Recognising the value of community assets

In February, the Carnegie UK Trust brought together people from across the UK to share learning around community asset transfers and how they can strengthen communities. Here, Hannah Ormston reflects on the discussion during the event, and the findings summarised in the event report.

Five weeks ago, the lives of people living in the UK changed dramatically. Though some had known it all along, others quickly realised the importance of the spaces and places in our local areas that we so often took for granted: public parks, community centres, libraries. These places have given us access to much needed green space and become hubs for community response to the pandemic.

During this time of crisis, many of us want to be close to our nearest and dearest, but COVID-19 has forced people indoors, keeping us physically apart. But there are reasons to maintain hope. At a grassroots and local level, many people are discovering their neighbours’ names, finding new and innovative ways to connect with strangers, and accessing community resources remotely; some for the first time. The crisis has sparked imaginative ideas and collective responses from the third sector and within communities, helping to protect the most vulnerable and going some way in alleviating the devastating effects of the virus. During some of the worst circumstances, we are seeing the importance of societal wellbeing: people empowered to remain connected and supporting each other.

The social, environmental, economic and democratic wellbeing of communities has been an interest of the Carnegie UK Trust for some time. Our research has found that many towns – Dumfries, Totnes, Cardigan, Portrush – to name only a few, have flourished in previously challenging circumstances by using their resources to create places that empower and enable people to participate and support others who live around them.

Interested in the role of community businesses themselves; the collective conditions required to initiate and pursue a successful community asset transfer; and the stories of communities coming together with a shared purpose, in February the Trust brought together people from across the UK, to share learning. Though at the time we had no idea of the circumstances that would soon unfold, the conversations now seem even more important. In a Covid-19 recovery phase, communities will need places to emotionally reconnect, areas to forge new collective identities, to repurpose and think about the future.

At the event we heard from Power to Change, Community Land Scotland and Development Trusts Northern Ireland. Though the contexts across the jurisdictions were varied, the experience of many in the room was that a successful transfer involves the town or place collectively developing a clear vision for an asset, which takes time and resource. We heard that communities need to be given more information about who owns their local high street; greater power in the process; and more sustainable funding mechanisms with realistic timescales and a longer-term vision. Many at the event highlighted the role of the creative industries, who are often overlooked but play a huge part in the growth of communities. You just have to look at the hashtag #HomegrownDumfries to find evidence of how one such community has responded to the current crisis.

These collaborations strengthen community bonds and in time may support, and indeed demand, more community ownership of local assets. Though this optimism is tempered by the uncertain future for many small businesses across the country -including community owned businesses – we remain hopeful that in a recovery phase of the pandemic, the value of community assets will be recognised and supported to play a role in the efforts to build back better.