The community sector, including community anchors, can have a key role to play in the development of public service reform in Scotland – partnering, leading and challenging. Here we outline why we think the community sector has that potential and prompt further reflections from others as to what that means in actual practice.


What Works Scotland has been considering organisations and groups set up by local communities (of different types) to address the concerns and needs specific to that community. These organisations are part of a diverse and complex wider community sector working across Scotland, often with similar ways of operating.

From our research into community anchor organisations; the role of a community social enterprise (Centrestage); and community councils we see strong indications that the community sector has valuable and significant roles to play in meeting the Christie Commission aspiration to ‘build public services around people and communities’.

But, what is the community sector and how can it contribute to changing and challenging public services?

What is the community sector?

The word community in printed letters pinned on cork noticeboardThe community sector is diverse and complex, encompassing a wide variety of local organisations and groups.

When we use the term community sector we mean local community-owned organisations and groups that are not-for-profit organisations and are owned, run by and accountable to local communities of place, interest and identity. Further, the term also refers to the connections and interlinking activities and developments that these organisations and groups make together – locally as a local community sector, and more widely as those connections spread into neighbouring communities and beyond as a wider community sector.

It is a part of the wider third sector, but can be seen as distinctive for its focus on and commitment to ‘the local’ and its potential therefore to be run on local democratic lines and be accountable to its community – whether that is community of place, interest or identity.

Our report on community anchor organisations and public service reform illustrates community development trusts and community-controlled housing associations as key elements of this sector. Yet there is wider, diverse and complex community sector at work that includes all these types of groups:

Description Examples
community social enterprises and cooperatives undertaking a very wide range of trading and other related activities community health, community food, community transport, community renewables, community woodlands, community retail, community housing and so on
community-based voluntary organisations undertaking a range of local activity health, social care, environmental, volunteering, and many other activities
organisations of local communities of identity groups relating to class, gender, race/ethnicity, disability, sexuality, faith and belief, age and so on
organisations for local communities of interest leisure, sports, environmental etc
informal local community groups and networks concerned for mutual support and self-help across every field of activity
local facilitative, developmental and coordinating bodies community anchors e.g. community development trusts, community controlled housing associations, community councils and others

There are wider community sector networks as well.

Local credit unions and other community-owned finance bodies are likely to be working across a number of communities or more widely to provide suitable financial services and sources of investment, for example the Scottish League of Credit Unions and the Scottish Community Re:investment Trust.

Member-led networks of community organisations will facilitate links between community organisations and groups across a region or nationally. Examples include:

And there is a very much wider listing of community sector networks at Scottish Community Alliance.

Building capacity and resilience

These organisations are developing, leading and facilitating a range of activities, for example locally-led economic and social development. This can involve:

  • community ownership – the ownership of assets such as land, buildings and organisations
  • community enterprise – trading activities within a local community and also further afield that generate surplus (‘profit’) for re-investment and community benefit
  • social capital – complex networks of activists, volunteers and others who by ‘just helping out’ provide the in-kind contributions that are crucial to any community and wider society.

This then is a complex space for co-operative economic and social development and strengthening community resilience, which in the process has wider potential implications, for example:

Activities How the community economy organisation makes an impact
Sustainable development environmental and ecological actions and developments e.g. renewables, greenspaces, recycling and re-use.
Local democratic activities developing local participation, plans and deliberation, and by demonstrating accountability
Political activities advocating for local community interests and the community economy.
Public service partnerships – and related participation getting involved with public service design, co-production and delivery and other local strategies for economic, social, democratic and environmental change and development.

What does this mean for public services?

This range of activities and capacities makes the sector particularly helpful to the current public service reform agenda, for instance, the Christie Commission’s aspiration to ‘build services around people and communities’ through:

  • communities and their groups and networks – community-led solutions
  • social enterprises – to provide services and generate local income
  • independent community organisations – including community anchor organisations
  • community councils – to support the development of local accountability
  • local communities of interest/identity – working with local communities of interest

It has the potential to be a key resource with which public services and partnerships could engage to support and facilitate service design and delivery, local democracy, local employment, sustainable development and local plans, leadership and advocacy.

Yet, to do this, it must also be suitably resourced. The state will have a crucial role in resourcing this – for example through asset transfer, public procurement, citizens’ allowances and so on.

Our community sector inquiry

What Works Scotland continued inquiring, in collaboration with people working in the community sector, into how the sector can support, lead and challenge public service reform.

As part of this inquiry we’ve published a series of articles intended to help us to re-imagine how the community sector and state can work constructively together for a more equitable, sustainable future.

Community social enterprises: innovators in public service reform? 

Aidan Pia, Director of Senscot (Social Entrepreneurs Network Scotland), considers the potential of community social enterprise to innovate, lead and contribute in complex ways to the Christie Commission agenda of partnership, participation and prevention.

Tackling inequalities by supporting ‘enterprising’ communities

Pauline Hinchion, Director of Scottish Communities Finance, returns to the Christie Commission’s report to consider the fundamental challenge of empowering low income communities and the potential for asset-based approaches to work alongside public services.

Community-led activity: time to invest in expansion

Ian Cooke, Director of the Development Trust Association Scotland analyses the current context for community place-making and calls for a commitment to investing in the significant contribution anchors can make to building community infrastructure.

Extending the community sector inquiry through a cross-sector learning community?

James Henderson, Research Associate with What Works Scotland (up to December 2018) and now working on the Smart Urban Intermediaries project, reflects on the potential for further shared inquiry work on the community sector role in public service reform and social change.

Related resources from What Works Scotland

Transforming communities? Exploring the roles of community anchor organisations in public service reform, local democracy, community resilience and social change

Report, executive summary and policy briefing explores the developing roles of key community sector organisations known as community anchors. It draws from six exemplar anchor organisations to explore their roles in engaging with, leading and challenging public service reform; how public services and the state can better support community anchors and community sector development; and the potential roles of anchors in building local democracy, community resilience for sustainable development, and wider social change.

June 2018


Asset-based community development – What Works Scotland blogs

Blogs focused on asset-based community development, including these three posts:

  • Cormac Russell, Managing Director of Nurture Development, introduces collective efficacy and grassroots power
  • Dr Jennifer McLean, Public Health Programme Manager at the Glasgow Centre for Population Health, describes Animating Assets, a research and learning project that explored what difference working in asset-based way made in communities and services.
  • Sarah Ward, What Works Scotland PhD candidate, discusses the benefits of using the capabilities framework to identify clear objectives for asset-based work

April 2017

Fun, Food, Folk: The Centrestage approach to dignified food provision

Centrestage internal data for the first 42 weeks of mobile food provision In the areas of Drongan, Rankinston, Ardeer, Fullarton and Pennyburn covered in this study there were: • 17,799 beneficiaries • 9720 attendees aged 4 weeks to 80+ years • 8,079 received food through the attendance of others • 140,440 portions distributed • giving a year 1 projection of 173,878 portions (vs. 60,000 initially estimated). • £18,360.71 received as #payitforward donations • 3,967 hours of children’s play • 28 active volunteers. Adding all food provision (e.g. including summer food projects) there were: • 31,546 beneficiaries • 159,368 food portions distributed • £22,190.71 in #payitforward donations • 27,359 hours of children’s play • 44 active volunteers across the areasThis research report is focused on Centrestage’s distinct food provision programme in some of the most deprived areas of North and East Ayrshire; it describes how Centrestage achieves impact, empowers individuals and communities, and draws lessons to inform policy and practice. Public service reform is about more than the public sector, and the Centrestage case study illustrates how the third sector contributes to advancing the Christie agenda.

January 2017