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'Councils should back community ownership to save local assets'

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We have known for some time the scars which austerity is leaving on our neighbourhoods. Our local social infrastructure – swimming pools, youth centres and green spaces – has been shut, sold off or left derelict by cash-strapped councils.

These places are much more than bricks and mortar. Behind the boarded-up windows or ‘for sale’ signs are places where community could be thriving.

Such spaces widen our social networks, bring people together and enable us to live happier, healthier lives. Their loss is keenly felt – and new research from Locality shows how widespread this loss is.

Using data from local authorities retrieved through freedom of information requests, we’ve found roughly 4,000 publicly owned buildings and spaces are being sold on the open market each year.

While these numbers are shocking they perhaps shouldn’t surprise us. Barely a week goes by without another reminder that local government is facing one of its most challenging times. This month, analysis from the LGA shows that the sector is facing an £8bn black hole in its finances by 2025.

This comes after the National Audit Office found that one in 10 councils could exhaust their reserves within the next three years. With funds dwindling as demand for services rise, many councils have looked to the capital receipts from asset sales to plug gaps.

But the financial return on assets sales can only be realised once. Sold off to a private buyer, the council is unable to guarantee its future use and the community loses another piece of their neighbourhood fabric.

Ultimately these assets do not belong to local authorities to sell off in the first place. They are the custodians, but we the public are the owners.

Yet councils could have an ace up their sleeves, should they choose to use it, by working in partnership with residents to secure local land and buildings through community ownership. Since the 2003 ‘general disposal consent’, councils have been able to transfer assets over to the community, at a reduced or zero cost, if there is a potential community benefit.

For the council, it is an alternative to private sale which can improve services and revitalise community activity. For residents, it means they can protect the spaces they love for future generations. Yet our freedom of information request showed us only 41% of councils have a policy in place to explore the options for community ownership.

The rewards for community asset transfer can be huge. Take Bramley Baths, for example, a Victorian baths in Leeds, which under community ownership has doubled its opening hours, nearly doubled the number of children taught each week, and created new training opportunities for local young people.

Or look at the Linskill Centre, a community centre in North Tyneside, which was saved from closure through community asset transfer, and is now a thriving hub – financially sustainable thanks to 120,000 visits from the local community every year.

Transferring assets to the community is tricky. It requires genuine partnership and a commitment from councils to support community capacity, as well as willingness to step back and unlock the energy and innovation which can flow from community control.

Examples include Kirklees Metropolitan Council in West Yorkshire, which offers small grants to enable early stage planning for community ownership, as well as revenue support for running costs.

Likewise, Newcastle City Council’s approach to asset transfer includes a capital fund, available to invest in building infrastructure or in upgrading new facilities, while Bradford MDC has a toolkit and diagnostic guide available for community organisations, and keeps an active register of asset transfer projects.

Through our work with councils we know that designing support programmes to go alongside asset transfer is key in securing the benefits from community ownership.

Having a policy in place which has political support locally is also vital. It means that councils are considering the options of community ownership in a strategic way, with a high-level understanding of the benefits it can bring for local economic and social regeneration.

Earlier this year Locality commissioned YouGov polling which found that 71% of people feel they have little or no control over the important decisions that affect their local community. That sense of powerlessness is worsened by the erosion of our social infrastructure.

Community ownership offers a model for regenerating our democracy, prioritising the common good over private profit, and putting people in control.

Tony Armstrong, chief executive, Locality

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