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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The problem with people power

Save us from local democracy

Eighteen months ago, I joined Assynt Community Council. I’d never joined a committee before, but as everyone who is anyone here is wildly enthusiastic about them, I just had to see what the attraction was. I’d heard the CC was always a good place to learn the basics. I felt a certain obligation, too, it must be said; after many years complaining impotently from the side-lines, it probably was high time I put money where my mouth was – though, as is customary in voluntary politics, not my own money.

So, with assertions blaring in lieu of democratic collateral, I took my first tentative step on a mission to manipulate the local community and environment in a way that precisely coincided with my vision of how things should be ordered. I lasted 15 months before my meagre aspirations evaporated, meekly resigning in weary exasperation, defeated and deflated.

The evenings huddled in our designated Community Room at the back of Lochinver Village Hall were, by and large, too tedious to even remember, let alone recount, other than to say that they gave flesh to a long held fear that community councils had evolved into something that is anything but democratic and of dubious value to any community.

The organisation I had joined seemed little more than ceremonial apparatus, an enabling tool with which government can delegate tasks and decision making it finds dull or distasteful to innocent volunteers, thus releasing the salaried state from the clutches of much of the political responsibility we invest in it through the ballot box.

One of the matters arising for which our quite arbitrary collective wisdom was ostensibly sought involved lending community support to a £3 million pound Lottery application by the Scottish Wildlife Trust with others – they intend to create a “living landscape”, if you please, in Assynt and Coigach. Nobody really understood a word of it, nor indeed why this project needed community support as they were clearly going ahead anyway, but we rubber-stamped a large, wide-reaching and overtly political project in our community’s name without asking anybody and with no thought to any future ramifications, let alone questioning the profound conceits on which it was based. Professional environmental campaigners pitching for their own salaries put on a professional presentation and the CC nodded approvingly in an automated process that could have been conducted by a computer more efficiently; and as the option of refusal wasn’t on the table, why ask?

On the last Thursday of each month, we dealt with traffic, planning, deer issues and much less besides. We man-handled lots of facts, of course, but that was it - persuading Highland Council Technical Services to reply to an email hardly counts as a victory of democracy in action. Any affirmative conclusion merely revealed more administrative obstacles, so we avoided saying anything too affirmative or conclusive. There was little provision for usefully making representations on anything significant to what was a supposedly representative body. This “grass-roots democracy” carries all the weight and substance of a blancmange.

But while these faux democratic devices might not serve communities well, it’s easy to see why governments humour them. Seeking the pro forma validation of self-selecting volunteers – like me, remember – is dined out on by politicians as “giving power back to local communities”, when they and we know that all we do is formally concur or acquiesce in the community’s name. Call it anything you like, but don’t call it democratic.

But while systemic impotence renders CCs relatively harmless in themselves, the same doesn’t necessarily follow for the ever growing number of fund-seeking groups anointed with community blessing by sole virtue of the CC having been socially press-ganged into issuing a letter of support or chairing a public meeting. Such groups have recycled over £20million here in the last 15 years. Nobody seems entirely sure why. Many here have produced much more with much less, and many more could if given the chance and a fraction of the money.

And with our being complicit through default and an overwillingness to abandon our critical faculties the moment the funders’ medicine show hoves into view, dissenting voices are silenced with the immortal words “it was what the local community wanted”, a casual assertion passed off as reality with the agreement of three people in a shed on a wet Tuesday afternoon on the basis of “presumed consent”.

After the exhilaration of the CC, I suffered a degree of withdrawal, so I attended an Extraordinary General Meeting and the AGM of the Assynt Foundation – though strictly as a non-combatant. The EGM was called to discuss their proposed hydro project, for which there appears to have been an uncharacteristic outbreak of consensual enthusiasm. But while it would address both practical and ideological imperatives, the over-arching terms of reference were very clear: they pretty well depended on this for any meaningful survival.

We were told the grants would dry up by 2020 at the latest and that they were six digits in debt treading deep water. The hydro project would involve  mortgaging the estate for 20 years to raise the £2.8 million loan they need to put in to a £7 million partnership with a clearly reputable but undeniably outside private interest.

This was not in the triumphant prospectus of 2005, when we reclaimed the land for future generations. Nor did it march in military two-step with the visions of the Great Land Reform Act, that unimpeachable panacea to the endemic woes of the Highlands, beloved of all parties and none.

Their AGM was a few weeks later. It was pretty well devoted to enshrining the gravity of a desperate financial situation in the constitution. It was a far cry from the same hall a decade earlier when the first public meeting was held and hundreds cheered and punched the air in rather overwrought revolutionary fervour. 3 staff and a mere 3 of 8 directors presided over 33 members - barely the state-decreed 10% quorate - in an atmosphere of pervasive gloom.

And this is where it really struck home. We are now at a point where the very last willing volunteers are left stressing themselves over situations they had no hand in creating, the original protagonists having long stepped down in quiet despair. The more pragmatic knew they were wasting their time; the more charitable and patient wasted time for them. And so people feel they have failed somehow. I’d say we’ve been failed. It won’t be the first time in Highland history.

As a community, we now have a massive and growing liability and practically no scope to deal with it. We are at the mercy of external influence like never before, and all in the name of democracy and empowering local communities. To put a tin hat on this, Assynt now also boasts a defunct community group saddling another with as yet undischarged debts in excess of £65,000.

Far worse than this, though, is a social toxicity that didn’t exist even a decade ago as a result of herding people who might share no more in common than a post code into running unnecessary organisations contrived simply to make grant funders feel needed. There is no Highland tradition of formal community mobilisation of the sort that now proliferates here, but we are as good as being told that this is how we should organise ourselves.

Until recently, a lot of this debate was theoretical, but the electoral roll of Assynt is now in debt and nobody seems sure where the buck stops. We’ve exhausted pretty well all funding avenues - and leaving a number of funders with their fingers burned on the way. It has been more than hinted at that we have a reputation and little wonder.

But is this our fault? Or could it be that we had too much faith in those whose livelihoods depend on making sure budgets get spent and will steam roll through any half-baked scheme with minimal scrutiny before vanishing immediately after the opening day? Two dimensional views of community and an artificial democracy trumpeted by politicians and funded by development agencies has moulded the Highlands into a tacky replica of itself. It has manifestly failed by its own unsustainable lights.

The communism-lite of community ownership and social enterprise is not the Highland way and never has been. It patently doesn’t work and seems almost designed to fail. The nauseating idea of “creating a social hub” is an alien one and, as Lochinver Mission Ltd has shown, wasn’t hankered after by enough people. We neither need nor want to be told where, when and how to congregate, let alone taught how to be members of our own community, but a noisy few wanted their precious social hub nonetheless and we’re stuck with the liabilities.

The irony doesn’t let up. Development agencies now depend on economic stagnation – by definition, if the local economy was working as it could and should, there would be nothing for them to do. Local democracy is now nothing of the sort and simply facilitates central diktat. And a horribly shallow understanding of what community actually means is stifling the very individual and social forces that nurture it.

We thrive as autonomous individuals who cooperate as a community, not as identikit replicates forced through a state-issue template that dictates what the individual within a community should do by bribing us with symbolic democracy and an auction of arbitrary grants pinned to purely asserted narratives. The machinery of local democracy was supposed to serve communities; it seems communities now serve the machine. Perhaps we should stop holding community meetings and get back to just meeting our own communities, rather than the ones government invents for us.

Published in May 2014