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Locality calls for £1bn investment to support asset transfer

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An underwater disco at Bramley Baths in Leeds, which was transferred to community ownership in 2013

The community asset transfer movement will stall without investment, says Stephen Rolph

The time to reset the community ownership agenda is now.

In my eight years at Locality I’ve seen ambitious examples of community organisations using an asset-based approach to strengthen and improve the places and spaces that people live, work and play in.

But, as our new report Places and Spaces – The Future of Community Asset Ownership shows, it is becoming increasingly difficult for community organisations to embark on this journey.

The odds for success are skewed in favour of public and private owners, national programmes of support have ended, and local authorities are under pressure to sell off their surplus assets to generate revenue.

This is why Locality is urgently calling for a £1bn investment plan to support community asset transfer, which, over the next five years, could see at least one asset transferred to a community organisation each year in every upper tier local authority in England.

Our key recommendation for finding £1bn of new investment is to pool dormant assets, social investment and other funders in partnership with central government.

Transferring or selling assets to communities can preserve them for public use and community ownership of assets promotes resilience and sustainable growth at a local level. It gives people a greater stake in their local areas and control over the activities and services that matter to them.

Our latest survey of Locality members shows that together they hold nearly £780m worth of assets. Successful transfers include Witton Lodge Community Association in Birmingham, which has ensured that local people are at the heart of their estate regeneration, and the Millfields Trust, whose business park supports more than 100 local businesses in Plymouth.

It also shows that 58% of community organisations say their relationship with the local authority has been strengthened by the community ownership process, and 70% of local authorities either ‘agreed’ or ‘strongly agreed’ that the community ownership process had enhanced partnership working locally.

So if the benefits of community ownership of assets are self-evident, why the urgency behind our call for investment?

While there have been welcome steps in the right direction, the Community Ownership and Management of Assets programme, which supported organisations taking over land or assets recently closed, and there is little championing of community asset ownership by central and local authorities.

The pressures on local authorities to sell off their surplus assets for capital receipts, or use them to further their new ‘corporate landlord’ objectives, is also intense and recent central government guidance allows capital receipts to be used for revenue.

The time to reset the community ownership agenda is now, before its original empowerment intentions are lost and before it runs the risk of simply becoming a conversation about communities ‘saving’ precious assets and services as the state retreats from all but statutory provision.

There is an alternative. Assets – as opposed to liabilities – can strengthen the community sector and ensure the continuation of vital services.

Rather than losing control of public assets, local authorities who choose to frame community ownership as a transformational opportunity can gain so much more in terms of encouraging new ideas and solutions, goodwill in the shape of ‘sweat equity’, and financial leverage like community shares and crowdfunding.

Looking back it feels like the community ownership of assets agenda has come a long way, but for it to reach its full potential the momentum must not be lost.

We believe that a new Community Asset Investment Plan would provide a vital step change, helping to capitalise huge swathes of the community sector, save significant community assets from an uncertain fate, create the conditions for local resilience and reshape public services.

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