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Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee

Meeting date: Tuesday, September 5, 2023


Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 (Post-legislative Scrutiny)

The Convener

Under agenda item 3, the committee will take evidence as part of our post-legislative scrutiny of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015. We recently concluded an inquiry into part 2 of the act, which concerns community planning, and the Scottish Government has now published its response to our inquiry report. That was the fourth part of the act that our predecessor committee looked at. The committee has also looked at part 9 of the act, which is on allotments. Our predecessor committee looked at part 3 of the act, which is on participation requests, and part 5 of the act, which is on asset transfers. Each of those elements is important in empowering communities.

Today, we will take the opportunity to reflect on what progress has been made across all four areas of the inquiry. To do that work, we are joined in person by the Minister for Community Wealth and Public Finance, Tom Arthur, and the Minister for Local Government Empowerment and Planning, Joe FitzPatrick. The ministers are joined by Scottish Government officials. Andrew Connal is community planning and public service reform team leader in the Scottish Government, and Kathleen Glazik is the community empowerment team leader. We are also joined online by Councillor Steven Heddle, who is vice-president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, which is often referred to as COSLA. Councillor Heddle is supported online by Garrick Smyth, who is policy manager in the workforce and corporate policy team at COSLA. I welcome all of you to the committee.

As you can imagine, we have a number of questions. I will ask the first question. The evidence that we heard during our inquiry into community planning from community organisations, particularly in communities of interest, about the extent of the shift of power towards communities was a lot less positive than the evidence that we heard from public bodies. Eight years on, how successful has the 2015 act been in shifting power towards communities? We are interested to hear your reflections on that. In answering that question, it would be helpful if you could set out what you understand “community” to mean and, moreover, what community empowerment looks like to you.

I will start with the Minister for Community Wealth and Public Finance.

The Minister for Community Wealth and Public Finance (Tom Arthur)

Thank you very much, convener, and good morning to the committee. I will, of course, leave the specific points about community planning partnerships for my colleague, Mr FitzPatrick, to respond to on behalf of the Government, as the lead minister.

With regards to the broader question of community, there are recognised terms such as “community of place” and “community of interest”, but ensuring that communities have space to define and understand themselves is paramount, so that they are able to engage with public services through the shared understanding that they have developed of their own identity as a community. I take that very seriously in the work that I lead on community wealth building and the work more widely around community empowerment, whether that is through participation requests, asset transfers, the wider work that we are doing around the review of the 2015 act or the work that we are undertaking on the review of local governance—the key word being “governance”, not “government”.

Working with communities and exploring, in partnership with COSLA, ways in which we can empower communities further and place more resources and decision-making power in the hands of communities will be paramount to that. Part of that work is recognising that communities have a role in defining and understanding themselves and part of it is finding the models and the range of powers and levers that are best suited to their particular needs.

Joe FitzPatrick, do you want to come in on the community planning aspect?

The Minister for Local Government Empowerment and Planning (Joe FitzPatrick)

The points that Mr Arthur made on engagement with the wider community and getting people involved are really important, but ultimately, it is the responsibility of the community planning partnerships to identify the measures that they need to use in order to assess whether the work that they are doing and their partnerships are having an effect.

From the Scottish Government’s perspective, we do not currently commission research to look at the impact that community planning partnerships have in the round; that would be a difficult exercise to take forward. It would be difficult to measure some of the positive aspects of community planning partnerships.

The most important thing about the 2015 act was that it put those partnerships on a statutory footing, whereas previously they were not. That is a good thing. When we measure how effective our actions are, it is important that the partners who have responsibility make sure that they measure outcomes appropriately, so that we can assess not whether the partnership is working but whether the actions that the partnership is taking and driving forward have an impact on communities.

It says something that the first part of your question was about those marginalised communities. It is sometimes easy to say that we are doing all this amazing work, because all the people around the table are connected, but often it is the people who are not around the table who most need the support of the community planning partnership.

That is why we need to continually assess in order to make sure that we do that correctly and, if we see particular gaps, that we look at how we will address them. We know that there was a particular gap was in relation to Gypsy and Traveller communities, and we have now taken action to make sure that we now know how to, and have the tools to, engage meaningfully with those communities on their terms, not on our terms. Such engagement is not on the terms of a particular part of a partnership, the Scottish Government or even this committee, but on those communities’ terms.

The Convener

Thank you.

It is interesting that the “New Deal with Local Government: Verity House Agreement”—I think that that is the first time that have been able to say that in public—says:

“Community Planning Partnerships will be recognised as a critical mechanism for the alignment of resource locally, focussed on prevention and early intervention.”

It goes on, but it is important that community planning partnerships are central to the agreement between COSLA and the Scottish Government, so I am interested to hear what the minister thinks the role of community planning partnerships is.

The committee has made a number of proposals and it has ideas about how community planning partnerships can be improved, so if something is done to address those things, how can we give communities a voice in that through community planning partnerships, in the new deal that has been agreed?

Joe FitzPatrick

First, the new deal goes much wider than the Verity house agreement; the Verity house agreement is one of the planks of the new deal, but the two are not the same. A lot of work is ongoing with local government to deliver the new deal, and the Verity house agreement is an important partnership agreement between the two spheres of government—the Scottish Government and local government partners. The Scottish Government and COSLA recognise the important role of community planning partnerships within that. It is important to note that that is central to the agreement between the Scottish Government and local government.

Ariane Burgess

Councillor Heddle, in the eight years since it was passed, how successful do you think the Community Empowerment (Scotland Act) 2015 has been in shifting power to communities, and what does community empowerment look like to you? The Verity house agreement puts community planning partnerships in a central role, so how do we ensure that communities have a voice in the new deal?

Councillor Steven Heddle (Convention of Scottish Local Authorities)

I apologise for my croaky voice; I have a sore throat.

The 2015 act has obviously made a difference. That is not an assertion, because it is recognised by the independent bodies who have assessed it, including the Local Government Information Unit. Clearly, the change in emphasis on which partners are empowered or obliged to participate, and the widening out, from councils and health services being the leads, to the police and fire services and enterprise agencies being leads, has been very positive. We have also seen a good number of community asset transfers, and we welcome the existence of the participation requests.

However, it is clear that we could do more to make people aware of how they can participate, and a lot of work is ongoing on that through the local governance review. I note that phase 2 of the “Democracy matters” consultation—a six-month conversation to encourage more community participation—was launched last Monday. We also want to emphasise best practice in engagement with communities so that we can carry that on. We have various fora in which we can do that, including the community planning improvement board, the community planning network and the third sector interface.

Empowerment runs through all this. The local governance review includes three forms of empowerment: functional, fiscal and community. Those permeate the Verity house agreement, about which I will say more later. I will pre-empt the conversation that will take place about that and say that a lot of the principles in the Verity house agreement are based on the European Charter of Local Self-Government, and that subsidiarity is key to making decisions at the most appropriate level and the level that is closest to the community. Local government realises that doing that is incumbent on us, so we also speak to the Scottish Government about transfer of those three forms of empowerment from the Scottish Government to us.

The minister defined what “community” means similarly to how I would define it, so I will not labour that point further.


Thank you. I am admiring your map backdrop, with the pointer that shows us where you are. Thanks for that orientation.

I bring in Pam Gosal.

Pam Gosal

Thank you, convener.

I will stick to the matter of the surge in community participation and empowerment. It has been described, as you have probably heard, as a “tick-box exercise”. Diving a bit deeper, the committee inquiry heard about a

“a lack of visibility of the CPP in the wider community”,

and it is clear that certain groups feel that their voices are not being heard. Will the Scottish Government take the opportunity, during its review of part 2 of the 2015 act, to help to renew the focus of CPPs on empowerment and participation by identifying opportunities to drive improvement and share best practice? That question is for the minister.

Joe FitzPatrick

We know for sure that there is some really good practice going on. It is important that it is shared across Scotland. It is also important to remember that we would not expect all community planning partnerships to look the same. By definition, they are impacted by their localities and communities, so there will be a degree of variability.

However, it is reasonable to assume that we should be trying to drive up the standards and effectiveness of all CPPs. That should not be done in a top-down way, in which we tell CPPs what to do or how to operate. It is about making sure that platforms exist for sharing best practice, and about looking at whether, based on that, there is a need to adjust guidance at some point in the future.

The Scottish Government works collaboratively with other bodies to ensure that we are sharing best practice. Obviously, COSLA, as the other arm of government, takes a very close interest. Crucially, however, there is also the community planning improvement board. It is a product of the pandemic, but I think that its role of bringing together people from across the CPPs to ensure that we are sharing best practice is still really useful.

There is also the community planning network, which Councillor Heddle mentioned. Using those bodies, we can make sure that we are sharing best practice. If the discussions around that suggest a need to update guidance, we can also look at doing that.

However, it is important that we do not ever suggest that we have got community empowerment and community planning right and that that box is ticked. We need to continue looking at how CPPs operate and how they represent the communities.

In some communities, I have engaged with people whose initial response when they have been spoken to about their CPP is that they really do not have any engagement with it. Obviously, the CPP is not an entity in itself—it is a body of its parts. When we drill down, we often find that many of the partners of the CPP are engaging directly with people. Maybe there is a need for those partners to think about how they can better articulate how they feed back into the CPP, whether those connections are through the police, the fire service, the local council or the third sector interface.

No one is suggesting that everything is perfect and that we cannot make improvements. I think that everyone in this field wants to do more and recognises that we are on a journey and that we can make this better.

Pam Gosal

It is good to hear that you are working with many partners. There are two areas that it would be good to hear about from both ministers. The first area is the digital divide. We all know that it is so hard for people who are in digital poverty to participate in democracy—ultimately, they cannot participate. How are you looking to work on that?

The second area, which I spoke a lot about in the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee, is outreach—making sure that we are reaching out to all communities, including the disability community and black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. How are you looking to reach out to those communities to encourage them to participate and to empower them?

Joe FitzPatrick

I will pass over to Tom Arthur in a minute to talk about the “Democracy matters” conversation. Although there is a big digital part to that, it goes beyond digital. It is so important that we reach the communities that do not normally engage. Tom Arthur will be able to talk about how some of the partners in that conversation are helping to ensure that we do that.

Such engagement is the responsibility of all CPP partners in all of their work, not only in their work as part of the CPP. They are statutory members for a reason, and they have a responsibility to ensure that they engage across our varied and diverse communities. Having that meaningful engagement in everything that they do will enable us to get things right.

We have talked about the successes of CPPs, and maybe one of the successes—which is not really measurable as such; it is difficult to report—is the recognition by all partners of their role in engaging with all parts of the community. That engagement is in a better place than it would have been without CPPs.

I will ask Councillor Heddle the same question.

I will bring in Councillor Heddle and them Tom Arthur can add his comments.

Councillor Heddle

Thank you for that question. I really hope that empowerment is not a tick-box exercise. If we have one job, it is to serve our communities. Clearly, our ability to do everything that we would like to do is compromised by the resources and manpower that we have available. With regard to the point about community voices not being heard, I acknowledge that that is probably true. It is not solely the fault of the community planning partnerships; it is a function of inequality, which we need to address through all of our policy areas.

There is also an issue, not so much of voices not being heard but of voices not being expressed. It is about what we can do to reach out to help people to express their voices and, subsequently, to be heard. That works across a number of the planning areas that we have highlighted, such as locality plans and local police plans. There is a risk that the communities that are well resourced in time and money can shout louder than the impoverished communities that lack both of those things. The question of how we can help those communities has to permeate all of our thinking.

As the minister said, we need to consider engagement alongside our partners. I acknowledge the help that we get from our partners in the community planning partnerships. In my area, the third-sector interface has developed the community engagement principles that all of our community planning partners use. It has conducted a number of exercises that involve physically going to every area of our community in the Orkneys, which is dispersed over 20 inhabited islands.

We need to make it better. As mentioned before, sharing best practice is absolutely something that we have to do, and we have various vehicles through which we can do that.

Thanks very much. Tom, do you want to come back in?

Tom Arthur

I will briefly build on what has already been said. The point about digital divide is well made. That is why we employ a multitude of channels to engage with individuals and communities collectively. When we jointly launched phase 2 of the “Democracy matters” conversation last week, it was an in-person event with a range of stakeholders present. Recognising the need to ensure that we are not relying only on one means of communication and engagement is important, and that informs all of our approaches to wider engagement.

The point about ensuring that all voices are heard is absolutely paramount. I come back to my earlier point in response to the question of how we define a community. From our engagement in our respective constituencies and regions, we will all be conscious that there can be voices that purport to be the voice of a community, but that would be contested by other people in the wider community. We must always bear that in mind.

Ensuring that we hear the fullest range of voices is important, not just from the perspective of inclusion, equality or rights, but to enable us to harness the collective expertise, knowledge, insight and lived experience that exists across our communities and to bring those to bear. Those voices not being included would not only be a failure of inclusion but would be a missed opportunity to bring to bear the knowledge and insight that different groups bring from their unique and particular sets of experiences.

Often, we find that some of the groups that have historically been the most marginalised in the democratic process are those that engage most frequently with public services. As such, they can bring a powerful set of insights to the conversation. We engage communities from the principles of inclusivity and equality, but we also want to bring the collective expertise of our communities to bear so that we can all benefit from that.

We will move on to the more detailed topic of community planning.

Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

On two occasions, ministers, when both of you have been at the committee, you have outlined how important the third sector is in our communities, and how much of a role it played during the pandemic. However, in an evidence session, the community planning minister acknowledged that there are places in Scotland where third sector involvement “is not happening”. The committee’s report recommended a new requirement for CPPs to invite the third sector to engage in community planning. The Government has not accepted that recommendation. What do you intend to do to try to make sure that our third sector is part of the conversation, going forward?

Joe FitzPatrick

I think that I am the minister that you are quoting. However, if I suggested that it was not happening at all in Scotland, that was probably unfair—I am not sure that that was what I said.

Clearly, in some areas, there is particularly good practice. For example, I am aware that Argyll and Bute Council and Perth and Kinross Council have particularly good interfaces with the third sector. In at least one of those locations, the third sector shares the chair of the CPP. I could be wrong, but I think that all CPPs involve the third sector. Can that be done better or could there be more involvement? I think so.

The current guidance provides the flexibility for that involvement to be approached in a way that works for different localities. We need to be careful that we do not say: “Well, this works really well in Perth and Kinross; therefore, you should all follow this model.” For the Government to instruct in that way would not be appropriate. However, it is appropriate to make sure that we are sharing best practice. The community planning improvement board helps us to do that along with the community planning network. It is right that the third sector is involved in that process.

The pandemic showed us that CPPs created the connections that provided resilience during that time. Some things during the pandemic could not have been delivered or achieved without a good interface with the third sector. Because of the work of the CPPs, connections had already been made, so there was no need to bring everyone around the table in order to be able to deliver for communities.

I am not suggesting that every CPP has it right, but I am suggesting that it would be wrong of us to impose particular models. The committee’s comments have been heard by Greg Colgan, chair of the CPIB, who will help us to look at the guidance. If there is a feeling that we need to refresh some of that guidance, then we will do that. Once we have had those conversations and have looked at the work of the committee—you took a huge range of evidence, which is helpful—it may be that we decide that there is a need for a short-term working group in order to look at how we improve the guidance so that we can encourage best practice everywhere.


Miles Briggs

It is good to hear that you are willing to look at that. Our evidence pointed towards the need for some sort of formalised role. I sat on another committee where we heard that one of the lessons was that not including the third sector in the work of integration joint boards had prevented some progress. I am interested to see what will happen.

As the minister said, by not including the third sector, we are missing an opportunity. A formalised role would be helpful. Community engagement and expertise is key. I know from our evidence that local authorities do not necessarily have leadership skills around collaboration. I think that Councillor Heddle pointed us towards that. Do the witnesses believe that community engagement is a professional skill set? What work will be done to help to develop those skills, given that, in many councils, there are maybe not the resources to deliver individuals with those skills to work or training?

Councillor Heddle, I pointed towards what you said last time, so I will bring you in.

Councillor Heddle

Before I answer your specific question, I will add some further examples of the best practice that is under way. In Dumfries and Galloway, the third sector interface officers chair and support their four locality hubs, which are geographic forums in the structure. Perth and Kinross has already been mentioned. We understand that the TSI in South Ayrshire is an active member of the community planning board and has representation across the strategic delivery partnerships. In my own area, our local TSI—Voluntary Action Orkney—is a leader of one of the thematic groups, and we very much value its support.

We do not feel that changing the act is necessary. We are cautious about that because we feel that that might limit local flexibility in ensuring the best vehicle for engagement with the third sector. We absolutely value the work of the CPIB and agree that a change in guidance would be most appropriate, and we would support the minister’s suggestion about a short-term working group.

On whether leadership in community planning or in general is a professional skill, at present things such as the Scottish Leaders Forum can support collaborative leadership in the public sector. There is a degree of mutuality in supporting leadership in a community planning partnership. People should be expected to help to bring one another along. That is valuable in understanding shared perspectives and in ensuring development within a community planning partnership.

Thanks. Does anyone else want to come in on that point?

Joe FitzPatrick

I agree with what Councillor Heddle has said about leadership, and I will add a couple of examples.

Part of the issue is that we need to ensure that it is not simply assumed that the local authority will always be the provider of leadership. That is not always the case. I have a couple of examples from recent visits in which other skills were brought to bear.

I mentioned previously the Wester Hailes community. In producing its local place plan, it used consultancy to supplement its skill set and that of the local authority. That worked for Wester Hailes and it gave the community more independence than there would be from a local authority person taking that leadership role.

One of the communities that I visited during my summer tour was the Struan community on Skye, which is looking at repurposing a building as a community asset for the future. The Struan community pulled in the support of Planning Aid Scotland to supplement the skills that it had around the table, although the community was pretty rich in that respect. It is not a case of one size fits all, but we need to avoid assuming that the leadership role should always be performed by Government, whether at national or local level, because that could remove a community’s independence.

The Convener

I want to get into the granular detail. It is great to hear that you recognise the importance of having the skill sets around the table. One of the things that came to light when we gathered evidence was that there is a need for acknowledgement that community engagement is a professional skill that needs to be resourced, whether that role is performed by local authorities or the third sector. That must be recognised, because there is so much work that needs to be done right now and so many changes that need to be made for which such facilitation and engagement skills are crucial.

Earlier, we talked about the fact that voices are not being heard. Councillor Heddle talked about the need to create the space in which people feel comfortable and safe to express themselves. We must recognise that a professional skill set is needed to enable that to happen and that we need to resource that. That is not about dictating what the arrangement will look like at local level, but we must get out of the situation that we are in. In Scotland, we face a challenge regarding the budget situation, but we need to start looking at how we get that soft infrastructure in place so that we have people who are able to engage with and to facilitate work with communities to ensure that they are not trapped in a cycle of one-year funding. As our witnesses well know, that one year is taken up with getting the money in the first place, then having to report on how it has been used.

We need to continue the conversation on that, but I would be interested to hear your initial thoughts.

Joe FitzPatrick

I definitely agree with what you are saying. The committee might find it valuable to hear about the experience of the Wester Hailes community—which has been a particularly deprived community, many parts of which have been marginalised—in producing one of the first new-style local place plans in the country. That plan has been agreed by the council, so it has a new status. It is one of many communities that are showing the way for others, so it might be worth the committee’s while to look at what it has done.

Tom Arthur

I have two points to add. First, it would be remiss of us not to recognise the huge contribution that many partner organisations that are supported by the Scottish Government, such as the Development Trusts Association Scotland and the Scottish Community Development Centre, make directly to communities.

Secondly, I very much recognise the concerns that the convener has expressed about the funding environment in which we operate. We all understand that a cascading effect occurs when budgets are set by the UK Government, the impact that that has on our ability to forward plan and the subsequent impact that that has on local government and other partner organisations, despite the degree of certainty or confidence that we seek to provide through medium-term financial strategies and indicative budgets. I also recognise the specific challenge that exists around resourcing to provide the level of engagement that we want.

It is important to bear in mind that, when we speak about engagement, for example with local government, there is an element of it almost being viewed as something additional. Part of the agenda of empowerment, the review of local governance and the move to a more participative form of democracy involves no longer viewing such engagement as something additional but integrating it as part of the approach. With community wealth building, the situation is analogous.

When it comes to the economic element and the democratising of our economy, some of the narrative is about that being something additional. Additional support is required in that transitional phase, but the destination is something that is much more integrated and mainstream. That is an important point. Notwithstanding that these are medium-term to long-term aspirations that we will seek to advance in partnership, there is a continuing need for support in the immediate term.

The Convener

I agree that that is absolutely what we need right now, in the transition that we are going through as we move to fulfil the aspirations of the community empowerment agenda. It is about how we get there and having that additional support in place.

Councillor Heddle, did you want to come in, or shall we move on?

Councillor Heddle


You are happy to move on. Okay—super.

Councillor Heddle

No, no—sorry. I was going to come in.

Oh, you are coming in. Go on.

Councillor Heddle

It is this new Zoom environment; I do not know what the rules are.

I know.

Councillor Heddle

I just wanted to say that I generally support what Mr FitzPatrick and Mr Arthur have said, in particular about the fact that the resourcing of community planning partnerships is not something that has to, or should, come solely from local government—it is the totality of the resource from the partners. It is a matter of enabling all the partners, including local government, to have the financial flexibility to be able to do this.

In general, COSLA is not in favour of ring-fenced allocations of pots of money, as we do not think that that allows authorities the flexibility to deliver best value across all the service areas that we have to cover. That is the case here, too—we will not support a directed budget in that regard. We would certainly support guidance to all partners as to how community planning partnerships should function and be supported, but, in this case, we support the general principle of having the financial flexibility to be able to do that.

The Convener

Great—thank you for that. It seems that there might need to be more discussion with all the partners in the CPP, with everybody getting involved in how to bring about that improvement in skill sets. I recognise that there are some CPPs for which it is working very well, and there are other places where it is not. There is an equivalence that needs to be recognised in terms of the contribution to how CPPs are run.

I will move on and bring in Marie McNair.

Marie McNair

Good morning, ministers, and Councillor Heddle and officials. It is great to see you here this morning—we really appreciate your time.

I will touch on community councils. They have been around for many years—50 years, in fact. What role do you see them having in helping to deliver on the aspirations of the Verity house agreement?

I have two other questions. Should legislation be used to give community councils an enhanced role in local democracy? Are you confident that they are sufficiently representative of the local communities that they serve?

Tom Arthur

Thank you for the questions. I join all of you in wishing our community councils—all roughly 1,200 of them across the country—a very happy 50th birthday. I certainly know, from my experience as a constituency representative, the invaluable contribution that they make to communities in undertaking a range of activities and providing important insight and scrutiny for the decisions that are taken not just by councils but by parliamentarians.

I will ask Mr FitzPatrick whether he wants to come in on any specific aspects of the Verity house agreement. I think that community councils have a very important role to play. As we undertake the second phase of the democracy matters programme and consider the ways in which further power can be put in the hands of communities, I go into that process with no pre-set ideas of what the outcome should be. That could lead to calls or suggestions for a more enhanced role for community councils.

I am conscious that the committee might have some interest in the parish council model south of the border and how that links in with the quite varied landscape of local government in England—there is sometimes almost a tripartite structure, with the district and county councils.

I am not going into that process with any pre-set ideas about what the future of community councils should be. It is imperative that, as the review progresses, any of the ideas that are put forward are considered in consultation and collaboratively with our partners in local government and with communities, recognising that various models, including new models, might emerge from the review process, which might enhance the current structure of community councils.


As I said, community councils do an invaluable job and make a huge contribution to Scotland. I want to work constructively to maximise their impact. If, through our deliberations and engagement, we land on a position that involves an enhanced role for them in statute, I would not close off that option at this stage.

Joe FitzPatrick

There was a question about the Verity house agreement. The main point in relation to that is the commitment to the conclusion of the local governance review and the recognition that it needs to be completed in this parliamentary session.

Councillor Heddle, do you have any points to make on community councils?

Councillor Heddle

Yes, I do. I absolutely believe that community councils have a role in community empowerment, as envisaged in the Verity house agreement. I hope that that will be explored fully in phase 2 of the democracy matters conversation. I also believe that the empowerment of community councils should primarily be explored by local government in line with subsidiarity.

I should have declared an interest and said that I am a former community councillor—I was a community councillor for four years before I became a councillor.

In my area, community councils fulfil a very important role, primarily as a sounding board for local members but also in actively doing things. In Orkney, we resource community councils and ensure that they have a paid clerk to enable them to have an administrative function. That is an example of how we could enhance powers for community councils. At present, they are limited in what they can do because they cannot be employers and, in some cases, they have to rely on the local authority as a proxy to do things for them.

Community councils could be more empowered, but we have to explore that carefully so that we do not end up closing off examples of good practice by focusing on a prescriptive model that might have unintended consequences.

Tom Arthur

I agree with what Councillor Heddle has said, particularly on subsidiarity and recognising local government’s statutory oversight of community councils. I also agree with his point about not taking an overly prescriptive approach and recognising that different models might be suited to different areas. It is important that we go through the democracy matters process and are collectively open to the outcome. Any next steps would be taken in accordance with the principles of the Verity house agreement, through close partnership working.

We move on to questions from Ivan McKee.

Ivan McKee (Glasgow Provan) (SNP)

In our report on part 9 of the 2015 act, which is on allotments, we suggested actions for the Scottish Government and for local authorities in relation to waiting lists, access to land, integration with wider priorities, sustaining allotments, the creation of a national forum and other things. I thank the Government for its response to that. We have also taken evidence from interested groups, such as GrowGreen Scotland and the Glasgow Allotments Forum, who express frustrations about the lack of progress on delivery of the act on the ground—excuse the pun.

I would like to explore the Government’s perspective on that. Do you recognise those frustrations and the lack of progress that those groups cite? What work has been done, and what progress has been made, on improving access to allotments and community growing spaces?

Joe FitzPatrick

The frustration, particularly from the groups that you mentioned, is partly because recognition of the value of community growing has grown in the past number of years and there are increasing numbers of community growing organisations across the country using lots of different models. The Scottish Government supports that work. Since 2012, we have awarded more than £1.8 million through various grants and funding mechanisms to directly support community growing and increase the land that is available for it.

I visited lots of communities through the summer. In some cases, I was specifically visiting a community growing facility. In others, I was looking at some regeneration but, often, even when I did not expect to visit a community growing facility, the organisers would say, “There’s where we are going to put the community growing facility.” One of the communities in Shetland was going to build a particular structure. I have forgotten the name of it but it was a Shetland-specific polytunnel that was able to withstand the winds. The community showed me where that was going to be fitted.

There is a recognition of the benefits of community growing. There is absolutely a role for allotments, but there is a wider movement and a range of community growing organisations in virtually every community. The benefits of those organisations need to be fully recognised. Community growing is not just about the growing of food, which is really important, given the crises that we currently face. There are wider benefits to community cohesion, mental health and physical health.

There are also education benefits. I visited a community growing scheme in Dunoon that was attached to a school. It was an old school garden and the community growing organisation went in. All the people involved were properly certified to work with the kids, so the kids were able to go in. Initially, it was a case of, “This is all really dirty and yucky and look at thae worms!” but now it is so successful that the school is saying, “Thanks very much. I think that we can do this now,” so the group is now looking for another area to develop.

We—the collegiate “we” not just of public Scotland but the wider community, because business plays a big role in this as well—need to think about what more we can do to enable that. One of the big opportunities is the Good Food Nation (Scotland) Act 2022, which enables us to tie together a number of strands.

Last week, I was at a conference organised by SURF—Scotland’s Regeneration Forum—that specifically considered community growing as part of regeneration across Scotland. It was a really good conference. It had a combination of people from the standard regeneration groups across Scotland and a range of people who were involved in all sorts of models for community growing. We need to share the energy that was in that room more.

For its part, the Scottish Government supports a lot of the organisations involved through regeneration grants or other empowerment grants. Specific aspects of the 2015 act relate to allotments and waiting lists for them. The Government has surveyed local authorities to try to identify the work that is continuing.

Obviously, allotments are a local authority responsibility rather than one for the Scottish Government, but we are keen to work with COSLA and our local government partners to see whether there is more that we can do, particularly in light of the Good Food Nation (Scotland) Act 2022. We now have contact points for allotment services across Scotland and are working with authorities to share good practice.

I have touched base with Councillor Gail Macgregor, the COSLA lead, to suggest that we might consider how we can better support local authorities across Scotland. We need to be careful not to cause an additional layer of bureaucracy with reporting, and we are keen to work with local government partners to see whether there is a way to bring commonality to the reporting that local authorities already do to make it easier for committees such as this to have transparency on what is happening across Scotland.

A huge amount of work is going on, and a huge amount of progress is being made across Scotland, particularly in the community growing forum. Previously, the only option for growing your own food was to have an allotment. That is really challenging for many people, and it is a substantial amount of land per person, whereas the use of community growing can potentially reduce waiting lists for allotments, including by giving some people more appropriate access.

It is a really exciting time in this area, particularly with the opportunities that the good food nation plan brings.

Ivan McKee

In my constituency, there is a great project in Ruchazie, which is part funded by the Scottish Government, to implement allotments. That works alongside the Scottish Pantry Network and is very effective.

I recognise your comments on community growing, but Government recognition of the frustrations that such groups are expressing on allotments would be very valuable. Some straightforward things on data, definitions, waiting list management and so on could be implemented that would really help to address many of the frustrations.

Joe FitzPatrick

We are working with partners on that, and the tripartite group is one of the groups that is helping us to do that. Through that, the Scottish Government, local authorities and the Scottish Allotments and Gardens Society work together.

There has been a slowing down of that work, because of our work on the good food nation. It tends to be the same people who are doing the work, and the good food nation has been prioritised. I do not think that that is necessarily a bad thing, but you are right that there are probably some easy gains that we need to make. However, we need to do that in partnership rather than telling colleagues what to do.

The Convener

The name of the windproofed polytunnel that you were trying to remember is Polycrub. They are popping up across my region.

I will give Councillor Heddle the opportunity to comment on that.

Councillor Heddle

I can declare another interest: I have a local authority-provided allotment. People’s cultivation of 100m2 of weed-bearing soil fills me full of admiration.

I waited a few years before I managed to get an allotment. It has been a source of frustration and joy for me, so I absolutely support the expansion of allotment provision. It is a powerful force for wellbeing, as well as being a food supply source.

COSLA’s ability to support wellbeing is, sadly, limited by the challenging financial constraints that local government is facing. I wonder to what extent planning can take a role in wider community wellbeing. Perhaps mandatory green spaces can become mandatory brown spaces with new planning developments.

I also note the development of the community gardens and the Polycrubs. Our local health board has placed a Polycrub inside the new hospital. Again, that is a very positive development for everybody who has the chance to interact with it.

My personal perspective is that I am generally supportive. However, I know that not all councils provided evidence to COSLA’s inquiry on allotments, so I will not purport to represent all of our member councils.

The Convener

It is great to hear about your experiences, Mr FitzPatrick—the Dunoon story is tremendous. I declare an interest in that, when I lived in New York city, I was majorly involved in community gardens there.


I notice that we have a direction of travel in the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 around allotments, and Ivan McKee mentioned the frustration in that regard and our desire for that direction of travel to be paid attention to. Recently, it was brought to my attention that an allotment community garden project has been told by a local authority that it will now have to pay full ground rent, on common good land, which will be £13,000 a year. That cannot be paid out of the project’s charity fundraising money. Therefore, there seems to be more work to be done to support the community empowerment agenda, particularly under part 9 of the 2015 act, to flow through to the most local level.

I totally understand that local authorities are potentially having to take difficult decisions, because it is a very difficult time for local authority funding and finance, but how do we start to recognise where we are all going together? Mr FitzPatrick, it is fantastic that you are highlighting the good food nation plan, and local authorities will be coming up with their plans. I hope that they will work synergistically with the local food strategy plans that have come out of the 2015 act.

There is still more work for us all to do to highlight the importance of the matter and the enthusiasm of communities in seeking the opportunity to be resilient and to have access to locally grown food and all the value and co-benefits that come from that.

We will move on to a slightly different topic, and I will bring in Mark Griffin.

Mark Griffin

Good morning. I have a few questions about the powers in the act relating to participation requests and asset transfers. I will kick off by asking whether you think that the two instruments around asset transfers and participation requests have helped to empower communities.

Tom Arthur

Yes, I do—they have played and continue to play an important role. It is important to recognise that they operate within a broader context of rights and that they are just two particular mechanisms at our disposal. However, since the respective powers came into force, we have seen some 79 participation requests and more than 200 asset transfer requests, with many more applications having subsequently been made. They are playing an important part in the ecosystem of community empowerment, and they are important tools in enhancing a more participatory approach to our democratic culture and as a key lever and enabler of not only regeneration but community wealth building, specifically with regard to asset transfer requests.

Mark Griffin

You talked about the number of applications for asset transfers and participation requests, and we heard that the number of participation requests is a good bit lower than the number of asset transfer applications. Does the Government have an opinion on why that might be? Do you consider that more work needs to be done to improve awareness and encourage communities to go down that route?

Tom Arthur

On the latter point, yes. That is being considered through the work that is being undertaken as part of the 2015 act review. We have seen development and evolution of participation requests. At the outset, to an extent, they were still predominantly coming from community councils, but the subject of the participation request—the relevant public service authority—is no longer exclusively local government. We are seeing a wider range of partners, and the requests are being used to allow communities to engage in a range of decision making around roads and other local assets, for example. We must have a more detailed understanding of the landscape, and that work is being undertaken through the review. That information should become available as we move towards the completion of the review in the early part of next year.

There is learning to be taken from the experience today. Previous consideration has demonstrated that the legislation was working as intended, but we recognise that there might be some opportunities for further development. One particular issue that has been raised previously is the absence of an appeals or review mechanism. Again, we will give that further consideration. I look forward to engaging with the committee at the conclusion of the review of the act and exploring your findings.

On the asset transfers, we are seeing that aspect grow. It is one of a number of tools that are available. As I look towards the introduction of legislation on community wealth building later in this parliamentary session, I keep in mind that one of the key tools and enablers that has helped us to make progress in a way that is consistent with community wealth building aims has been asset transfer requests—admittedly, it is one tool of many, but I think that it has been an important one and will have a pivotal role to play. Again, the review of the act will inform our thinking on what further steps, if any, we have to take, in partnership with local government and other public bodies, to further enhance that tool and on what further support is required.

Mark Griffin

In the previous parliamentary session, the Local Government and Communities Committee flagged up the issue of the lack of an appeals process for participation requests, so it is good to hear that the Scottish Government is considering that. That committee also raised concerns about the asset transfer process sometimes being overly bureaucratic, cumbersome and difficult for local organisations to navigate. We heard particular examples around the opportunities for community groups to take over areas of ground for use as allotments. Has the Government done any work on how to make the asset transfer process easier and more accessible for community groups that have that aspiration to take on a piece of land or asset that is held by a public authority?

Tom Arthur

There are two aspects to the issue: the authority; and the community group that wishes to take on the asset.

On supporting community groups, we have provided funding to the community ownership support service, which provides expert support and guidance to organisations seeking to take on an asset. More broadly, we have seen the establishment of the national asset transfer action group, which has been working to address the issues around consistency and the sharing of best practice. Kathleen Glazik can talk about some of the work that has been undertaken in that forum.

Kathleen Glazik (Scottish Government)

We have been working with a group of experts and have looked at various parts of the asset transfer process and pieces of legislation. We are engaged in a piece of work on the review, and are working closely with the group to determine whether each part of the 2015 act is fit for purpose or whether any changes need to be made.

Councillor Heddle, do you have any points to make regarding the effectiveness of the participation request or asset transfer powers in the legislation?

Councillor Heddle

First, I welcome the fact that community bodies have the opportunity to make participation requests and, indeed, to request asset transfers. Those are both useful tools that communities and public authorities can use to influence and shape public services.

I note that participation requests are only one of a number of ways in which communities can get involved in shaping public services. There is also participatory budgeting—I am delighted to trumpet the fact that local government has met the target in that regard—as well as local access panels, community consultation on council plans and so on.

On the specific point about the appeals process for participation requests, COSLA does not have a mandate from our members to introduce an appeals process. If one was required, we would have to consider carefully with our members the best way in which that could be supported, given the resource implications and the work that is already in place to ensure community participation.

As for the question about there perhaps being a lower uptake of participation requests compared with asset transfers, that is possibly due to higher levels of awareness of asset transfers. In that case, we can do more to raise awareness of participation requests through the various fora at our disposal. It is probably also due to the more tangible and finite nature of asset transfers.

We are certainly aware of a number of good examples of groups being supported to take direct ownership of an asset—or, indeed, not to take direct ownership but to take over its management. I think that, in the past, I have made in this forum the point that some groups prefer simply to manage the asset instead of taking on the liabilities and to leave those with the local authorities. Of course, authorities will have mixed views on that, but they currently support that mode of operation.

We move on to questions from Willie Coffey.

Willie Coffey (Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley) (SNP)

I want to ask about two aspects of the 2015 act that have not yet been brought into force. As you know, the act came into force in 2015, so we are now eight years on, but I would just note part 7, which is intended to facilitate supporter engagement in football clubs, and part 10, which enables ministers to require public authorities to help the public to participate in the decision-making process. What are your views on those provisions? Will you be bringing them into force any time soon?

Tom Arthur

With regard to part 10, I would want to situate that issue in the context of the review and not presuppose any outcomes. I appreciate that the wider issue of the “Democracy matters” initiative has been referred to several times, but I would also recognise that, although we in Government might operate through distinct reviews, people will bring forward ideas as and when they see fit.

As for the requirement that is set out in part 10, it has not been introduced, and we certainly have no plans to take it forward at this stage. Any move to introduce that or some similar mechanism would require very detailed consideration, very close engagement and a clear rationale. However, I would say that, in recent years, we have seen a significant improvement in communities’ abilities to engage with and participate in decision making and to take on assets not just through statutory means but through non-statutory means. Councillor Heddle has touched on participatory budgeting—let me again, as I did in the summer, commend and congratulate COSLA on achieving that 1 per cent target. Participatory budgeting is an example of communities being given an opportunity to have much more of a say in the allocation of resources in their area.

Something that has been very encouraging about participatory budgeting is not just the benefits that it confers but the move away from discrete pots of money being specifically allocated to authorities challenging themselves to find ways of giving communities more say over existing budgets for, say, roads and maintenance or the environment. We have seen some really excellent examples of that; indeed, I have to commend the work of one of the local authorities in my constituency—Renfrewshire Council—and what it has achieved in that respect.

With regard to the overall culture surrounding community empowerment, I would say that, notwithstanding what has been achieved through statutory mechanisms, we are seeing non-statutory mechanisms being used, too. Through the work of the local governance review and the work in partnership through the provisions in and the spirit of the Verity house agreement, we will achieve much more by changing culture and practice instead of necessarily having more statutory mechanisms.

However, I do not want to pre-empt the review’s outcome, and I reiterate that any decisions will be arrived at in a spirit of partnership that is consistent with the Verity house agreement.

Willie Coffey

Thanks very much for that good response, Tom.

Before we come to the football issue, which I think Joe FitzPatrick might be addressing, I wonder what Councillor Heddle’s view is on this question. Are we saying that the purpose behind the intention is in effect and working well? I am certainly aware of participatory budgeting successes here, there and everywhere in Scotland—and particularly in East Ayrshire. Are we saying that we do not need to bring the provision into force? Is the practice that is taking place good enough so that we do not need to bring it into effect?


Councillor Heddle

I am sorry—I thought that your question was going to be specifically on football clubs. Can you clarify what you are asking about?

Willie Coffey

I have referred to two parts of the legislation. Part 7 is about football club supporter engagement. I am asking you about part 10, which has not yet been brought into effect, and which requires ministers to enable public participation in the decision-making process. The minister has set out some good examples from across Scotland where that is happening anyway, without those provisions being brought into effect. I am wondering whether that is your experience, too.

Councillor Heddle

I would say so. I think that having a requirement is perhaps using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, although I am not suggesting that community participation is not extremely important. I think that all spheres of government would be extremely unwise not to wish to do that as a matter of course in all the business that we do. My belief would be that it is not necessary to enact that.

Thanks for that, Councillor Heddle. Joe FitzPatrick, can you speak about part 7, on supporter engagement in football clubs?

Joe FitzPatrick

Part 7 gives ministers power to make regulations to facilitate supporter involvement and to give fans rights in a number of areas. The Scottish Government held a consultation on that in 2016, and no action has been taken since. The matter sits within the portfolio of the Minister for Social Care, Mental Wellbeing and Sport. If colleagues are okay with this suggestion, maybe you could ask her to give you a written update on the Government’s views in light of the responses to the 2016 consultation.

Finally, when will the Government conclude its overall review of the 2015 act? When do you expect that to be published?

Tom Arthur

The aspiration is that it will be in the first half of next year. As I indicated earlier, I would be more than happy to appear before the committee to discuss the outcome of that and the next steps once it is published.

Many thanks.

The Convener

I direct this next question to Councillor Heddle, because I think that he has mentioned this issue more often than anybody else has this morning. What is your thinking on what the process will be for phase 2 of “Democracy matters”? We are familiar with phase 1, which we took evidence on as part of other work that we were doing. It would be interesting for us to hear what engagement you will be doing and what the timeframe for that will be.

Councillor Heddle

Convener, with your indulgence, I would like to bring in my colleague Mr Smyth on that question. He will be more familiar with the timelines and so on.

Garrick Smyth (Convention of Scottish Local Authorities)

Good morning. The launch took place on Monday, and COSLA will be doing our best to promote awareness of phase 2 of “Democracy matters”. In terms of specific actions, we have yet to thrash out how we can ensure that the work is as effective as possible, and how we can engage as many and as wide a range of views as possible on future models for Scottish communities. For the time being, I will leave it at that.

Thanks very much. Mr Arthur wants to come in.

Tom Arthur

We anticipate that the consultation will run for about six months, so that should take us to February 2024, roughly coinciding with the timescales for the review of the 2015 act.

We are working with partners to facilitate a range of engagements that will take place across Scotland and we are publishing materials as well, so a number of pieces of work are taking place to facilitate that activity. If it would be helpful to the committee, I would be happy to provide a written update towards the end of this year or the beginning of next year addressing the progress that has been made to date. Of course, at the conclusion of the work, we will be more than happy to appear before the committee to discuss the matter further.

The Convener

Thank you. You are certainly lining up some more work for yourself for when you come back to see us.

I thank everyone so much for joining us this morning and helping us to understand your perspectives on community empowerment and the direction of travel for the community empowerment agenda in Scotland.

I briefly suspend the meeting to allow for a changeover of officials.

10:49 Meeting suspended.  

10:54 On resuming—