“Public assets are on the frontline when we decide what we want our communities to look like” – Vidhya Alakeson, Chief Executive, Power to Change
In 2014, confronted with a 58 per cent cut to its budget, Liverpool City Council began consulting on how to save eleven of the city’s community libraries. Councils have a statutory duty to provide “a comprehensive and efficient library service,” but not necessarily in the form or in the building where they have always been. This means that library buildings, along with services from youth clubs to parks maintenance and children’s centres, have been on the frontline as local authorities struggle with deepening budget cuts.
In Liverpool’s case, two libraries were saved through a transfer to Alt Valley Community Trust. Alt Valley is an experienced community business that had been running the library in Croxteth since 2010, along with a range of other services from former local authority buildings.
Community asset transfers like these allow important services to continue, even if local authorities can no longer afford to provide this work themselves. But the value of transferring assets into community ownership goes far beyond just maintaining a service at a lower cost to the state.
Local people know best how to design and deliver services where they live and work. It makes sense that they should have control.
Gateshead Council quickly saw how true this is when they transferred community centres to be run by community organisations. Once half-empty buildings became thriving hubs of activity, because the community could plan what the community itself wanted. It was not down to what the local authority thought best.
We estimate that at least £7 billion worth of local authority assets are ripe for transfer into community hands, based on a conservative assumption that 5 per cent of assets are suitable for transfer. And these assets would include community centres, green spaces, sport facilities, libraries and school buildings.
Realising asset transfer on this scale would significantly enhance the economic resilience of some of our poorest communities. They would provide an asset base from which to generate revenues, and profits could then be ploughed back into addressing other community needs. Profits from the leisure centres run by Alt Valley, for example, help support some of the organisation’s other community work.
Although the majority of local authorities have a community asset transfer policy, Power to Change knows from its research that only a small number take a proactive and strategic approach to asset transfer. A lack of clear responsibility for the policy is part of the problem, and always a sign that something is not a priority.
Some local authorities also don’t believe there are appropriate assets to transfer, or fear there are no adequately skilled community businesses to take them on. Here, councils have an important role to play in supporting less experienced community businesses to get skilled-up and helping them navigate the transfer process.
By far the biggest barrier to realising the potential of community asset transfer, though, is the pressure on local authorities to sell assets to fill holes in their revenue. This is an understandable view, but damagingly short-termist. It might mean cash in the bank today, but at the expense of building social capital long into the future, with all this promises: stronger communities, better care for children and adults alike, even better outcomes in areas like education and criminal justice.
What all of this needs is a more proactive approach to community asset transfer, and the development of community businesses who can step in to run these assets.
Local authorities need to recognise that they are no longer in a position to run everything themselves. They need to see themselves less as service delivery organisations and more as ‘place-makers’, working alongside the local people they represent to realise a shared vision for their place.