There are those who would scoff at the suggestion that community councils and the committees they baptise in our names are simply instruments of state remote control designed to manipulate communities into behaving exactly as government would like.
Some would dispute that these venerable institutions are merely the state in flat-pack form, ready to be assembled in village halls by absolutely anybody at any time for any reason. But if not by state design, how did these things come to exist?
Those latest fashions to strut off the political catwalk, community ownership and social enterprise, only acquired cult status when grants appeared, but the contrived enthusiasm of tiny handfuls and a well-orchestrated megaphone campaign is all it takes for government to interpret a crowd with a cause and send in the funders to save the day with solutions to problems we didn’t know we had.
There was no prior demand for communal ownership of the lands now held by the Assynt Foundation and nor was there any groundswell of nostalgia flowing around a Fisherman’s Mission that had died a natural death. There was no entrenched belief that owning fixtures and fittings alone would somehow address any social and economic entropy. There was no BBC “Village S.O.S.” when hundreds of jobs evaporated in fishing and crofting either. A patently unwanted greasy spoon closing didn’t rate in the scheme of things.
Perhaps betraying a more accurate and realistic consensus, the sums raised in public appeals are trifling by comparison. The Assynt Foundation pan-handled less than £30K in a global funding campaign towards the £3 million asking price - mind you, any local control of assets we now enjoy is probably pro rata.
The community groups that now proliferate here are not the needs-based enterprises of yore. They are contrivances of arm’s length agencies through which government launders public money for want of exercising any political imagination. Precisely because it is public money, there is little to no chance of it feeding into the local economy as the pamphleteers would have us believe. Hog-tied by charitable status, this zombie money is not permitted to enter individual pockets except through designated devices like badly-paid admin jobs dedicated almost entirely to acquiring grants for their own salaries.
Most of this supposed deluge of money barely touches the sides before leaving the way it came. There was a time when enterprise money was given to businesses and infrastructure projects but, without anybody really noticing, this has dried up and instead we see money pouring into what are no more than decorative flourishes, and pretty feeble ones at that. I still have no idea what a community woodland is.
For every part-time post a community scheme creates, half a dozen good salaries with expense accounts are sustained in a netherworld of socially useless middle-management. Thus the state and its unelected relations are the chief beneficiaries of their own influence and largesse. Politicians preen for the cameras on opening days before vanishing from view while numerous quangos and far too many urban-based environmental charities clean up. Yet some still insist that state funded organisations are somehow not state constructs.
Many seem to forget that lottery money, too, which Assynt in particular has had shed loads of, is quite explicitly state spending: it is raised and dispensed under Act of Parliament that can be amended only with political blessing. This in itself casts an unforgiving light on popular notions of “empowering local communities”, whatever this actually means. Rather self-evidently, major decisions concerning communal land, assets and infrastructure are made in distant offices by organisations we have no influence on whatsoever. They dictate what grants are available and point to Parliament for statutory validation. Local democracy doesn’t have its day in the sun until the important decisions are made.
Executive incest thus bestows automatic political endorsement on administratively incoherent public meetings, which in turn invite suggestions from absolutely anybody. Absolutely anybody duly steps up to the plinth and before we know it a runt of an idea has been spared the river and is instead bottle-fed and escapes into the community, answerable to nobody who’d admit it.
The question isn’t about whether something is a construct of state or not, but whether it is either useful or tenable. There are many fine state constructs of unquestionable societal utility; health and emergency services, roads, education, sewerage; not all bad, I’d say. There was a time the state produced and supplied electricity and functioning railway; for communities.
Many today would acknowledge that the idea of community ownership has intrinsic merit. It certainly does, but managed by an accountable state with qualified personnel paid well enough to care, not by unaccountable groups of unqualified self-selectees who speak and trade in the name of communities with nothing resembling meaningful consent and who can disappear from sight liable only for £1. The beauty of this is that once up and running, community run enterprises can deflect most scrutiny by quite legally claiming to be private businesses entitled to confidentiality under the same company law they make a virtue of bypassing. You couldn’t make it up, but the state has the means, method and motive.
Thus government can claim to be investing in the Highlands when all they are doing is lumbering struggling communities with assets they can do nothing with unless they subscribe to the stifling diktats of a grants system itself now juddering to a halt for reasons well beyond the remit of any community council.
No amount of sloganeering in the name of a notional community will mitigate the financial realities that impact on all businesses, be they community owned or private. In days of plenty, the question of liability simply wasn’t asked as it seemed unlikely to be tested. The Good Fairy just kept coming back. As a result, some seem to have inferred immunity from both public scrutiny and balance-sheet reality, but no matter how much accountability is lost in the maze created by land buy-outs, community associations and trading arms limited by guarantee, creditors will still want their money.
Perpetually struggling organisations like the Assynt Foundation and debacles like the Fisherman’s Mission project exist only because government invented the need, not because anybody really wanted them. They are overtly political constructs which would not have occurred naturally.
So let’s accept that these things are state constructs and a means of control. This in itself shouldn’t worry us too much – there’s much worse - but as construction of pre-fab community schemes that seldom stand up is now out of control, perhaps it’s time we at least stopped the voluntary assembly work; this way it doesn’t look like our fault when they collapse.
published Am Bratach June 2014