18th May 2017

Pearce Institute, Glasgow , United Kingdom

Linda Milbourne and Mike Woolvin, members of the VSSN Steering Group, reflect on this VSSN Day Seminar

The day began with Jane Cullingworth, University of Glasgow, extending a warm welcome to Govan and the Pearce Institute, along with her co-organiser and colleague, Laura Lebec. The Pearce Institute has a long history as a Community Centre in Govan associated with social justice work. The community centre and a local social enterprise also provided the day’s catering.

Getting to know Govan

Stephen Driscoll, Professor in Historical Archaeology and a trustee of the Govan Old Church, offered a fascinating introduction to Govan’s history. Most participants were aware of Govan’s heyday as an industrial powerhouse when the Clyde shipbuilding industry was in its prime. However, few of us realised the wealth of relics retained from Govan’s earlier era of greatness in the 10th and 11th centuries, with a remarkable sculptural legacy in the form of stone hogsbacks from Viking times in the Govan church. How to maintain and share this legacy with a wider audience was an ongoing question.

Civic participation: diversities, disunity and cohesion

Civic Participation was the main theme for the morning’s two papers, and both dealt with civilities and belonging, inclusions and exclusions among diverse populations and neighbourhoods, considering implications for disunity and cohesion in civil society.

Claire Bynner explored insights into the changing nature of collective identity, discussing findings from an ethnographic case study of a ‘super-diverse’ neighbourhood in Glasgow where long-term white and ethnic minority communities live alongside more recent migrants from Central and Eastern Europe, asylum seekers and refugees. The study found that the ‘threat’ of new outsider groups created divisions between neighbours, resulting in a re-ordering of local hierarchies based on the perceived civility and morality of different groups. This highlighted the importance of local communications and relationships in overcoming divides. It also showed how new solidarities and divisions can mirror wider political divisions, and how important it is to address feelings of powerlessness to effect change in material conditions locally, highlighting roles for public and third sector organisations.

Christina McMellon discussed preliminary findings from a national survey conducted with roughly 200 young people from Central and Eastern Europe living in the UK since 2004, which investigated their civic and civil participation. The findings highlighted ambivalence in their sense of belonging and identities.

“This cohort had a lower political engagement and use of public services than the broader youth population and showed a tension between wanting to be accepted and spend more time with others locally, while also experiencing racism, especially since the Brexit referendum”.

Overall these groups of young people appeared worried and uncertain about their futures, underlining the need for a more responsive role for civil society organisations.

Lively discussion and questions followed including whether it was paradoxical to construct categories, exacerbating tensions around belonging (or not), and the extent to which divisions in some neighbourhoods were effectively ways of dealing with or masking poverty.

Independence of Scotland’s TSOs in the face of austerity

The afternoon’s sessions focused on research drawn from two geographical perspectives, firstly Scotland, and secondly cross-UK.

Matthew Dutton discussed a study undertaken with 16 Third Sector Organisations (TSOs) in Scotland, exploring how far the independence of these organisations had changed in the face of austerity, in terms of their relationships with the state, considering three key characteristics – purpose, voice and action. While some felt there was greater independence and reduced mission drift as public funding decreased, with new opportunities emerging from the tendering process, others felt there were significant challenges to independence. These included advocacy on behalf of clients, restricting criticism of state funders; limitations on flexibility and innovation because of tightly defined contract specifications; and TSOs potentially pressured to move away from ‘changing the world’ and towards a ‘steady state’ model.

Understanding the complexities of ‘community empowerment’ in Scotland

Katey Tabner explored the Scottish community empowerment context and the role of voluntary sector infrastructure within this. She outlined a common perception that community empowerment policy and governance in Scotland is characterised by consultation and cooperation, with the smaller scale of the Scottish policy landscape making processes more accessible and less divided between universal and territorial issues. Elite interviews representing 6 stakeholder organisations supported these characteristics, together with views on the efficiency of Scottish politics. But Katey also stressed the importance of looking critically beyond the rhetoric.

“Additionally, it was essential not to overlook the context of austerity in which community empowerment is played out; the complexities of community empowerment; or the presumed willingness and capacity of communities to be ‘empowered’.”

‘Capacity building’ also encompasses ambiguous meanings including an implied deficit among community organisations.

These engaging presentations resulted a wide-ranging discussion covering topics including how far the Scottish Community Empowerment Act might enact any real change; and how far it was disempowering to portray community groups and TSOs as the ‘naïve victims’ of ‘conspiracy theories’. Questions also raised the extent to which the collaborative Scottish narrative was really different or just a ‘softening’ to encourage greater co-operation, where the English narrative was harder edged.

Comparing experiences across the UK: policing and charity regulation

Iain Britton next explored the extensive role of volunteers in Policing, particularly in England and Wales, also drawing comparisons across the UK. He identified that whilst volunteering is on a significant scale and strategically important, it was often a less visible manifestation of volunteering (both within and outside the Police force). Volunteering in Policing faces challenges around strategic culture; professionalization; identity and integration; reach and diversity in recruitment; and an often regular-centric worldview of the Police Force. Iain reported little or no dialogue with regards to volunteer coordination at a UK-level. Questions followed, including the extent and reach of volunteering in public services more widely and where volunteering in policing crossed over into vigilanteeism.

Gareth Morgan then drew on cross-jurisdiction comparison to explore variation in charity regulation and implications for the charity sector post – Brexit, grouped around four strands. Significant variation was found in terms of the definition of charity, registration, accounting and in the requirements for Charitable Incorporated Organisations depending on whether a charity was established in England/Wales, Scotland, or Northern Ireland.  He concluded by comparing the different regulatory requirements experienced for cross-border (UK-wide) charities contingent on the jusridisction where the charity is established, area of operation and legal status to name but three characteristics.

“With regard to Brexit, charity law has historically developed largely outside EU directives, suggesting limited change.”

Questions focused on whether despite regulatory and structural differences, the third sector felt culturally different in different regions and the extent to which Brexit would make differences.

Concluding thoughts: what sort of voluntary sector, what sort of policy, what sort of engagement?

John Mohan and Stephen Osborne brought the day to a close with a short plenary session.

John Mohan focused reflections on the importance of: (i) scale and community, asking what sort of voluntary sector and what sort of policy we want for what kinds of community; and (ii) asking how far there are really significant UK-wide variations. He argued for (iii) a focus on the dynamics of change – for example, exploring where the winners and losers in the third sector might be and implications of this; and (iv) concluded by asking: ‘what level of inequality we are prepared to tolerate’.

Stephen Osborne reflected critically on the nature of engagement and inclusion. He considered expectations and norms regarding inclusion (for example, not all young people may want to be included); the distinction between the third sector ‘going in’ to communities and the pre-existing community landscape that may or may not choose to engage with the wider third sector; and the role that different sectors values can play in shaping norms and expectations around inclusion, exclusion, change and capacity. He problematised ‘cosiness’ and conformity as excluding diverse alternatives together with the current nature of values in public services.

Discussion which followed left open the question of whether the policy environment in Scotland was really more benign and collaborative or whether, as one participant expressed it, it was simply neo-liberalism with a friendlier community face.

Discussion continued considerably after the formal close for those not rushing away, confirming informal feedback already received that the day had provoked considerable reflection and stimulating discussion. With a longer day each session could have seen extended debate. Roll on the next VSSN seminar!


Bookings are closed for this event.