Community asset transfers must not turn into liabilities

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Community assets transfers are gathering pace as councils seek to offload maintenance costs. But communities need support and some funding to make them a success says Power to Change Chief Executive Vidhya Alakeson.
3 Mar, 2016

Community assets transfers are gathering pace as councils seek to offload maintenance costs. But communities need support and some funding to make them a success says Power to Change Chief Executive Vidhya Alakeson.

Visit a library in Sheffield and it may well be run by volunteers. Impressively, the council has recruited over 500 volunteers to take over libraries it could no longer afford to run. The libraries continue to receive some support from the council until the end of the next financial year by which point the volunteers will have to have identified a way of generating their own income or face permanent closure. Libraries are just the tip of the iceberg of publicly owned assets that local authorities are looking to transfer into community ownership or management. But reaping the rewards of community asset transfer takes time and investment and there is little of either on offer.

The ability for councils to transfer assets to community organisations at below market rates in exchange for demonstrable community benefit has existed since 2003. Transfers have included community halls, former public buildings, leisure centres, playing fields and parks. Now, the pace is accelerating as pressure on local authority budgets intensifies and councils look to dispose of assets that are surplus to requirements or whose maintenance they can no longer afford. In some parts of the country, multiple asset transfers are on the cards. Milton Keynes Council, for example, plans to transfer 50 assets into community hands to save £300,000 in maintenance costs.

Community asset transfer can work well, not just in terms of saving valuable cash for local authorities but in bringing service delivery closer to the priorities of local people.Linkskill and North Tyneside Community Development Trust is a prime example. The organisation took over a local community centre from North Tyneside Council in 2006 on a 30-year peppercorn rent. A decade on, the Linskill Centre is almost entirely self-financing and provides work spaces, community events space, childcare, a café and numerous other facilities to local residents, generating over 80,000 visits a year and significant social impact locally.

East Lancashire Football Development Association (ELFDA) is a relative newcomer to community asset transfer. Last year it took over management of several local pitches that had fallen into disrepair from Blackburn with Darwen Council on a 25-year lease.  ELFDA will generate the income it needs to maintain the facilities and sustain itself as an organisation from pitch rentals to local leagues, schools and other groups. Importantly, this income will also allow it to invest more in building community cohesion between different parts of the local community through sport.

As their funding reduces, councils are increasingly realising that delivering public service outcomes requires them to become place makers and enablers of local people rather than traditional providers of services. As Gateshead Council discovered when it transferred all of its community centres into local hands, they were not only better maintained, they were also better used and better placed to contribute to wider council priorities such as reducing demands on social care. Liberated from public sector rules, the centres could be firmly driven by the priorities and aspirations of local people.

Community asset transfer would appear to be the perfect win-win: councils save money, communities take greater control and together they achieve better outcomes for local people. That’s what can happen when it works well. But where it can get tricky is that what is generally on offer to community organisations can sit uncomfortably on the boundary of where an asset meets a liability. Those assets that generate significant income are either kept by the council or disposed of commercially.

Turning a building or a piece of land into an asset requires financial knowledge and business skills and more often than not funding, at least in the short term. Community organisations need time, support and genuine partnership from local authorities to develop a viable community business model that can underpin successful asset transfer. Until recently, central government played an important role through the Department for Communities and Local Government in providing much needed support. From the end of March this year, much of that support disappears. A number of local authorities, including both Sheffield and Gateshead, have provided transition funding and capacity building for community groups but that support is also soon coming to an end. Funders such as Power to Change, the Big Lottery Fund and Heritage Lottery are big supporters of asset-backed community businesses but we cannot plug the entire gap.

Just as the asset pipeline is swelling, the support required to really make this agenda work is in rapid decline. With less funding available, councils and community organisations need to get better at learning from each other to ensure that the buildings, parks and playing fields looking for a community home do indeed become assets for local people and places.

Power to Change will be publishing new research on successful approaches to community asset transfer this summer.

Originally published in Public Finance.