Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)
Meeting date: Thursday, December 15, 2022
Official Report 1190KB pdf
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Points of Order, Year of Disabled Workers 2022, Portfolio Question Time, Budget 2023-24, Asset Transfers and Community Empowerment, Business Motion, Decision Time
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Points of Order
- Year of Disabled Workers 2022
- Portfolio Question Time
- Budget 2023-24
- Asset Transfers and Community Empowerment
- Business Motion
- Decision Time
Asset Transfers and Community Empowerment
The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-07247, in the name of Tom Arthur, on asset transfers and community empowerment—five years on. I invite members who wish to participate to press their request-to-speak button now or as soon as possible.16:56
I am grateful for the opportunity to secure this debate for the Parliament, providing us with an opportunity to reflect on the progress that we have made in five years since introducing landmark asset transfer legislation that has empowered our communities to take on many of our public places and spaces.
Today’s debate provides us with a chance to hear about the difference that asset transfers have made locally in Scotland, enabling community organisations to take over management and ownership of many public spaces. It also creates an opportunity to consider some of the challenges that we face, such as in supporting our most vulnerable communities to engage with asset transfers.
Community asset transfer is not new. Our communities have a long history of owning and managing land and buildings. Local authorities have worked with community organisations for many years, agreeing the transfer of assets that, often, have been surplus and where the benefits of community management have been recognised. I acknowledge the hard work that has been carried out across the country by local authorities and other public service partners to develop community asset management and ownership strategies.
Since the introduction of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015, that initial good work has been strengthened by introducing new rights for community organisations that submit asset transfers, including a right of appeal, and by placing new responsibilities on public authorities to decide on applications by set timescales, to do so transparently and to publish details of their assets and asset transfer activity annually.
Much has happened since asset transfer legislation came into force in January 2017. The Scottish Government has worked directly with the 95 public authorities—known as relevant authorities—to establish and support annual reporting processes, including by developing an annual reporting template to capture the necessary data. We also commissioned researchers at Glasgow Caledonian University to carry out an evaluation of the first three years of asset transfer activity, which reported in July 2020. We set up a national asset transfer action group of partners and community representatives to consider the Glasgow evaluation and any challenges in embedding asset transfer. In addition, we hosted two national events for asset transfer in 2021; one was for the relevant authorities and the other was for community organisations.
Through those actions, we have learned a lot about how the legislation is working on the ground. For example, we know that local authorities currently receive most requests but that there are signs that that is changing as other relevant authorities come on board and help community groups to take on their assets.
In 2017-18, 85 per cent of the total number of asset transfer requests were made to local authorities, with only 15 per cent made to other public bodies. However, by 2021-22, 46 per cent of the total number of requests were made to other public authorities, including NHS Lanarkshire, NHS Dumfries and Galloway, NHS Fife, NHS Grampian, NHS Highland and NHS Western Isles. Scottish Government agencies such as Scottish Water and Forestry and Land Scotland received requests, too.
Those figures are about more than just numbers and data; they represent a tangible change to the way in which communities now control their own place. For example, Forestry and Land Scotland transferred the Fairy Pools car park in Skye to the Minginish Community Hall Association, which went on to provide better facilities at the site. In another example, NHS Lanarkshire transferred Croy clinic to Croy Community Hub on an initial lease, with the view of transferring full ownership, to create local jobs and to enable a local community space for the development of community groups.
Since 2017, more than 350 asset transfer requests have been made using asset transfer legislation; more than 200 have been granted and many more are in progress. That has played a significant role in maintaining the upward trajectory of overall community land use in Scotland.
Of course, asset transfer sits within a wider community land use setting, in which other mechanisms are available for communities to take on land or buildings. We know from the latest report—the “Community Ownership in Scotland 2021” report, which the Scottish Government published in September 2022—that there has been a steady upward trend in community ownership, with an increase from a known 84 community-owned assets in 2000 to 711 in 2021. Over the same period, there has been more than a sixfold jump in community groups owning assets, with an increase from 74 to 484.
Our work with partners plays a vital role in embedding asset transfer policy. We fund the community ownership support service—COSS—which provides expert support and advice on the asset transfer process to community groups and to relevant authorities. We established the aforementioned national asset transfer action group in October 2020 to help us to respond to the recommendations of the Glasgow Caledonian University report, and it also helped to inform the annual reporting template that we developed to support relevant authorities to meet their statutory duty to publish asset transfer data annually.
The group also supported our work in response to the findings of the Local Government and Communities Committee in the previous session of Parliament, which made recommendations on asset transfer. We have listened to advice and, working with the national group and our partners, we have acted on those recommendations, including through our launch in September 2021 of guidance titled “Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015: Asset Transfer Guidance for Considering Social Value”.
Although we rightly celebrate the success of asset transfer, we are now working to better understand the detail of the data and learning that have been gathered over the past five years. Work is under way to learn from those authorities that are promoting and embracing asset transfer, as well as to understand the cold spots of little or no activity, and why those cold spots exist. In addition, we are listening to our community organisations and acting on their feedback and experiences.
That work will form part of the wider review of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015, which I launched in the summer at the Loch Ness community hub in Glenurquhart. There, I saw at first hand the achievements of Glenurquhart Rural Community Association, the local community organisation that, through an asset transfer in 2018, took on a former tourist information centre, which it has, by working with partners, turned it into a vibrant community hub that employs local people and operates a green transport business.
As we progress the review, learning such as that will be explored with partners and communities, which are being asked for their views on what is working and what needs to change.
I want to take a few moments to speak about some of the other key developments that the Scottish Government backs that will support communities to take on the running and ownership of more land and assets, as well as supporting wider community empowerment objectives.
Community wealth building provides national and local government, the third sector, the private sector and communities with an opportunity to approach economic development in a new way, thereby creating conditions for the people of Scotland to own a greater stake in local economies and shared wealth. Significant progress has been made in the pilot areas of Clackmannanshire, the south of Scotland, the Western Isles, and the Tay cities and Fife and Glasgow city regions, all of which are developing and embedding bespoke community wealth building action plans, with the support of the Scottish Government.
In addition, the £3 million Ayrshire growth deal community wealth building fund, which commenced delivery last April, is supporting local businesses and community organisations to grow local wealth.
Through partnerships with local communities, businesses and anchor organisations, local authorities are taking collective action to implement community wealth building by helping to create fairer local economies that tackle poverty and inequality; by focusing on wellbeing and inclusion; and by maximising the benefits of public spend and strategic decision making. Locally, that could involve small businesses or social enterprises winning procurement contracts for the first time, the creation of new local jobs or the protection of existing jobs, or communities owning and managing more local assets.
The review of the 2015 act provides an opportunity to build on those successes. We have an opportunity to progress that work further through a more comprehensive place-focused model of economic development at the local and regional levels.
To further support the implementation of community wealth building, we have committed to developing legislation and to holding a consultation to help us to gather a wide range of views on the changes that are required to grow local wealth and give communities a greater stake in the economy.
Although asset transfer is an important tool in providing opportunities to communities throughout Scotland to acquire assets and take over services, there are other options for acquisition—for example, through the various right to buy requests that are available under the Land Reform Act (Scotland) 2003 and the Land Reform Act (Scotland) 2016.
The Scottish Government also provides £10 million a year to support communities to acquire assets through the Scottish land fund. In the past five years, the fund has given grants of more than £39 million to more than 230 projects across Scotland. In 2020-21, our programme for government committed to a new five-year SLF that commenced in April 2021, and we will seek to double the SLF to £20 million by the end of this session of Parliament, enabling many more community groups to engage with public land ownership.
Our place-based investment programme embeds, at its core, community empowerment and equality, backed with an initial £325 million capital investment over the next five years to support community-led regeneration and to accelerate our ambitions for place, 20-minute neighbourhoods and town centres, helping to create the conditions that support community wealth building.
The place-based investment programme builds on the successful impact of the regeneration capital grant fund, the town centre action plans, and the partnerships and networks that have been built over a number of years. It aims to link and align all place-based funding initiatives to ensure that we have a coherent approach that will build resilient communities and promote inclusive growth and wellbeing. It is complemented by our empowering communities programme, which provides support to develop and build the capacity, resilience and sustainability of our communities, of which community ownership is a key part in helping to create more resilient and sustainable communities.
Local government is a key partner in delivering the place-based investment programme and it will receive an allocation of £140 million in capital funding during this session of Parliament. In addition to accelerating our shared ambitions for place, the funding will also contribute to net zero, wellbeing and inclusive economic development, tackling inequality and disadvantage and promoting community involvement and ownership. To complement that work, we will also support participatory budgeting and participation requests, as covered in the 2015 act.
I very much look forward to members’ contributions to the debate, as we recognise the tremendous impact that asset transfer is having in Scotland.
That the Parliament welcomes the progress that has been made to date in implementing Part 5 of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015; recognises that ownership, lease or management of land and buildings are powerful tools for communities to drive change and achieve their shared ambitions; acknowledges the programme of support for participatory budgeting that has given communities a stronger voice in decisions on how public money is spent, and agrees that place-based, community-led regeneration can help local areas, individuals and businesses to tackle poverty and inequality, and build community wealth, on their own terms.17:06
I will try not to speak as quickly as the minister.
I thank the Government for the debate, which highlights the fantastic organisations that are doing so much across Scotland to improve our communities and bring buildings and spaces back into public use.
As a former councillor, I have seen at first hand the importance of empowering our communities. While this Scottish National Party Government has stepped back, our communities have stepped up. Following continued cuts to local authority funding, more responsibility has been passed to community groups. From planting flower beds to putting up our Christmas light displays, communities up and down the country have stepped up while the Government has failed.
Buildings that once stood proudly in our town and village centres have fallen into disrepair due to shrinking council budgets. However, thanks to the UK Government’s community ownership fund, some of those buildings are now being brought back into community use.
We Conservatives believe that we must put communities first, and that empowering communities is absolutely critical to ensuring that our towns and villages can be the vibrant and thriving places that they ought to be. The reality is that no one knows better how to achieve that than the individuals and families who live in those communities. Centralisation simply does not work: we need to see power moving downward to local communities, not moving in the other direction.
From 2017 to 2021, I was the convener of Aberdeen City Council’s finance committee, which dealt with the local authority’s community transfer requests with varying degrees of success, depending on the asset and the group that was looking to acquire it.
I will start with some success stories. The Seaton depot was an old disused council property. In 2018, it was agreed that the depot would be sold to Seaton community church for just £1. The church subsequently spent more than £0.5 million demolishing the old building and constructing not only a church but a brand-new community facility. While doing my research for this debate, I found a press clipping from 2018 that quoted me saying that the church’s work would
“make a real and lasting difference”
to the residents who live in the area, and that
“By using surplus council assets in new ways and supporting the goals of partners like the Seaton Community Church, we can make a real difference to people across the city”.
So, I do sometimes get things right. Today, the church has a full calendar of events from cage football to baby and toddler groups, and is proving to be a real asset for the community. I thank and commend Barry Douglas, who had the vision and determination to see the project through.
Another success story can be found in Footdee. Established in 2015, the Fittie Community Development Trust sought to secure the gospel hall with the aim of renovating it for the community through fundraising. It was successful in securing the hall back in 2018 and is now well on the way to achieving its goals.
Despite those positive stories, however, some challenging asset transfer projects have not yet been completed. One of those involves Westburn house, which is found in Aberdeen’s Westburn park. The house is a much-loved part of the city’s heritage but is, sadly, rapidly falling into disrepair, with the roof now having collapsed. The huge cost of making the building windtight and watertight appears to be the biggest hurdle to any revival. There is the will on the part of the local authority to transfer the asset, and the community supports the transfer and has a plan to use the building, but sources of funding are limited. About £7,000 has been raised, but that is a drop in the ocean compared with the sums that are required.
Those are a few rare examples of urban projects. Rural areas have been much more successful in implementing asset transfers. According to the Scottish Government’s figures, only 5 per cent of community buyouts have been in urban areas. The urban hub manager for Community Land Scotland has criticised the lack of progress in urban areas, saying:
“Community land ownership has been transformative in hundreds of communities across Scotland, but the potential in urban areas hasn’t been delivered yet. It should be a normal option in cities, like it is in the Highlands and Islands”.
Perhaps the minister would like to say in his summing-up how that is to be addressed.
The UK Government’s community ownership fund has significant financial benefits for Scotland. Venues that serve communities across Scotland are being supported by £2 million of investment from the fund. The levelling-up initiative sees Scotland benefiting from £2 billion of direct investment from the UK Government, and the UK Government community renewal fund provides additional financial support of £220 million to prepare the way for the UK shared prosperity fund.
However, more still needs to be done. The process of community asset transfer is hugely complicated, with unnecessary red tape before an asset transfer can be agreed. It requires, prior to transfer, a huge amount of legal knowledge and planning by community groups, which are often beyond the scope of smaller groups. Much more support is needed to enable groups to find their way through the process so that we see more buildings and assets that have fallen into disrepair being brought back to life in our communities.
The SNP says that it wants to empower local communities, but at the same time it is centralising services. It seems to be giving with one hand and taking away with the other. Much more clarity is required from the Government. Does it want local communities and councils to have more say about their destinies or does it want to centralise services, including adult and child social care?
Although I welcome the motion, I urge the Scottish Government not to rest on its laurels. Work still needs to be done. We need more community empowerment, not less. We need to cut the red tape for community groups and help them to make applications for asset transfers. We need to work with the UK Government to fund projects, and we need to stop centralisation of services away from our local communities.
I move amendment S6M-07247.1, to insert at end:
“; welcomes the UK Government’s Community Ownership Fund, which will allow communities to take ownership of local institutions that have fallen into disrepair or are under threat of closure, and further welcomes that there are projects in Scotland benefiting from this fund.”17:13
The Labour group and I commend the spirit of community empowerment and ownership endeavours in Scotland. It was Labour that established community land ownership in Scotland, so we welcome, in principle, all steps to empower communities to take greater control over their destinies under the principle of subsidiarity.
However, we have to look at the context in which the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 exists. We have seen increasing retrenchment of local government. In Glasgow, £1 has been cut from every £10 that was available to the city in the past decade, which has placed significant distress on delivery of local services.
Assets are increasingly being transferred in a distressed manner. Rather than being transferred in a productive or constructive way, the approach is almost akin to a fire sale. That major issue has characterised disposal of assets. As the Conservative spokesperson highlighted, only 5 per cent of community asset transfers are taking place in urban areas, and even those are increasingly taking place in distressed situations.
An example in Glasgow is the Govanhill baths project, which has been going on for many years. The building was closed by Glasgow City Council more than 20 years ago. The community occupied the building in protest, but many years later it successfully won funding through the regeneration capital grant fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund to begin the process of restoring that community asset after a long-running battle with the council.
Even now, as the community is, ostensibly, succeeding in delivering the regeneration programme—I bought an engraved tile to help the community’s fundraising for the swimming pool—construction inflation has run away from the project to such an extent that it will now be difficult to deliver the regeneration outcomes that were originally envisaged. That puts in jeopardy the grant funding that supported the community asset transfer in the first place. I say to the minister that we are in a vicious cycle: we are transferring the assets, but delivering the intended outcomes is really difficult. Not only are councils seeing retrenchment of services, but the capacity of communities to rise to the challenge of taking on assets is frustrated not just by the paucity of available grant funding, but by the inflationary pressures that are being faced. Those are difficulties.
One of the first things that motivated me to get involved in politics was watching the on-going destruction and dilapidation of historic properties in Springburn, where I grew up. Every day, I saw the Springburn public halls—the once-proud centre of Springburn—lying boarded up and falling apart. I hoped that, one day, someone would come along and fix that building. Increasingly, I realised that the council was never going to do that—in fact, it wanted to knock the building down. Ten years ago, almost to the day—27 December 2012—the council demolished the building overnight, with no discussion with the community and no constructive attempt to find a solution that would save the building.
The point that I will make is not party political. As an MSP for the city, I made many representations to the local authority at that time, but they seemed to fall on deaf ears. Sometimes, local authorities need to take more responsibility for pastoral care of traditional buildings in their communities. Right across Scotland, they just have to do better. I know that there are financial constraints, but councils have to be more imaginative and more innovative.
I can give you the time back.
Bob Doris has made a very astute point. There is so much risk aversion in local government when it comes to community asset transfers that transfers’ full potential cannot be reached. That is reflected in the Glasgow Caledonian University report.
The intended disposal of Springburn public halls was to a private property developer. Because of the 2008 credit crunch, that fell through. The next step was to clear the site in order to dispose of a clean site to a housing association. That B-listed property, which was a source of great pride and esteem in the community, was destroyed.
Only in the wake of that trauma, and the real and palpable disgust that was felt in Springburn, did we feel a stimulus for people to get involved. There was a realisation that the council was not going to be a white knight; it would not ride to our rescue, so we needed to form our own organisations.
That gave birth to the Springburn Winter Gardens Trust—of which Bob Doris will be aware—the Spirit of Springburn, and a rich tapestry of other organisations in Springburn. Increasingly, however, we are frustrated by lack of financial capacity. Only recently, the Springburn Winter Gardens Trust has been frustrated in its attempts to get UK Government levelling-up funding. It was also passed over by Glasgow City Council without any real explanation, and it was rejected from the Scottish Government’s regeneration capital grant fund.
I can see how demoralising it is for communities that are already at a low ebb and which lack capacity to be constantly hit in the face when they try to be constructive and proactive. The minister has to reflect on the fact that there is only so much frustration that people can take before they just give up. There needs to be more pastoral support and more functional support for communities when it comes to administration—helping to write bids and so on.
That is where the 2015 act is deficient, and why our amendment tries to address the issues. More resource is needed in order that we can to look at things such as conservation deficits and availability of grant funding that does not just create a “ferrets in a sack” approach, whereby people scrabble for funding. Most people will lose out and only a minority will win those funds in any given year, in a situation of increasing vulnerability.
In that regard, there are a number of deficiencies in how the 2015 act is currently managed. We need to go further to resource asset transfers, especially in urban areas where the greatest issues and need are, when it comes to deprivation.
I hope that the minister will address those points as the debate progresses.
I move amendment S6M-07247.2, to leave out from “welcomes” to end and insert:
“fully supports measures to empower communities and devolve power away from the Scottish Parliament, and considers that part 5 of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 was a positive step, allowing local groups to take ownership of assets for the benefit of their community; believes that pushing power into the hands of local people is a key part of unlocking the potential that exists across the whole country; recognises that, in communities across Scotland, there are positive examples of local groups taking control of assets and helping their area to flourish; regrets that communities still face significant barriers in exercising the rights given to them under the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015; believes that there is still much to be done to ensure that communities across Scotland are given the resources and support they need to benefit from the Act, and calls on the Scottish Government to take all necessary steps to remove remaining barriers and push more power into the hands of communities.”
We move to the open debate.17:19
I thank the Scottish Government for bringing forward the debate. In my research for it, I looked at the Accounts Commission’s 2019 report “Principles for community empowerment”. It is important that we remember what those principles are.
The first principle is community control, as Paul Sweeney and the minister touched on: supporting communities to successfully take more control over decisions and assets. I have seen a couple of examples of that in my home town: Dunbar Community Bakery and the Community Carrot are successful businesses in their own right.
Another principle is clear public leadership. As the minister said, it is important to note that the situation differs in different parts of the country. We need strong and clear leadership on community empowerment, which sets the tone for organisations and communities. Local authorities need to send out a clear and consistent message.
Effective relationships are incredibly important. We need to build effective working relationships between public bodies, local communities and local partners. The Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee has been talking about the local governance review and about how all that works and flows in.
A body that has not been mentioned but which has a key role to play is the third sector interface. It can support local groups to build capacity so that they can take on the challenges.
Improving outcomes is another aspect. We need to evaluate whether outcomes for communities are improving and whether inequalities are being reduced. Evaluation is a key measure, especially for social impacts. I ask the minister to talk about that when winding up.
Accountability is another principle—we need to be accountable and transparent. The report says:
“Public bodies are clear and open about their approach to community empowerment and provide regular information to communities that is understandable, jargon-free and accessible.”
All those elements are key as we look at community ownership and asset transfer. As the minister said, the “Community Ownership in Scotland 2021” report showed that 711 assets were in community ownership at this time last year, which is a more-than-sixfold increase since 2000. Just over half—395—were acquired after 2010; the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 and the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016 were key drivers.
Promoting the community empowerment programme will be vital to sustain and accelerate the steady upward trend. The great thing about asset transfer is that it is benefiting rural and urban communities. A recent report by Community Land Scotland revealed that about 20 per cent of all community-owned assets are urban; such assets are not just rural. That change came about following the extension of the community right to buy to urban areas in 2016. As has been mentioned, the Scottish land fund provided almost £7 million of funding to enable buyouts.
Ailsa Raeburn of Community Land Scotland has said:
“In the five years since the introduction of the game-changing Community Empowerment Act and the extension of the Scottish Land Fund to all of Scotland’s communities, the energy, ambition and achievements of Scotland’s urban communities has been inspiring.”
That is the trick—we need to inspire communities to take on such projects.
All over Scotland, people have used the new powers and the funding that the Scottish Government has made available to them since 2016 to buy and run shops and redundant churches—as we heard from Douglas Lumsden—as well as community centres, high street buildings, woodland parks, pubs and bowling greens. Community Land Scotland has said that the struggles that many groups had to go through to save their local facility, bring back into use a derelict building or site or campaign for local regeneration have given them the strength and skills to respond to new challenges. Local communities know best in this regard.
Ailsa Raeburn of Community Land Scotland said:
“There are so many successes from the first five years of urban land reform in Scotland.”
“highlights the vision and tenacity of urban community owners and establishes the transformational impact of community ownership and community-led development in urban areas.”
What can we do in the next five years? In July, the planning minister launched a review of the 2015 act, which will provide a chance to further benefit communities. Local communities know their localities better than councils and the national Government do. We need to keep all power local and continue to shift the balance of power to our communities. Local people need to be able to have even more of a say in the things that matter to them.
The minister talked about the national asset transfer action group, which was set up in 2020 and will be incredibly important. The national planning framework has ensured that councils and communities retain a key role in planning our infrastructure. The place principle lies at the heart of NPF4, which is about building communities throughout Scotland.
The 2015 act and in particular asset transfer have proved a success in the past five years. In the next five years, our challenge is to ensure that our communities have capacity and have funding and support from local and national Government. Our rural and urban communities, as well as our town centres, will benefit from that.17:23
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak and I will support the amendment in Douglas Lumsden’s name. A common feature across all communities in Scotland is the desire to be involved in decision making at all possible levels. Community empowerment is the responsibility of both local and central Government, so I welcome the opportunity to debate the subject.
The 2015 act was an attempt to promote local empowerment by enshrining it in law in several different contexts. As a member of the Local Government and Communities Committee in the previous parliamentary session, I contributed to the report that assessed how effective the act had been in the four years since it had become law.
On part 5 of the act, it was clear that there was still more to do to unlock the potential benefits of asset transfer requests. Although awareness of asset transfers is now high among community groups, there is still too much variation in practice in how smoothly the process runs. For example, some groups are finding themselves being offered leases instead of ownership of an asset, and public authorities are sometimes reluctant to recognise that an effective asset transfer can be about more than just monetary value but instead be about the potential benefits to the community.
The member makes an astute point about the issue of clawback clauses and lease arrangements, which can have a vicious effect—they can militate against qualifying for grants, which then frustrates the very delivery of the project that groups are trying to achieve.
I will give you the time back, Mr Stewart.
Thank you. The member makes a valid point. If there is no co-operation and understanding and if there is not a base of knowledge, projects will not progress, and that will frustrate the whole process in the community.
The public are well aware of the difficulties. Our committee was told that some communities were being put “through the wringer” during the transfer process. However, putting individuals and communities through a problematic process was never the intention of the act. The required culture shift has to take place, because the evidence in the report has shown that there is yet much more to achieve.
Further clarification is needed on how part 5 should work when it comes to arm’s-length organisations. Given the significant number of potential community assets that those organisations own or operate on behalf of councils, public authorities and community groups, there must be a clearer understanding of how the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 applies in those areas. True empowerment of our communities will depend not just on unlocking the potential of the act but on ensuring that the opportunity for support will be there.
Although the act aims to empower communities on certain issues, we know that communities are diminished in other ways. Since 2017, nearly half of all planning decisions that were appealed to ministers have been overturned, which translates to hundreds of decisions being overturned against the wishes of a community and its elected representatives.
In the face of decreasing local government budgets, funding issues will continue. Throughout my time in local government, I have learned that community empowerment requires improvement in several areas. Although I hope that the benefits of asset transfers can be realised over time, the process must take place to ensure that community empowerment is possible.
Paul Sweeney rose—
I will happily take another intervention.
I thank the member—he is being very generous indeed.
The member makes a very important point about planning appeals, particularly as they can be used to ride roughshod over local opinion. Does he think that a measure that could be considered is to give a right to make a final appeal to a committee of the Parliament, instead of that taking place in a bureaucracy at St Andrew’s house?
Paul Sweeney, again, makes a valid point: there should be more involvement with us here, instead of having ministers indicate what they require through the stroke of a pen.
The Government motion is right to talk about improvements and ensuring that assets and community-led regeneration are part of the wealth that we see in communities. The Parliament, COSLA and local authorities across Scotland are united in wishing to see communities empowered across the country.
Communities are all too willing to report that there are some goals that we are not quite achieving. The journey is still in its early stages, and the onus must be on all of us to keep pushing to ensure that people are truly able to have a greater say in how their communities are empowered.17:28
Today’s debate allows us to celebrate and reflect on the first five years of the asset transfer legislation, which is an important tool for building a Scotland where everyone can play their full part in society.
As a successful part of Scotland’s community empowerment agenda, the scheme allows communities to take control of local assets and use them to develop their own economies, enhance their wellbeing and nurture the environment.
At this point, I want to mention an excellent story from East Kilbride. Back in 2019, East Kilbride United took over the Kirktonholme playing fields and pavilion through an asset transfer. Since then, the area has been transformed and now has two of the best grass football pitches in the west of Scotland, four state-of-the-art changing rooms and a fully licensed clubroom and cafe. It has been great to see the input from the local community and local businesses, which have donated time and materials to help the redevelopment. Kirktonholme is now home to several teams, from the four-year-olds right through to the Gerihatricks, a walking football group.
However, the positive contribution that has been made by the redevelopment goes beyond football. When local council halls closed during Covid, many community groups were left with nowhere to go. Thankfully, EK United stepped in and allowed the Special Needs Adventure Playground—or SNAP, as it is better known—to use its renovated facilities. As SNAP was recognised by the Care Inspectorate as an essential service, it was heartening to see the community-run facility at Kirktonholme being offered to that vital group. The redevelopment continues, with EK United receiving further funding of £185,000 earlier this year to modernise showers, ensuring that they are accessible to disabled people, and to build a new seven-a-side pitch. The development is building wealth in the community, particularly with the socially just use of land and property.
The only negative is that this is the only example of a community asset transfer in East Kilbride. Applications in South Lanarkshire have grown in the past year, but I would love to see more transfers taking place in East Kilbride itself. I look forward to hearing other members’ contributions on how asset transfers are working in practice across the country.
I would also like councils to publish lists of the buildings and land that they own, including whether they are occupied or not—or even underoccupied—along with a condition report. Such a move could help people—and I know of a few in East Kilbride to whom this would apply–—to see what assets might be available for transfer to ensure that buildings and land can be used by groups to serve the community.
The SNP in government is working to ensure that more people and local communities in Scotland have a greater stake in our economy through sharing ownership and building resilience to create a fairer and more secure economic future. The focus on place-based, community-led regeneration is welcome. With the recent news of East Kilbride shopping centre’s owners going into administration, I want South Lanarkshire Council to do everything that it can to address the situation, including assessing the opportunity of buying the centre to ensure its survival. I have been in touch with the administrators, the council and other relevant parties, and I hope that we can all work together, along with local residents, to protect and enhance the town centre.
Through its use of a community wealth building approach to economic development, the Scottish Government has helped local businesses and communities have a greater stake in how their local economy functions. A culture of community wealth building will help transform local places, including in East Kilbride, and will deliver a wellbeing economy, and I look forward to seeing that continue.17:33
I am delighted to speak in this important debate and to support my party’s amendment.
I will focus on some experiences not just from my own working life but from asset transfers that have taken place in communities across the West Scotland region. There is a real sense in this debate that the general principles of the legislation are good and well intentioned in their devolution of power to local communities and in empowering local citizens to take ownership of community assets of strategic or historic importance. Indeed, many of the assets that colleagues have mentioned are often the anchors of communities, particularly in town and village centres. The legislation was necessary to equalise the process to some extent and to give more options to urban communities to take control of assets. Indeed, we have already heard how important some of that has been.
We in Labour are proud of establishing the right to own community land and assets in the very first years of the Parliament, and there are really positive examples of communities that have led the way in using the legislation. One such example that is well known to me and the minister can be found in the community of Neilston, where I am from: Neilston Development Trust led the way by using the community right to buy legislation to purchase the old bank, which is now a community hub in the village. In fact, the hub has become a real asset, providing a community cafe and a space where lots of different groups can meet; indeed, the Neilston & Uplawmoor First Responders service operates out of that base.
That shows what can be done when one asset leaves a place and is replaced by something that can fill the gap that has been created.
I agree with colleagues that the system perhaps needs to be simplified and made more accessible. When I worked in the voluntary sector, in the precursor to the third sector interfaces that were mentioned by Paul McLennan, we took part in the earliest consultations on the legislation, and I remember having conversations with colleagues and community groups in East Dunbartonshire about the need to build capacity in community groups to enable them to be upskilled so as to be ready to take on community assets, because that is not always an easy thing to do. Community groups and organisations in which the board and the committee are simply trying to keep the lights on and the doors open and provide all the services that they provide find it quite challenging to be asked also to become legal experts who are knowledgeable about things like deeds and trusts and the funding that is available for these sorts of things. Capacity has always had to be built, and that has always been at the heart of what we are doing in this area. However, because of other decisions that have been taken on spending, there has not always been the necessary level of support for that capacity.
That is broadly true on the council side, too. Having been a councillor for 10 years, I have seen that, often, the departments that are set up to deal with the transfers have been depleted and do not have the necessary level of staffing to support communities that want an asset to be transferred.
Alongside the issue of physical buildings, I want to highlight the important issue of community spaces that can be supported and cared for through asset transfer. There are a number of excellent youth football clubs in my region that are keen to have asset transfers of old playing fields in their community, so that they can use them not only for their own benefit but for the benefit of the wider community. I know that they have had challenges in engaging with councils across the region in their attempts to secure those asset transfers. Port Glasgow Juniors, Bishopton Football Club, Neilston Football Club and St Cadoc’s Youth Club have all come to my door asking for help and support. Again, it comes down to having the necessary capacity built in.
I am conscious of time, so, to conclude, I say that I know that Màiri McAllan has committed to ensuring that community groups going through the community asset transfer system have a dedicated caseworker. That is important and is something that must be followed up. We have to offer a helping hand to people who want to improve their communities, and not put hurdles in their way. I hope that the minister who is here today will listen to some of the feedback and will be able to reflect in his closing speech on what we can do to make the process easier and more accessible.17:37
It is a great honour to speak in the debate on asset transfer. My constituency has seen the policy utilised very effectively through a number of projects since the act was introduced, perhaps bucking the trend that Douglas Lumsden spoke about earlier, when he said that not many asset transfers happen in urban areas. I will take the opportunity to reference some of them in my speech.
At their heart, community asset transfers are about more people and communities across Scotland having a greater stake in our economy, sharing ownership and building resilience to create a fairer and more diverse economic future. Community asset transfers symbolise a Scotland where everyone can play their part and contribute to society at a local level.
A great example of that can be found in the Glenboig Development Trust, which took full advantage of the community asset transfer process to develop the life centre, which truly acts as the cornerstone of community life in the village of Glenboig for many people living in the area. In its capacity as the local community hub, the life centre promotes the health and wellbeing of the local community, and that is realised through schemes that encourage physical and mental wellbeing, combat isolation and foster a sense of community. The centre works with around 20 diligent volunteers on a regular basis. Those volunteers support the day-to-day running of the centre’s community cafe, village post office, community transport service and other services and activities.
The SNP Government seeks to continue our long-running agenda of community regeneration through the empowering communities programme. The Glenboig Development Trust was able to avail itself of £1 million of Scottish Government funding from the regeneration capital grant fund. Further funding was also secured through the Scottish land fund. That underlines the Scottish Government’s commitment to empowering such local community projects.
Elsewhere in my constituency, the Scottish land fund awarded a £68,000 grant to Kirkshaws Neighbourhood Centre. That investment allowed the centre to find a permanent home on the site of former tenement buildings. Like the life centre in Glenboig, Kirkshaws Neighbourhood Centre supports the community through a range of services and activities, including over-65s information technology training, an employment programme, community cooking classes and, most recently, a community fridge, which I had the pleasure of attending the opening for. The centre’s good work continues to be recognised, and it continues to be awarded grants to further its community aims. Just last week, I circulated a motion that commended the centre on securing an amazing £150,000 grant from the National Lottery Community Fund. That will finance a three-year project that will benefit more than 3,000 people in Coatbridge, which is in my constituency.
As we have heard from others, local communities have a better knowledge of how their areas can be enriched. It is therefore vital, especially during the cost of living crisis and the economic uncertainty, that local communities and organisations are given greater powers over their own future. The pandemic emphasised the necessity of strong community spirit and a sense of coming together. Indeed, during the summer of 2021, when restrictions were beginning to ease, the Cliftonville and Coatdyke community group utilised a mechanism to take over the Coatbridge indoor bowling club and transformed it into a vital community asset that contains a tearoom, a function room and an education centre. The group retained the bowling club, which is still based at the centre. I am happy to remind members that the club is the current holder of the Scottish senior singles title and the senior gents fours title. I wish it the best of luck in next year’s British Isles championship.
I also wish the fantastic Deaf Services Lanarkshire good luck. It is at an early stage in the process for a potential community asset transfer.
Those are all good examples. As I said earlier, the area bucks the trend in being a very urban one. However, when community groups speak to me, they are still concerned about hurdles and delays, and they often talk about jumping through hoops and processes taking years from the first identification of a site that they would like to be transferred. A lot of those examples took quite a long time. The Government could look at that.
Let us consider Dunbeth Football Club, for instance. I should say, Presiding Officer—I know that you are a football fan—that my eldest son plays for the 2014s. I put on record my thanks for the tireless work of the head coach, Garry Bradley, and, indeed, the work of all the coaches, who give up so much of their own time. The club took over an old, simple pavilion for its games and training, and its work through the Kieran McDade festival. However, it is still in the prolonged process of having the asset transferred. It seems that that should be a lot simpler.
I also wanted to talk about Airdrie Harriers at Langloan sports centre, but I do not think that I will have time to do so. I see from the Presiding Officer that that is the case. I will speak separately and directly to the minister about Airdrie Harriers and its plans for an asset transfer at Langloan sports centre.
I am sure that Airdrie Harriers will forgive you, Mr MacGregor.17:42
Walking into the Rockfield centre in Oban, a person cannot help but be struck by the bright primary colours, the warmth of the welcome, and the creativity of the space. The Rockfield centre is a shining example of a community driving positive change and achieving its ambitions through ownership and management of a building. It is in the centre of Oban. It was the town’s response to the Education (Scotland) Act 1872, and it was built as a school to educate around 400 children in Oban. The grand opening of Rockfield primary school took place in 1877. Parents were asked to present their children
“with clean faces and hands and where possible, adequately clad”.
Some 145 years later, in June this year, the refurbished building’s doors were officially reopened by the minister. I am pleased to say that everyone had clean faces and hands and was adequately clad.
Oban Communities Trust was established in 2014 following a community campaign to purchase and save the building. The local community had identified a desire to establish a cultural hub that would support four themes determined through extensive community consultation. The former classrooms now host a programme of events, workshops and activities that cover those themes: arts and culture, history and heritage, community wellbeing, and education and enterprise. The Rockfield team works with local service providers—for example, Alzheimer Scotland, Dementia Scotland, Enable Scotland, Young Carers, and health and education services—to create activities that meet their needs.
In response to the cost of living crisis, the centre is part of the warm spaces initiative. In January, it is starting a free breakfast club for schoolchildren and a free after-school club three days a week. There are also plans to create a traditional skills hub, and funding has been sourced to create a purpose-built sensory room.
People at the heart of their community recognising what their community needs and being empowered to deliver it—in my opinion, that is the key to successfully growing community wealth, because those opportunities come in all shapes and sizes.
Ten years ago, slightly before this legislation, in south Kintyre, the Royal Air Force Machrihanish airbase was purchased by the community, which secured its lifeline air service and provided Machrihanish Airbase Community Company with 1,000 acres of opportunity.
There were watchtowers, military bunkers, military accommodation blocks and even a parachute drying tower, as well as a disused bowling alley, which is now home to the University of the Highlands and Islands Argyll Brewster construction and engineering centre. There is also a great deal of land.
Pre-Covid, employment peaked at 252. There are 125 tenancies, and direct spend on local contractors from MACC sits at £2.42 million. In addition, £75,000 has been donated to local charities. MACC is also progressing environmental aims by installing a solar farm and, helped by six local schools, recently broke ground on the 10,000 trees project that will support the site’s diverse wildlife.
I was pleased to host the Minister for Business, Trade, Tourism and Enterprise at MACC this summer. It is a success, but it could be so much more, because geography and perception hinder its development. MACC, its assets and Kintyre have significant potential, so continued—and, I suggest, enhanced—policy support to realise that is needed.
In preparing for the debate, I spoke to Argyll and Bute Council, which provided me with an outline of the work that the council is doing to support community wealth building. Argyll and Bute is strong in some areas, such as community empowerment, community assets, wealth generation and the circular economy, including procurement, but it is weaker in others, such as local skill developments and access to affordable finance. A study is being commissioned in partnership with HIE and the third sector interface, which will help to determine in greater detail strengths and weaknesses in relation to a wellbeing economy. I welcome that work from the council and look forward to analysing the report.
I have highlighted only two empowered organisations in my constituency, but there are so many more. Very quickly, I will mention South West Mull and Iona Development, South Islay Development and, of course, the hundreds of volunteers who support community wealth growing, empowerment and wellbeing across Argyll and Bute.
We must continue to have the courage to ensure that our empowered communities have the right tools and support to be the powerful force in community resilience building that Scotland deserves.17:47
I welcome this opportunity to champion the work that has taken place in our communities over the past five years to make community empowerment a reality. It has been a pleasure to hear from community groups across the Highlands and Islands about the successes of the 2015 act and wider land reform legislation to enable community-led regeneration. From playing fields to public toilets, and community halls to growing spaces, it is clear that our communities are just getting started in exercising those powers to reimagine underused local assets.
Community-led regeneration has huge potential to empower local communities to tackle poverty and inequality and build community wealth on their own terms. In Tomintoul, a derelict secondary school is currently being redeveloped into homes, a quarter of which will include workspaces for micro-enterprises, by the Tomintoul and Glenlivet Development Trust, with support from Highlands and Islands Enterprise and the Communities Housing Trust.
Sadly, the story is not always one of success. Communities face significant barriers, some of which are structural—because, for example, of a lack of experienced and capable volunteers with the time and skills to dedicate to that work—but often they are financial. That is why the Bute house agreement commits us to increasing the Scottish land fund substantially—doubling it by £20 million by 2026.
Although we now have numerous examples, which we have heard about this evening, of how that approach can reinvigorate communities and provide a catalyst for investment and regeneration, we still need to address Scotland’s concentrated pattern of rural land ownership, because 67 per cent of rural land holdings are owned by just one four-thousandth of the population. That is why the Scottish Greens welcomed the proposed public interest test for large land holdings and the presumption in favour of community buy-out in the recent consultation to update the land reform acts.
The concentration of private landownership in rural Scotland can stifle entrepreneurial ambition, reduce local aspirations and hamper the ability to address identified community need. It also places considerable power over jobs, housing and access to spaces in the hands of a few.
User-friendly data on implementation of legislation, such as part 5 of the 2015 act, and knowing exactly what is owned by whom in Scotland can help us to progress. I believe that the minister spoke to that to some degree.
Long-term success stories, such as that of the Isle of Eigg, have shown how conservation and sustainability can be central to community regeneration activities. From renewable energy generation to nature conservation and ecotourism, the community trust is pioneering the island’s transition to carbon neutrality. However, we should acknowledge that some parts of Scotland benefit more than others from policy instruments. The Government can and should compensate for that by focusing public spending on communities that are most in need of support, so that every community can thrive.
We should take this opportunity to acknowledge the vital role that land plays in addressing climate change and that community ownership provides a route to addressing that challenge. We need to put our money where our mouths are by ensuring that community councils and development trusts are financially supported and that the purpose of community planning partnerships is much better understood.
With increasing public and private sector investment in peatland restoration, woodland creation and carbon sequestration, part of ensuring a just transition must be about making sure that the benefits of investment in those areas are felt as widely as possible and that local communities are empowered to manage underused, unproductive and unoccupied land around them in the ways that address the climate emergency.
Whether it is through warm hubs, community growing spaces or community kitchens, deepening and accelerating the transfer of assets to communities can alleviate the cost of living crisis and the fiscal pressures that are currently being experienced by local authorities. I am keen to see this area develop as I work with the minister on the forthcoming community wealth building bill.17:52
There is no more powerful illustration of community empowerment than a community coming together to take control of a local asset. I warmly welcome this opportunity to champion community asset transfers, particularly given the positive impact that they are having in communities in my constituency of Uddingston and Bellshill.
Taking control of assets involves local people attaching a part of themselves to their community, thereby driving local ambition and strengthening cohesion. Successfully achieving a CAT is a major undertaking for any community group, but the empowerment that it delivers cannot be overstated, as it ensures delivery of better, more tailored local services and tangibly builds community wealth.
Although the majority of community asset transfers have occurred in rural and island communities, I hope that Mr Sweeney will be pleased to hear that I will be sharing two examples of transfers in my urban constituency. The first is Bothwell Futures, which successfully took over the iconic Bothwell library building this summer, where it is now creating a multifunctional wellbeing hub for the benefit of all local residents.
When Bothwell Futures started, the CAT process was through South Lanarkshire Council and South Lanarkshire Leisure and Culture. Bothwell Futures was told that the process would take two years, but colleagues will be pleased to hear that with a small, skilled and energetic team, an impressive 20-year strategic plan and, critically, great collaboration from council officials and local councillors, the transfer was completed in eight short months.
Although Bothwell is a vibrant village, it lacks community space to deliver the residents’ exciting vision. Through the community asset transfer, the former library building is set to become the beating heart of Bothwell, breathing new life into the village and ensuring a sustainable future.
Viewpark Gardens Trust, which is also in my urban constituency, is a quite different but equally inspiring example of a community asset transfer. In this case, the trust applied to take over the much-loved Viewpark gardens site, which features in many wedding photos and in the cherished memories of local people. The pandemic lockdown was no match for the trust’s creativity. Despite the huge community support throughout a very successful engagement process, the trust community asset transfer request was denied by North Lanarkshire Council.
Undaunted, the trust submitted an appeal to the Scottish Government, and it made history by winning on appeal the right to take the land into community hands. Once delivered, that community asset transfer will provide a safe, green, inclusive space for groups and individuals, and there are plans for a mix of mental health and wellbeing projects alongside community-led provision for local clubs and charities. I, for one, cannot wait to see the gardens returned to their former glory.
In contrast to Bothwell Futures, the timeline to achieve success has been lengthier for the trust, and I must pay tribute to the community ownership support service. Its advice and expertise was invaluable during the highly technical appeals process.
The commitment that was shown by Viewpark Gardens Trust and Bothwell Futures is inspiring. Although the trust’s successful appeal is testament to the power and strength that underpin the Scottish Government’s legislation, it would be good to hear the minister confirm that the current review will look for ways to make the processes easier.
As we have heard from the minister, positive collaboration among stakeholders is key. An independent evaluation by Glasgow Caledonian University sets out further action to support local authority and community transfer bodies and maximise the potential of community asset transfer requests.
We need to see many more local authorities and public bodies welcoming requests for community asset transfers. We need to see the remaining elements of resistance removed, because the ability of community groups to consult local people, identify the complex challenges that they face and deliver effective support is unparalleled. As we emerge from the pandemic during a cost of living and climate crisis, empowered communities are exactly what Scotland needs.
We know that communities can pull together and work to make their dreams a reality. It is our job to help them.
We move to closing speeches.17:56
It has been an interesting and certainly insightful debate. I thank all members for the really interesting points that they have made. We have developed a clear understanding of where the act has done positive things but also of where we need to do much more to reinforce its intended outcomes for our communities across Scotland. That is in the spirit of the amendment that Labour has put forward.
I thank the member for Uddingston and Bellshill for offering two interesting examples—one that seems to be running very well in the old library building, but also one that has faced difficulties in going through a much more convoluted process. I have certainly seen that at first hand. I should declare an interest as a trustee of the Beatroute Arts centre in Barmulloch, which has recently acquired from Glasgow City Council the old building that it operates out of. The arts centre has been having a similarly difficult time in resolving the legal aspects of that.
Alexander Stewart mentioned the difficulty of dealing with the complex legal arrangements, which can often take a long time, cost a lot of money and exhaust a lot of good will among people who are usually doing the work pro bono and do not necessarily have the resilience that everyone needs to see through the process. We need to look carefully at what we are asking communities to do, because often people can lose the will to live trying to get these things sorted out. All power to Viewpark Gardens Trust for persevering, and all credit to Beatroute Arts in Barmulloch as well, for seeing that through and successfully achieving an outcome. Let us hope that we can make the process slicker in future as we learn more about how to do it.
We also need to support our local authorities to deliver those outcomes more efficiently. That issue has been reflected on throughout the debate. The member for East Lothian mentioned that capacity, funding and support are critical. We cannot simply divest assets and then say in the next funding round that those organisations have lost the budget for the coming year and they have to make staff redundant and close their building. We need to make sure that we are not simply passing on to third parties the brutal reality of cuts in local authorities. We need to ensure that the process is properly reinforced with the financial security that will ensure resilience.
There have been references from across the piece to another issue. The member for Argyll and Bute mentioned that the Education (Scotland) Act 1872 led to buildings with some of the most amazing architecture being developed in our municipal authorities. More than 100 1872 school board schools were developed in Glasgow. Unfortunately, between 1919 when powers were handed to the Glasgow corporation and 2010, 60 of those schools were demolished. Today in Glasgow, about 15 of them are derelict. They are examples of amazing architectural artefacts; we can never build these things again.
However, in many cases, communities that are desperate to get in there and take over those buildings are frustrated. Although the will and desire are there in our communities, and the hope and pride—because people do not want to see such buildings blighting their local communities—they may not be equipped with the skill sets to do things such as quantity surveying, dealing with legal documents to convey property or settling complex legal arrangements with councils.
Those issues are focused in poorer districts in particular. If members will forgive me for being parochial in respect of Glasgow, I point out that 44 per cent of buildings in Glasgow that are currently at risk are in the areas with the highest levels of deprivation in the city, while only 7 per cent are in areas that are ranked as having the lowest levels of deprivation. That in itself tells a story. The areas of greatest need are often the places where communities have the least capacity. There is no lawyer or quantity surveyor living in the street, and people may not have the time or the energy—after dealing with the cost of living crisis, feeding the kids and so on—to get together, go to board meetings and do all that work pro bono.
We need to look at that issue carefully, and I hope that the minister will reflect on it in his closing remarks, because it can be really demoralising for community groups. Mr Doris made the point in his interventions, and other members, such as Ariane Burgess and my colleague Paul O’Kane from West Scotland, made it too. Communities face really difficult problems: they have done all the work and built up something that they think is important and which has a lot of community support, and then they go for funding and are given a cursory response that says, “Bad luck, it wasn’t up to scratch—see you next time.”
That needs to stop. We need to say, “Okay, you didn’t meet the criteria, so maybe you need to do more on community outreach or on building partnerships locally.” The Government needs to provide resource—perhaps in the form of some sort of mentor or case worker—to work with the community to get the bid to the level of rigour required. There might clearly be potential, and a desire in a community to do something, but there may be professional deficiencies that need addressed. We need to work with communities on that, rather than simply cast them out.
The Government needs to do more with communities to make that work. I highlight Springburn as an example. I should declare an interest, as the chair of the Springburn Winter Gardens Trust. We have been working tirelessly for 10 years to get the A-listed building there—Scotland’s largest glass house—fixed up. At every occasion, we take two steps forward and one step back; it can feel like a war of attrition to try to save such amazing assets for our communities.
I am sure that there is good will among members on all sides of the chamber to see such attempts work, but we need to understand that the Government must do more to work with communities to get them to a place where they can be successful. Even I, as a member of the Scottish Parliament and a former member of Parliament, feel frustrated about it, so goodness knows what other community activists feel like when they have these constant hurdles to overcome.
We all want the delivery of the intentions of the 2015 act to be improved. I hope that, in that spirit, we can go forward and deliver a better public policy for this country.18:02
The debate has given us an opportunity to celebrate the asset transfers in all our communities. Fulton MacGregor perhaps wins the award for the most thank yous delivered during a speech, although Jenni Minto gave him a run for his money on that. I am not going to be outdone, however, because I want to highlight some of the great projects here in my region.
In 2016, I was pleased to support the Bellfield project in Portobello, which was the first community right-to-buy asset transfer in Scotland. Bellfield is a community centre located in what was previously Portobello old parish church, which is a Georgian church of classical design on Bellfield Street in Portobello. The church was subject to a successful community buyout in 2017. It then reopened, following vital investment that was needed, in June 2018, and it has gone from strength to strength.
There seems to be something in the water in Portobello, because quite a lot of community buyouts have taken place since then. That includes the community buyout of Portobello town hall, which I know that locals were really determined not to see lost. That just shows that, when communities really use the legislation, it can deliver results. I think that we all want to see that, and to encourage it in future.
Paul Sweeney made important points in relation to distressed community assets, which is an important issue. Assets are becoming more and more difficult to take forward, so we need to consider additional support around that. Although Willie Coffey has not spoken in the debate, in the Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee, he often raises and highlights issues around individual buildings and ownership, and the lack of capacity that councils have to address issues with empty and condemned buildings. We need more work on that, as it can often become incredibly difficult to unpick and get to the heart of the ownership of a building.
Does the member agree that it is perhaps all too easy for public bodies to simply put up the boards on windows and abandon public buildings, thus leaving them to become completely dilapidated, and thereby destroying the value that they might have to the public purse?
I agree, but I also think that councils’ budgets do not allow them to do much else apart from look towards the health and safety concerns that affect such buildings, which is their duty at the end of the day.
I make the point that asset transfers could help councils to save money on such properties. For example, a council might be paying £15,000 for upkeep of a property. If councils invest time and effort and have a CAT team helping communities to pursue asset transfers in a balanced way, that could be a great way forward.
I agree with Stephanie Callaghan’s point. My colleague Alexander Stewart highlighted that the process around community asset transfers can often be complicated, and we need councils to be able to assist communities. In future we need more focus on the teams who will deliver that. We know that planning departments are having staffing problems anyway, but often people in councils are not being directly allocated to supporting such work. We need that situation to be improved.
Ariane Burgess made important points on making new and innovative uses of buildings on our high streets. I for one want many high streets to have opportunities to bring diverse former shops into housing use, which we need to look at. I do not think that we necessarily captured that in the national planning framework that the Government introduced.
The Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee recently undertook an inquiry on allotments. We cannot honestly say that we have given community empowerment to people who want to see more green space and more growing opportunities—that was certainly the conclusion that the committee drew. There is a specific issue about how land that is in public sector ownership and which could potentially be used for community growing is not being released. We need to examine that because, especially following the pandemic, there is an appetite for such projects to be pursued. I hope that we can see those being progressed. That is certainly what the committee tried to do.
Members from across the chamber have looked towards the future sustainability of projects. I am concerned that, for some time, some organisations that I work with are facing construction inflation, and I am also concerned about their ability to finance future projects. We are constantly returning to the Scottish Government and local government to ask for support. Planning departments and the organisations that often provide grants for such projects are becoming more and more difficult to access, so we need to consider how such support could be delivered in future.
Finally, I want to touch on a point that was put to me by representatives of one project about how we can ensure that, in the next five years, we will deliver projects that are harder to achieve. I put it to the minister that some schemes have involved the low-hanging fruit that such buildings can become, so that they are easily transferred. As Paul Sweeney outlined, there are more difficult cases, which is where the legislation will really be tested. Although we have had a welcome and positive debate, I hope that the Government will not rest on its laurels. There will be potential community assets that we all want to be saved and utilised but that will be the hard cases. Ministers should ensure that they are ready to run those hard miles, too.
I call the minister to respond to the debate. You have around eight minutes, Mr Arthur.18:08
I am grateful to colleagues across the chamber who have participated in the debate, which has been excellent. It is of huge assistance to the Government to hear members’ views as we undertake our review of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015. I invite members to engage with that process, which will be running into the autumn of next year. Information on it is provided on the Scottish Government’s website, but I will be happy to engage directly with any member who has an interest.
I turn to a point that Miles Briggs raised in his contribution, about the need to scale up. I also note that Ariane Burgess said that communities are just getting started. Although we are taking the opportunity to celebrate the successes of the past five years and to recognise the challenges that we have to overcome, we should be incredibly ambitious, because our communities are ambitious. We have the advent of the community wealth building model, with land and property being one of its five pillars. That pillar is central, and Parliament perhaps has more influence in that regard than we do with regard to the other pillars.
I very much welcome the scaling up of community ownership through asset transfer and other modes, as well its being given higher status and our being more ambitious with it.
The key point that I want to address is one that everyone has raised: the complexity of the process. We all recognise that the groups that have been successful in our communities have shown tenacity and, often, a capacity to pick themselves up after facing painful rejection, perhaps on funding, or after feeling that they are not making progress with the relevant public body.
There is work to do, part of which will be through learning and part of which will be culture change, in time. We must be ambitious if we want to realise the full potential of asset transfer and community ownership.
On the actions that the Scottish Government is taking, I note that we are, through our national asset transfer action group, working with partners including communities and other local, regional and national partners. One of the key roles that groups and others can play—that we can all play—is in ensuring use of best practice.
Paul Sweeney raised a point about the support that can be provided by public bodies. That is important; the Scottish Government provides support to the community ownership support service, which is delivered via the Development Trusts Association Scotland. There is a tremendous amount of learning to be found out there from community organisations that have successfully taken on ownership, so we want to pair up those that are at the start of their journey with those that already have considerable experience.
I want to highlight a hub and spoke project that we embarked on last year with COSS in Barmulloch in Glasgow. The project was jointly funded by the Scottish Government and COSS, and was designed to explore whether an experienced and well-connected community anchor organisation could provide a different type of support to community groups in an area of disadvantage that were considering asset ownership or management. It utilised the local anchor organisation, Barmulloch Community Development Company, to support 13 local community groups—which might not otherwise have done this—to engage with the asset transfer process by helping them to develop their plans. BCDC staff offered free hands-on services, including early advice on organisational structure, board responsibilities, capacity requirements, indicative costs, revenue earnings, sustainability, legal requirements and forward planning.
That hub and spoke project has proved to be popular, and a proactive model is now being explored, whereby BCDC could approach groups with ideas for future use of assets, thereby enabling some of our most marginalised communities to take part. We will take the lessons from that on board as part of the review of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015. It is a great example of communities that have been through the process providing first-hand peer support.
I recognise the excellent work that BCDC is doing with the Government to build capacity. However, funds such as the regeneration capital grant fund simply reject or award, and that should be improved. There should be help for organisations so that they can be successful in the future, rather than the application simply being thrown back at them.
That is of concern to me, but I must be blunt: it is a capacity issue for the Scottish Government’s planning, architecture and regeneration division. We do not have the means to engage directly with every organisation, so we encourage local authorities that partner with us to provide such support. However, I am happy to consider ways in which we can provide more feedback, because that is so important. In my experience as a constituency member and in this ministerial role, for community organisations it is often not the rejection that is most challenging or difficult; it is not knowing or not understanding what the issues are. I appreciate that there is a continuing drive to improve bids and then to bring them back. I am very happy to take that away and consider it more fully.
We are starting from a solid foundation that we can build on. As we move into the next year and begin the process of consulting on legislation around community wealth building—land and property are key pillars of that—one of the things that I will be hoping to obtain from the consultation is identification of existing barriers to embedding and consolidating the community wealth building model and to expanding it. Although the review of the 2015 act will specifically consider part 5 of the act, there is an opportunity to look more widely.
One issue that has come up is that, when we provide capital support, capacity-building support is often required as well. That might involve provision of information and signposting, but it also requires resource revenue, which is where our empowering communities programme comes in, via the strengthening communities programme or the investing in communities fund.
That speaks to the point about the need for a coherent and joined-up approach. It is not enough just to award a pot of money; there has to be capacity building. That, in itself, can act as a catalyst and an inspiration for other groups to take on assets. Fundamentally, there is no more powerful motivator or fillip to action than seeing people just like ourselves take on an asset and make us think, “Our community can do that.” That is fundamental to advancing the model and to realising the ambition to scale it up via community wealth building.
Mr Briggs touched on community growing. In that regard, there is some interesting work that we could do on community wealth building in relation to localising supply chains and partnering with community growers. We would be keen to take that forward.
Alexander Stewart raised a number of issues. We are very grateful for the work that the Local Government and Communities Committee did in the previous session, which is informing our approach. He touched on the challenging nature of the process and the importance of cultural change, which is significant. He referred to the issues around arm’s-length external organisations, which I am alive to. We are engaging with COSS on that. Sometimes, the issues can be to do with transparency. Fundamentally, there should be nothing to stop ALEOs engaging in the asset transfer process. That needs to be explored further.
Planning appeals came up. The vast majority of planning appeals are decided by independent reporters. Of the total of fewer than 200 considerations last year, only a handful came to ministers directly. Less than half the decisions that went to reporters were overturned. We are talking about fewer than 200 out of 27,000 planning decisions, the vast majority of which are taken by planning authorities.
One of the key issues around community empowerment in the planning system is the need to get people involved far earlier in the process, so that they can shape the development plan. Local place plans have a role to play in that. Early engagement at the beginning of the process, rather than people finding themselves in a situation in which a challenge is made at the end of the process when an application has been made, is a much more effective way of ensuring that communities’ voices are heard.
Collette Stevenson highlighted examples from East Kilbride. I note that South Lanarkshire Council has been engaging with the Scottish Government and COSS on setting up a knowledge network, which is very welcome. I thank Collette Stevenson for her recognition of the community wealth building model.
I also recognise Mr O’Kane’s contribution. We come from the same part of the world. We all recognise the tremendous work that has been done in Neilston. I could not possibly speak about asset transfer and not mention Linwood Community Development Trust, which has done a huge amount of work.
One of the issues that Mr O’Kane raised was one that Màiri McAllan referred to in a previous debate—the need for a specific case worker. We probably want a single point of contact for the 95 bodies, rather than people feeling that they have to speak to multiple individuals. A single point of contact could provide the information that people require.
How am I doing for time, Presiding Officer?
You are coming towards the end of it, I would say.
I had that feeling.
I will bring my remarks to a conclusion by saying that it has been a really helpful and stimulating debate. I am sorry that I cannot respond directly to everyone who has taken part. I am grateful to have had the opportunity, over the past 12 months, to get out and about, to see asset transfers in action and to see the fantastic work that is being done.
It has been a really positive debate. Unfortunately, I am not able to support either of the amendments. The Labour amendment would remove the entire Government motion and replace it with something else. As members of the Conservative Party will understand, the Scottish Government has deep reservations about the UK Government’s approach to levelling up.
However, having said that, I recognise the contribution that has been made by members across the chamber, and I look forward to continued engagement in the future, as we work to empower our communities.