Looking to the future: SURF Conference 2014

Bridge across river Clyde

by Laura Dobie

The SURF 2014 Conference, which took place yesterday, was a lively event which explored regeneration in Scotland from a range of perspectives, including the economy, social justice, and land ownership.

Following on from last year’s SURF Regeneration and the Referendum debate, and with the referendum fast approaching in September, this year’s conference discussed regeneration within the context of the debate for Scottish independence, considering the implications of potential constitutional change. SURF is also working on a regeneration manifesto for the next general election, and Chair Brian MacDonald and Chief Executive Andy Milne invited contributions from delegates to shape this manifesto.

The morning focused on the referendum debate, outlining both sides of the argument. The open discussion covered a range of issues, including welfare cuts, an independent Scotland’s potential to attract or lose talent, raising educational attainment and providing jobs for Scotland’s young people, funding the NHS under an independent Scotland and what policy framework is needed to protect the most vulnerable people in society, whether under independence or as part of the UK.

The early afternoon session explored poverty and four priority topics. Comedian Keir McAllister provided some opening light relief with his irreverent take on the independence debate, while Oxfam’s Katherine Trebeck brought the focus back to the serious social issues with her talk on understanding poverty and inequality.

Her presentation covered poverty and inequality from a global and UK perspective, highlighting growing inequality and proposing changes to the current economic model, arguing that the current arrangements benefit the few and are harmful to the environment. She made the case for rebuilding the economy to serve people and the planet first. This was visualised using Oxfam’s doughnut model, which envisages people living in an environmentally and socially safe space between an environmental ceiling (the outer edge of the doughnut) and a social foundation (the inner edge of the doughnut).

There was then a series of brief introductions to the conference’s priority topics. Professor Greg Lloyd of the University of Ulster focused on degeneration, rather than regeneration, and considered  the negative effects that corporate power can have on political systems in relation to local community interests. Community Land Scotland’s David Cameron discussed community land trusts and the potential to apply lessons from rural experiences and successes to Scottish urban areas. Dr Oliver Escobar from the Edinburgh University’s Academy of Government made the case for participative democracy: more local, participative and accountable decision-making which reflects community interests. Incomes and investment were the focus of the Common Weal project’s Robin McAlpine’s introductory presentation, which highlighted the extent of low pay in Scotland and argued for the benefits of increased investment and wage growth, drawing on Scandinavian economic models.

In the late afternoon, I took part in debates on landownership and participative democracy. The landownership discussion explored the origins of community land trusts in the highlands of Scotland, and the elements that need to be in place to facilitate them, in terms of support, political backing and funding. It highlighted work with councils to make people in rural communities aware of the support that is available to them, and considered the potential for communities in urban areas to take on derelict buildings and sites. Challenges identified included a lack of incentives for landowners to bring derelict land into use, and the range of types of ownership that communities need to engage with, which include the public sector, private sector and banks which have foreclosed on developments.

Dr Escobar’s session on participative democracy highlighted the importance of facilitating learning and a genuine exchange of opinions in communities, highlighting the limits of surveys and focus groups, in which people tend to respond with the first thoughts which spring to mind. Escobar stressed the importance of facilitation and mediation skills and outlined experiences of participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre in Brazil. One participant commented on the challenges facing community groups in disadvantaged areas and argued that it was necessary to go round communities door-to-door to seek their views on issues that affect them. The causes of apathy in relation to community decision-making were also explored, and how changes in political regimes can thwart moves to establish participative democracy: it is clear that this type of decision-making requires political backing.

A really enjoyable and informative feature of the conference was the electronic voting by delegates, which took place throughout the events, and was very much in the spirit of participative democracy. This yielded interesting insights into delegates’ views on the current state of regeneration in Scotland, and its future prospects.

When questioned on regeneration funding, a significant number of people thought that resources were misdirected; however, many were optimistic about Scotland’s ability to regenerate its disadvantaged areas sustainably in the next 20 years.

Overall, the conference was a very engaging exploration of the big issues which are influencing regeneration in Scotland just now, and the factors which could shape its future development.

The Idox Information Service has a broad range of resources on regeneration on its database which are accessible to members, and has produced two research briefings in this area: Tackling the issue of vacant and derelict buildings and sites and Town centres in Scotland: changing policy and practice. You can request a copy of these research briefings free of charge here.

We also regularly blog on regeneration issues. Recent blog posts include:

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