Andrew Laird is a founder and Director of Mutual Ventures.
Having previously written about the Conservative Manifesto’s “Family Hubs” commitment, I wanted to pick up on another potentially transformative idea which didn’t get an airing during the campaign. This is the idea of encouraging and supporting communities to take over ownership of local assets and services.
The manifesto says: “We will establish a £150 million Community Ownership Fund to encourage local takeovers of civic organisations or community assets that are under threat – local football clubs, but also pubs or post offices.”
This has the potential to play a big part in the reinvigoration of communities and towns. There is plenty of evidence about the positive impact of community ownership both for the community itself and the economy.
Power to Change estimate that there are more than 6,300 community owned assets, contributing £220 million to local economies every year. They also tend to be more sustainable and robust than traditional privately owned enterprises. Research by the Plunkett Foundation shows that community-owned and run shops have a 94 per cent success rate versus 46 per cent for average small businesses.
Like it or not, this undoubtedly links back to the 2010 Conservative Manifesto’s “Big Society” theme – based on the fundamental principle that people want to be a part of their community and can usually come up with better solutions to local challenges than a distant government.
In my view this was (and still is) an excellent governing philosophy. Unfortunately, with the financial crisis and the associated suspicion that this was just a ploy to cut Government spending, Big Society did not play well on the doorstep in 2010, and was quietly dropped.
There are some excellent examples of where community ownership has worked fantastically well. Community shops tend to evolve into community hubs. Nearly 60 per cent host post offices, nearly half have cafes and 20 per cent are co-located with other community buildings. I’m particularly interested in the potential of community pubs and there are some great examples:
- The Dog Inn at Belthorn (near Blackburn) is a community owned pub. Over the years, the village had lost over 10 pubs, a shop, tearoom, chip shop, newsagent and a community centre. In 2015, the residents of Belthorn took the decision to stop the rot and take on the running of The Dog Inn. They co-located the amenities that had disappeared and brought life back to their local community.
- The Craufurd Arms in Maidenhead is located in a densely populated residential area. It was put on the market in 2016 and a community action group formed and raised £310,000 in community shares from 229 people who invested sums of between £250 and £20,000 – and they bought it! The pub is now a thriving hub e.g. hosting autism and dementia groups. The community believes the Craufurd Arms has supported community cohesion and reduced social isolation.
This is pretty exciting in itself but this agenda shouldn’t stop at community assets. It should also look at local public services where appropriate and safe. This would build on the success of the exciting local organisations created by the Government’s Mutual Support Programme for services.
There are a whole range of fantastic examples of Libraries, arts, culture and youth services which would not have survived remaining in the public sector and have now “spun out” into more entrepreneurial and sustainable mutuals, often co-owned by staff and communities, i.e: York Explore, Libraries Unlimited, Dorset Arts Development Company, and Devon Space Youth Service.
Councils tend to be forced to cut these non-statutory services first. As you will all know, this is very short-sighted, since they play an important role as local community hubs enhancing well-being and life chances. The better ones have managed to demonstrate their health and well-being impact to commissioners (including CCGS) and are securing sustainable funding streams to continue their important work with vulnerable groups – keeping many people healthier, happier and away from more expensive interventions. This is ensuring libraries, arts and culture etc. remain an important part of the public service “furniture”.
There are obvious public services (like defence) where national delivery is appropriate but as a rule of thumb I think responsibility for assets and services should always be devolved to the lowest appropriate level.
It won’t be the biggest (or most important item) in the new Chancellor’s in-box but this one line in the manifesto committing to a Community Asset Fund could have a wide and positive impact – especially as the government looks to cement the connection with England’s forgotten towns in the north and midlands.