The decision by a community-based organisation to take over the management of a building is a declaration of hope that the future can be better than the past. That hope can spread throughout the neighbourhood and community. The building and activities that take place within in it become a focus for local energy and the building becomes the practical vehicle through which a vision of a better future can be achieved.
So said the academic Stephen Thake in 2006. It’s quite a claim – and one that accompanied the rapid rise of community asset transfer up the political agenda, from the change of rules in 2003 to allow local authorities to sell assets to community groups at less than their market value, to the Coalition’s current Community Right to Buy.
The tangible benefits of asset transfer – better services, better use of land, opportunities for communities to develop skills, good value for public bodies – have long been highlighted. But these arguments are consistently accompanied by appeals to a grander vision. Citing Thake’s paper, Labour’s 2006 Strong and Prosperous Communities White Paper commissioned a formal review of asset transfer policy, the Quirk Review, which exalted ‘A new civic spirit… galvanising communities to harness their energies for the wider public good’ and asserted that ‘optimising the use of public assets is not the primary objective: the over-riding goal is community empowerment’ (p.3). 2008’s Communities in Control White Paper, announcing the establishment of an Asset Transfer Unit, continued the theme: ‘Where local asset management and ownership works well, it can create a new cadre of active citizens’ (p.118).
The Conservatives have kicked this rhetoric up a notch. David Cameron’s landmark Big Society / ‘the era of big government is over’ speech in 2009 highlighted the need to ‘build up strong local institutions… where people – literally – come together to meet and mingle’. In 2010, he emotively previewed the Community Right to Buy:
Today, all people can do is rage when a far-off bureaucrat decided to close a well-loved library because it wasn’t making enough money.
And when a local pub closes, and a developer wants to turn that building into a block of flats for executives, the community is powerless to do anything about it.
In the post-bureaucratic age, the future of that library and that local pub will be in the people’s hands.
There’s not much between the Labour and Conservative rhetoric – but the stakes are now far higher. The Coalition has staked its reputation on the emergence of a ‘new cadre of active citizens’ – volunteering, holding street parties, creating neighbourhood plans and even running services. If transferring buildings and land to the community really can play a part, it’s time to unleash the potential.
But it’s a big ‘if’. Research has generally found that community organisations are motivated to acquire assets primarily to improve their provision of specific services or to attain financial independence, rather than to become focal points for wider community engagement. The limiting of the Community Right to Buy to extra time for community groups to bid – rather than a right of first refusal as in Scotland – seems likely to limit uptake to richer, more influential community groups. And where the management and legal ownership of an asset is confined to a small committee or board – quite likely composed of the same six people who volunteer for everything –asset transfer is more obviously a leg-up for existing community activists, rather than a catalyst for more to come forward.
Community ownership can mean any number of things to different people – a point reinforced by responses to my survey so far – and ‘wider participation is not guaranteed’. As Steve Wyler and Phillip Blond’s ‘To Buy, To Bid, To Build’ report pointed out, the more that community assets are owned and managed in ways that directly engage large numbers of local people, the greater the likelihood of a positive social and economic asset effect’ (p.24).
As neighbourhood planning and other localist initiatives come on stream – alongside unprecedented public sector asset sell-offs, high commercial property vacancy rates nationwide and a backdrop of cuts – what else is needed to make community assets fulfil their potential to get more people involved in shaping the future of their locality? I hope that my research can shed more light on the views of both community groups and the wider public and offer some useful conclusions.