The Conservatives have outlined plans to boost community ownership. The idea is that when a community asset closes – a village hall, post office, pub, swimming pool, library – that it should be easier for the local community to rescue it. The "Community Right to Buy" will give community groups first refusal to buy such assets. It will apply to those assets owned by Quangos and central Government as well as local councils. The same principle will apply to commercial owned assets.
Naturally we will all be waiting for more details. The community groups will have to pay a "fair price" but who will determine what that is? I would expect planning rules have a lot to do with it. Supposing someone owns a building that is used as a pub and is worth £0.5 million but would be worth £1 million if he could persuade the Council that it wasn't viable as a pub any more and should be allowed to convert into flats. He might deliberately let it get run down as a pub hoping for it to fail.
Officially the Government also wants to help community ownership but the Conservatives point out this has not been the reality. In the last decade we've seen nearly 5,500 post offices shut and 3,500 pubs call time for the last time. The local government watchdog, the Audit Commission's recent report which looked at local authority asset management found that "the extent or impact of transferring council property to local communities has yet to meet government aspirations".
The proposals were included in last night's Party Political Broadcast with David Cameron. Shadow Communities and Local Government Secretary, Caroline Spelman, tells ConservativeHome:
Over the past four years, we've been working hard to give more power to local communities. In our localism Green Paper, Control Shift, Conservatives set out plans to give local governments new powers, and to give local people greater power, including greater use of local referendums and a new 'power of general competence' for local councils. Now we want to go further and encourage 'community ownership' by legislating for a community right to buy.
So under Conservative plans, community groups, such as schools, churches or voluntary groups, will be able to bid to take over the running of publicly owned community assets, if they can manage the facility more efficiently and effectively than the state.
When a state-owned community asset faces closure or being sold, voluntary groups will have a right of first refusal to bid and buy that asset for a fair price and maintain it for community use. The rights to community ownership will extend across assets owned by central government and quangos, not just town halls.
And the radical 'Community Right to Buy' will also allow community group first refusal to take over and run commercially-owned community assets that are closing, – for example those post offices, pubs and shops whose continued survival is of genuine importance to the local
These new powers will help protect thousands of buildings and resources including libraries, lidos, playgrounds, parks, schools and sports facilities. They will give public-spirited community groups the chance to battle on a level playing field when it comes to saving facilities they value.
And crucially, these changes are not just a practical way of saving local amenities. They are also hugely symbolic, by recognising the value of community assets and by saying that local people should have proper ownership of them.
So while Gordon Brown and his Government continue to ride roughshod over local opinion, and vital services and facilities continue to close, the Conservatives will be sending out a clear message to local people that they will have the power to protect those community assets which matter to them and support and improve their neighbourhoods.