Communities in action: LINK’s Congress 2023

12 Dec 2023

Every year LINK’s annual Congress for our members tackles a key and current issue for the network. This year, we invited Community Land Scotland (CLS) and Coastal Communities Network (CCN) along to help us discuss how we, as communities of interest, can work with communities of place, to achieve our shared visions of healthy ecosystems with vibrant communities across all of Scotland. Our idea was to look at the way we work, learn from some of our members and from our colleagues in CLS and CCN. 

This has been an informative year and we’ve had to learn a few lessons. Although 55% of those who responded to the consultation on Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) were supportive, what happened during the consultation was pretty devastating. This is because the science tells us that the protection of species and habitats is the cornerstone of future healthy ecosystems. The public support this, showing in a recent poll that 80% of those asked would support Scotland’s Marine Protected Areas being fully or highly protected. The Scottish Government and Ministers were putting forward a mechanism to help Scotland work towards the Global Biodiversity Framework target of 30% effective conservation areas at sea, and the Bute House Agreement included commitment to establish HPMAs in at least 10% of Scotland’s seas. But the consultation took us back to the drawing board.  

Why did this happen? A fundamental element to this was that without a communication plan, supported by case studies of success, negative, frightening and false stories began to dominate. Another important element is that we are all suffering consultation overload, Government included, and as a result consultations are often rushed and not sufficiently thought through. A capacity crunch is affecting us all: Scottish Government, eNGOs and local communities. Witnessing this is what led us to our Congress theme: with the nature and climate emergencies, we cannot afford to let this happen again. We realised we need to revisit how we communicate hope, positive action and benefits for future generations.  

In addressing the nature and climate crisis, there are a number of outcomes we urgently need to progress: effective measures at sea to protect and restore our remaining biodiversity, effective protection on land and halting perverse subsidies and actions that take us backwards on land and at sea. We need instead agricultural subsidies and forestry grant schemes that deliver for nature and climate and not against them, land reform, upland management and licensing that protects vulnerable upland ecosystems and increases their resilience to ongoing change.  

But to reach these outcomes, we need a new approach that involves everyone to build irresistible change. We need to work with and support our own members who are already effectively engaging at local levels and we need to work with other networks, who are the communities on the ground and with whom we can pool resources in order to reach mutual goals on climate and nature action. Learning from those successes and finding new collaborations and activities will help us create a much bigger and more engaged public space where politicians and policy makers have no option but to listen to the science, the experts, the communities and young people who all want to see change. 

Using the experience of 3 member bodies: John Muir Trust, Scottish Wildlife Trust and the Common Ground Forum initiative, which is supported by a number of LINK members, we heard examples of successful ways of engaging with local communities. The lessons they learnt and the successes they shared are all now forming part of our next steps. 

There are some processes we can engage in together: What are called ‘place based’ responses: how can we help our communities see ourselves in the changes we need to see? And a Just Transition: how can we help build a socially just move to the necessary environmental transition?

In terms of how we do that, we came up with a few actions for us all to consider and deliver:

  1. Public support for cross and inter networks’ priorities and projects
  2. Building joint projects together
  3. A whole of Scotland approach: there is a false narrative of urban vs rural emerging. We are in a strong position to prove that wrong with our network reach right across Scotland
  4. Adopting the concept of Duthchas, where natural, cultural and community regeneration exist side by side.

There are some challenges in trying to do this. Environmental and social regeneration is suffering a lack of housing and inadequate transport. In tackling the climate and nature crisis, we have to tackle these too, which means we need to support those working in these areas. We need to meet the expectations of communities when communities of all sorts step up the challenge. We need to work out how to support them too at a time when public resources are extremely tight. There are also going to be more difficult conversations needed and in order to do that constructively we need to equip our staff so they are able to cope with stressful situations and difficult behaviours. And finally we need to recognise that in our communities, democratic decision making, which is the basis of all our work, will create tensions that we need to recognise and resolve.

LINK’s role in all this starts with our public positions on key issues around land and sea management, land reform and natural finance for example and around sharing and adopting best practice. We will be developing some joint projects including piloting and demonstrating the art of the possible in change at scale on land and on the coast. We are looking to build on the success of the Common Ground Forum to bring a new approach within our communities on the coast. We will manage our own priorities to ensure we have sufficient capacity and resource to take on this work and we will look at how we can lead the conversations around change at scale that benefits us all, wherever we live and whatever we do.

Communities together in action.  

By Deborah Long, Chief Officer, Scottish Environment LINK

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