Martin Sime: The quiet rise of the Scottish development trust

Plus: the pensions racket; lending money to private interests; threats from a minister; and the good old days of the 1997 election

Martin Sime
Martin Sime

Scotland’s growing band of development trusts is quietly reinventing bottom-up social action. There are now 250 of these community-led organisations up and down the country, working in catering, bike repair, renewable energy, gardening and much else. A recent visit to Neilston in East Renfrewshire confirmed what I already knew: much of our sector grows organically from local roots. As government retreats, the outlook for local development trusts must be good.

What is it about the pensions industry that makes Arthur Daley look honest? Many charities, my own included, are struggling to deal with legacy deficits, unfundable defined-benefit obligations and toxic multi-employer schemes. Then the idiots who set accounting standards put perfectly viable organisations out of business because of their disclosure requirements. Worst of all is the independent financial advice racket, a monopoly guaranteed to produce patronising off-the-shelf homilies in return for fees and commissions.

An interesting spat has arisen in Scotland between parts of the social enterprise infrastructure and Social Investment Scotland. Basically, SIS wants to lend money to private interests that do good, without the caveat of an asset lock or charitable status. Critics see this as another dilution of the core ethos of the sector: they ask if there is anyone SIS wouldn’t lend to. Of course, none of this would be happening if not for the ruinously expensive charges that have driven charity customers on to the high street in search of cheaper money. State-subsidised lenders to our sector need to get real.

I see that Rob Wilson, the Minister for Civil Society, has been extolling the merits of a stronger society by threatening to get tough on those who decline to pay for the Fundraising Regulator (England and Wales). Not the best example of empowerment I can think of, but this government has form when it comes to trying to mould our sector to its own image. And is a National Council for Voluntary Organisations drinks reception the best place to hector us from?

I remember the general election campaign of 1997 being full of voluntary sector issues. Shadow cabinet ministers offered us a new deal, a seat at the table, a right to criticise without loss of grant, better, longer funding and so on. This time around we won’t be more than a speck of dust on the main manifestos, a cruel reminder of the fickle nature of politics and of how marginal to its mission we have all become.

Martin Sime is chief executive of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

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