which poverty and inequality interact, "community empowerment", the Government is trying to fix a problem with one hand tied behind its back.

Worse still, it risks empowering the few at the expense of the many.

Contextual targeting label: 
Local government

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