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Chamber and committees

Public Audit Committee

Community empowerment: Covid-19 update

Letter from Convener to Paul Johnston, Director-General Communities, Scottish Government, 9 December 2021

Dear Paul

Community empowerment: Covid-19 update


The Public Audit Committee considered Audit Scotland’s briefing, “Community empowerment: Covid-19 update” at its meeting on 25 November 2021. At this meeting, the Committee heard from a range of stakeholders representing the voluntary sector about the good work taking place in local communities in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

This included hearing first-hand from Collydean Community Centre, referenced as a case study in the briefing, to establish how it was able to adapt its services and activities to support its local community. The session also provided the Committee with an opportunity to understand what good practice needs to continue in the longer-term to support and empower communities.

During the meeting, it was clear to the Committee that local community groups have played a key role in supporting the most vulnerable people in society during the pandemic. The Committee heard that over the past 18 months, small community organisations “were very fleet of foot” and “could respond quickly to the hugely changing situation” and that this was possible because funders were willing to trust these organisations to allocate the money to best meet the needs of their communities.

Indeed, trust, parity of esteem and mutual respect between different partners were all cited as positive new ways of working that have emerged during the pandemic. However, and as you will be aware, the Christie report, published over a decade ago, cautioned that building services for communities would only be successful if the role of the third sector was given sufficient recognition.

It appears to have taken a global pandemic for third sector organisations to be treated as an equal partner in the planning and delivery of services. Is this a view you share? The Committee would also be interested to understand what role the Scottish Government is taking to give third sector the recognition it deserves.

During the meeting, a key concern raised was the long-term financial sustainability for community organisations. During the meeting, the Auditor General for Scotland (AGS) stated that a significant amount of additional money has been received by community organisations during the pandemic, but it is unclear whether this funding will be sustained.

The AGS went on to explain that the risks of this short-term funding include poorer decisions and poorer longer-term outcomes and called for—

“…a longer-term environment that will allow organisations to plan better for the impact of their work, so that a more efficient and more effective set of proposals can come through.”

The Committee heard from the manager at Collydean Community Centre about the impact of this short-term funding—

“I could have my mental health drop-in cafe for a year, but I do not know whether I will have it next year. When we go back to funders, they ask what the outcomes were but, a lot of the time, we struggle, because it is about the long-term outcomes.”

The Committee welcomes your views in response to the concerns raised regarding the short-term funding arrangements for community organisations, and the risks this approach presents to the delivery of Scotland’s national outcomes.

A further area the Committee explored during the evidence session was the role of public bodies in building community empowerment. It was recognised that while there is good work being led by local authorities, there was perhaps less evidence of this work being carried out in other public bodies.

As you will be aware, many national bodies such as the national health service and enterprise and skills agencies have clear obligations under the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 to promote and facilitate the participation of members of the public in its decisions and activities, including in the allocation of its resources. However, the Auditor General for Scotland commented that “this is often forgotten and not given enough emphasis”.

The Committee also believes that lessons must be learned to build on the positive work being carried out by community organisations, such as the ones highlighted in the Audit Scotland briefing.

The Committee therefore seeks your views on the extent to which—

  • national bodies are meeting their obligations under the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015;
  • any particular examples of where you believe this is working well beyond the local government sector;
  • what the Scottish Government is doing to support all public bodies to fulfil their community empowerment obligations;
  • how the Scottish Government will ensure lessons are learned across the public sector to develop longer-term approaches to empowering communities.

You may wish to note that the Committee intends to write to the Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee to draw its attention to the issues raised during the scrutiny of the briefing. We intend to do this once we have received your response to this correspondence. 

The Committee would be grateful for a response by Friday 21 January 2022.

I look forward to meeting you soon.

Yours sincerely

Richard Leonard MSP