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Leadership Spotlight: Tony Armstrong, chief executive, Locality

Tony Armstrong is the chief executive of Locality, a charity that supports community organisations across the UK. He spoke to NewStart about how to make a financial success of community projects, the state of localism, and ‘the end of austerity.’

What is Locality working on at the moment?

In June we launched a Save Our Spaces campaign based around Freedom of Information requests where we asked every local authority what their figures were around land and buildings. We found that over 4000 physical assets are being sold off by councils every year and many of these have a community use.

We wanted to highlight there’s a massive sell-off going on, and lots of councils aren’t prioritising community ownership models to keep some of the really important assets in local hands. Lots are selling them off to private developers, and many don’t have information on who they are selling them off to.

Once an asset is in the hands of the community, how do they ensure it remains financially sustainable?

One of our members is Bramley Baths and that’s a classic example. The local authority couldn’t make the swimming pool work so it was under threat of closure.  After a lengthy campaign, the community took it on and it’s now thriving.

They are making it work financially and they’ve exceeded their business plan objectives in terms of income. It’s open for longer and is offering a wider range of services. It shows that community organisations can make these buildings financially viable.

Some may introduce renewable energy schemes which creates an income stream for the local community, or increasingly, we’re seeing community groups build housing so they receive an income stream through rentals. They also then have greater control over affordable housing in their area.

NewStart recently visited the York Road Library and Public Baths in Leeds, which is now a private gym operated by The Gym Group. What can community-owned projects offer than the private sector cannot?

Often, if it’s owned by a local group their primary objective is to support growth in that place, so they make sure they’ve got good involvement from local people. The primary consideration of private companies is often profit. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but their motivations are different. Community groups tend to employ local staff and they have a wider community and social benefit in a way that private sector companies maybe have too, but it won’t be their primary consideration.

Community organisations can then use the income they generate from services for additional local community benefits. They’re not as worried about making a profit for shareholders and they want to make a profit to reinvest back into local activity.

What is the current state of localism?

We set up a localism commision and spent a year thinking about how we can reinvigorate the concept of localism. Our concern has been the initial actions seen by the Localism Act of 2011 very quickly turned into a focus on devolution, which was more focused on supporting sub-regional structures such as metro mayors.

The attention given to how are powers are given to communities and neighbourhoods has been lost over the last few years. We believe you can create more powerful neighbourhoods by creating a better national framework, as well as looking at the actions of community organisations, local authorities and other players in the local area to see if some of that power can be rebalanced to give communities more of a voice.

How will community organisations be affected by Brexit?

When EU structural funding stops the Government has said there will be a UK version, but we are waiting on news on how that funding will work for organisations. That needs to have faster progress.

I don’t think we’re going to get a big legislative package to do with localism anytime soon because the Government is so preoccupied with Brexit. So our focus has been on trying to look at practical measures at a local level. There are lots that local authorities can do within the existing framework to support greater powers for local communities.

Theresa May recently announced the ‘end of austerity?’, are you optimistic?

It would be nice but the jury is out. It’s one thing to say austerity is ending but it hasn’t yet.  It will be interesting to see what the spending review comes out with as that will be really important. We need to remember local authorities have had their central grants cut by 50% since austerity began and lots are really struggling with really basic responsibilities. That’s had a big impact on community organisations as their grants have been cut.

We’re also really concerned with the increased scale and standardisation of a lot of local authority commisioning. We’re seeing a trend towards these ‘mega contracts’ which means lots of community organisations are completely cut out of the commisioning cycle, which is having a really negative impact on both the quality of services and the sustainability of small organisations. We have a campaign called Keep It Local which is about supporting local supply chains and supporting local capacity in an area. We know local providers often deliver better services, and they do it at a reduced cost.

Two other big things we are particularly focused on in terms of funding is the issue of dormant assets. The Government has identified that there is a potentially large pot of funding available but there’s been slow progress in unlocking those funds. We think that money should be recycled into a ‘great community assets’ fund so that funding can be available to support community ownership. We want to see faster progress on that.

 

 

Thomas Barrett
Senior journalist - NewStart Follow him on Twitter

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