Tony Armstrong is the chief executive of Locality.
Local government is arguably facing one of its most challenging times. With many of the efficiency savings already made over the last eight years, the need for local government leaders to innovate and adapt has never been greater. To succeed, a new way of doing things is required, one which is based on partnership between local government and local people to address shared challenges. The Localism Act has done much to enable community-led solutions to flourish, however more can be done to align the opportunities out there and raise the ambition of localism. One such opportunity is through community ownership of assets.
Local land and buildings are very often the glue that binds our communities together. The community centre, swimming pool, or library: these places are so much more than bricks and mortar. They are absolutely vital to the health, happiness and future of our communities. They house the services and amenities we rely on and forge the connections and feelings of belonging that bind us. They are a key source of civic pride and catalysts for community action.
Yet, for some councils the land and buildings they own also represents an asset base from which to squeeze some much needed cash to fund vital public services. Others are struggling to keep assets open and maintained, leading them to consider private sale instead. But these spaces can only be sold once – and once they are gone, they are gone forever. So called ‘fire sales’ of public assets to the private sector can also lead to land-banking and empty, boarded-up properties, precipitating a spiral of decline for communities.
Community ownership can be a key route for ensuring that our local land and buildings can be protected for community benefit, for the long term. While sales to private developers might bring immediate capital receipts, community ownership can reap long-term economic, social and environmental benefits, for the whole community.
Community ownership of land and buildings isn’t new – it has a long and rich history going back centuries. Most recently the Conservative-led Government’s Localism Act 2011 unlocked new opportunities for community ownership. This legislation recognised the need for communities to have a greater power over the local assets that are important to them. Communities can now nominate local spaces as ‘assets of community value’ – with over 4,000 such listings across the UK to date. This means that rather than see the local pub sold off and turned into flats, for example, residents now have the chance to own and run it themselves, through the Community Right to Bid.
Yet we also know that this journey is not plain sailing for communities; the Right to Bid gives communities a chance to bid on the open market, with a six month pause within which to stump up the cash, and this isn’t always achievable. As the recent report from the Commission on the Future of Localism, has found, for communities seeking to take over local assets, it can still feel like the power very much remains with the landowners or private developers.
For land and buildings in public ownership, ‘community asset transfer’ can be a partnership approach to securing the future of much cherished local assets. This mechanism pre-dates the Localism Act but has been emboldened by the drive behind it to devolve power and control to our communities. It enables local authorities to transfer ownership of publicaly owned buildings or land to a community organisation or town council, at less than market rates – or for nothing.
This route ensures local government can safeguard much loved local amenities. Rather than selling them on to the private sector for immediate capital receipts, councils can instead look to the resources within communities to run these themselves and secure their long-term social value. Community asset transfer puts these places firmly in community hands, enabling them to shape where they live, protect the places which are important to them and have a real say in how they should be run.
Locality, the national network of community organisations, and Power to Change, the independent trust supporting community businesses, have been working together to champion the potential of community asset transfer. We have recently produced a short guide for councillors thinking about this approach in their communities.
This guide shows how, in order to be successful, community asset transfer needs to be an embedded approach. Rather than focusing on single assets projects on a building by building basis, community asset transfer can underpin a range of objectives for councils. Community asset transfer can be a bedrock of partnership between the council and community, sustaining a healthy community infrastructure to support our neighbourhoods to thrive.