Johnstone’s View - Excellent idea in principle

The Scottish Government have, for a number of years, promoted the idea of Community Planning, and perhaps nowhere better demonstrates how it can work effectively than right here in the Mearns.

Community Planning, an excellent idea in principle, is the process which assists public agencies to work together with the community to plan and deliver better services. It aims to ensure that people and communities are genuinely engaged in the decisions made on public services which affect them; and to secure a commitment from organisations to work together in providing better public services.

It was given a statutory basis by the Local Government in Scotland Act 2003. That Act, and the later statutory guidance, sought to establish community planning as the key means of leading and coordinating partnership working and initiatives at the regional, local and neighbourhood level. The Scottish Government says that Community Planning should add value by providing a local framework for joint working, building a culture of cooperation and trust, improving public services and making the best use of public money.

It is a big ask by anyone’s standards, and by the Scottish Government’s own admission, Community Planning has been something of a mixed bag in terms of success across Scotland. In their own words ‘some places in Scotland have done well and some places have not done so well’. It is something of an understatement, but is a representation of the facts.

A 2013 report by Audit Scotland titled ‘Improving Community Planning in Scotland’ urges the Scottish Government to ‘ensure that the links between the various strands of its public service reform agenda are clearly articulated and well understood by all parts of Government and public services. For example, how the strategic oversight relationship between Community Planning Partnerships and Health and Social Care Partnerships, as set out in the Statement of Ambition, should operate in practice. This is key to supporting Community Planning Partnerships deliver on the Statement of Ambition expectation that they should have strategic oversight of, and be at the centre of, all public service reform’.

In some respects, the above is a bit like playing Government ‘buzz-word bingo’. It hardly articulates to community groups what Community Planning is, and how important it should be to have local residents involved in decisions about how money from the public purse is spent delivering the public services we all use.

That is why it is such a pleasure to see Community Planning being made to work so effectively in the Mearns, by people who have a strong sense of direction and purpose, as well as the time and the determination to make it work.

Recently, the Stonehaven Town Partnership published two reports. The first highlighted the many successes of the organisation, and the second outlined projects which were still ‘pending’. The organisation also has an easy to access website with lots of useful information and ideas on it and I would encourage anyone who wants to know more about their activities to take a look.

The reports are extremely comprehensive and I enjoyed reading them. They cover a number of local issues including parks and other recreation services, policing, safety issues and a number of suggestions to improve amenities and services.

Some of the issues are perennial, like the seagulls, dog fouling and parking for example, but none the less important for that. Others are excellent points about attracting more visitors to the area.

What I particularly like about the success of the Stonehaven Town Partnership, and other organisations like it, is the fact that local residents are putting forward solutions to issues based on a strong knowledge of the local area.

There is another aspect to the importance of Community Planning, however. Funding services is becoming increasingly challenging, and expectations about what can and cannot be done have to be managed.

That is why it is vital that the role of Community Planning Partnerships is promoted and people are encouraged to join in and become involved.

Audit Scotland’s criticism can be seen as accurate but it can be turned around if more of us are willing to get involved. We all want to live in safe, sustainable communities and have our say in how our money is spent, and Community Planning can deliver that, but the Scottish Government needs to show more leadership so that it works for everyone, not just the communities which have the internal drive to take it forward.

The other thing the Scottish Government could do, of course, is stop pulling the carpet out from under our feet by centralising our Police Force and closing our sheriff courts. In that game of Government ‘buzz-word bingo’ I mentioned earlier, ‘communities’ is one of the highest scores on the board.