Paul Nelis went along to the Buckhaven PB event and learned that it’s not easy for organisers or voters as they make difficult decisions about the great project ideas that are presented. As always there are limited resources and we must rely on the wisdom of local people who live and work in Buckhaven to make the right decisions based on what they feel is needed in their community. It seems like the ballot box & prioritising need has been a feature of the Scottish landscape for at least 100 years.
On my way in to the community hall for the Buckhaven Participatory Budgeting event my eye was drawn to a framed line drawing hanging in the hallway. The black and white drawing is titled ‘Pithead Ballot’ and depicts the areas rich coalmining history. Buckhaven is one of the towns within the Fife Coalfield which was the principal coalfield in Scotland. Wikipedia tells me that over fifty collieries were in operation at various times between the middle of the nineteenth century and the closure of the last pit in 1988.
A closer look at the theme of the drawing shows that the miners are voting using ballot boxes as they emerge from the pit, this reminded me that democratic participation has been a feature of the Fife culture and coal field life for well over 100 years. It also reminded me that voting is based on personal experience and deliberation. These miners were possibly voting to accept a pay deal from the mine owners or voting who will be the union representative. They are making often difficult choices based on what they think is important for their mining community and family.
Having their say
Miners voting at the Pithead has such strong parallels with the voting process that took place this month in Buckhaven and Methil. The PB steering group ‘Community Led Improvements for Methil & Buckhaven (CLIMB)’ placed ballot boxes in the community centre, local schools and secondary school (prior to the PB voting event) to encourage local people to have their say about what project ideas should get funding.
Some might argue that we have lost this level of local democracy when the mines closed and deindustrialisation took hold in Scotland. In recent years communities like Buckhaven and Methil have quite rightly complained that they haven’t had a say in decisions which affect their community and that faceless service managers and budget holders have made decisions on their behalf without real input from the community. Plan upon strategic plan has described & prescribed for Methil and Buckhaven without, it seems, much concern for the community’s voice. Or if people were engaged in a discussion about local priorities in the past there was no follow-up to say what decisions have been taken as a result of residents turning up to a meeting on a wet Tuesday night. I’m happy to say that things are changing and PB is one of the tools which are allowing local people to have their say over real budgets, that means real voting opportunities for real cash which will make an impact.
CLIMB successfully applied for the Scottish Governments Community Choices fund to run a PB Process. They have made £60,000 available to support the priorities contained in the Buckhaven and Methil Community Action Plans. These plans were developed with a good engagement process which enabled members of the community to set out their ideas for much needed improvements. The PB fund offers the chance to realise some of these aspirations.
‘Telling my group’s story’
Liza from ‘Autism Rocks Scotland’ was successful in getting the votes for her £2,500 idea to renovate the sensory garden for people with Autism. In an emotional pitch to the audience she made it clear that her organisation does not receive funding from anywhere and that in the past she and others have participated in charity events like ‘fire walking’ to raise much needed funds. She talked about how the PB event offered a fantastic opportunity to network with other organisations in the town and that two new volunteers have come forward to offer support to the project. She said (while wiping away a happy tear):
“Giving the community the opportunity to have a say is important. I was also able to raise awareness of what Autism is and why we exist. Today has enabled me to come and speak to the community and tell my group’s story about how we turn people’s lives around and bring people with Autism back into the community from being isolated at home.”
Between the ballot boxes and the voting event 1,712 people voted in the Buckhaven PB process. Small community groups got to hear about what others are doing and how they can make connections to share skills and resources.
The CLIMB Steering group has put in a tremendous effort to make the PB process a success. The PB event itself was joyful and emotional and highlights the breadth of activity that is going on in the community, often under the radar of mainstream funders, and sometimes having more impact on people’s lives than mainstream programmes. However, we must remember that PB is a competitive process and there will be projects that get funding and those that don’t.. This is the nature of the process and something that we need to understand as budgets become tighter. The community are using their experience of Buckhaven and life experience to make difficult voting decisions about competing projects. Like the miners 100 years ago, people vote on priorities which are informed by their experience and what they believe is good for the community and their family. Next week CLIMB will do it all over again in Methil.
To find out more about what is happening in Buckhaven go to: https://www.facebook.com/ClearFife