It’s the capacity, stupid: why communities struggle to help themselves

Just before the Christmas holidays my investigation of the failed Killundine community land buyout was published by the Ferret. It’s a fabulous read, and you can get it here if you missed it in the white-hot intensity of your 2021 revelries, or your excitement at what Santa might bring.

To sum up: The Morvern Community Woodland company (MCW) rather surprisingly raised the £2.7m needed to buy the 6000 acres Killundine estate and bring much-needed business units, housing and environmental restoration to the area – but even more surprisingly, local people rejected the buyout in a ballot, and it was scrapped.

Deserted: an old cottage at Killundine, most recently used as as a shed

Covid played a part in the failure of the MCW to convince the locals it was a good idea for them to buy it, and there was also the fierce opposition to it of one local community figure, who felt local farmers’ sons would have been better placed to take the job on.

Closer examination showed me the buyout could have stood a lot better chance if the company, or another such group, had had a greater capacity to sell the idea to local people, and to show it could overcome the concrete challenges of managing a large estate, and deriving public benefit from it. The company was – is – convinced it could have done the job  for local people, but it would have been a massive load for a small organisation that until then had only run a small community woodland.

This issue of capacity is an important one, and is for me one of the flaws in the current drive to “empower communities”, getting local people to take on community facilities, land, and other projects for the common good.

The fact is that volunteering in such projects is hard work, and without the backing of some staff, it can be very hard to sustain.

There is a Morvern Community Development Company which might have been expected to take that buyout on. But its chair said despite supporting the buyout, they just could not manage to take on the bid on top of their existing commitments: it already runs a marina for visiting yachters and a petrol station, and is developing housing, a community hub and the UK’s biggest-ever community hydro-electricity scheme.

To achieve all that, the MCDC has the services of a professional development officer, paid for by Highlands and Island Enterprise – and without her, the chair says, those things would not be happening.

The community council in Glasgow I chaired for a wee while was lucky enough to have the services of a secretary who was newly-retired, full of energy and able to put a huge amount of work into the job. She has gone on to drive the creation of a great new community garden at the local community centre. Having her on our team was like having a professional on hand at every turn.

But not many organisations have a paid development officer or a newly-retired June Mitchell – take a bow, please, June – and that’s just part of this issue of capacity.

In remote Highland areas, the pool of folk to draw on for these kind of organisations is tiny – 300-odd in Morvern, 800 in Assynt, 250 in Coigach. The whole of Mull, which has a wide range of community development and buyout organisations, has just 2,600 folk. The populations of these areas are notoriously fragile, partly because of the lack of the facilities community groups want to provide. Finding able and willing trustees and directors is likely to be a never-ending task in such places.

We were lucky in Scotstoun to have a widely varied demographic, and a substantial, settled population of maybe 7,000 people, but even so we struggled to get a full complement of community councillors. In more deprived urban and rural areas finding people who have the time, ability and confidence to tackle meetings, bureaucracy, planning and finances will be even harder.

So the areas that need community efforts most – the poor, remote, fragile and thinly-populated – are those that struggle most to have the capacity to do it.

For all the trumpeting by politicians of people power, of local people taking up the reins, community action, it’s no good without support.

Two things would help: more money for staff and advice than is currently available; and greater involvement from business people and academics from outwith the areas in need, maybe as volunteer mentors, directors, and advisers, to boost the capacity of organisations to tackle the challenges they face.