Steady progress for communities taking over local assets

Local communities are taking control of their libraries, sports grounds and even public toilets—but transferring assets could be higher on the local government agenda, according to new research commissioned by the independent trust Power to Change.

The research report by the New Local Government Network, A Common Interest, finds that council officials broadly welcome the idea of transferring more assets to be run by community groups, but still face challenges turning this enthusiasm into action.

The report draws on new data and more than a hundred interviews with local government officials, policy-makers, community businesses and local political figures.

In a sample of dozens of local councils, officers identified the main benefits of asset transfer as:

— reducing the cost of service provision (85%)

— protecting services that would otherwise be lost (81%)

— involving communities in designing and delivering services (81%)

The assets most likely to be taken into local community ownership are:

— community centres (53% local authorities had transferred ownership)

— public green spaces (42%)

— sports facilities (23%)

— libraries (16%)

However:

— Only 6 out of 10 local authorities surveyed have a policy on community asset transfer. Just half ‘actively pursue’ a community asset transfer policy

— 20% of local authorities surveyed haven’t transferred any assets to communities in the last five years. 70% have transferred fewer than 10 assets in the last five years

The report also found local government was concerned about community businesses taking over local assets—9 out of 10 worry that they ‘will not have the capacity to manage the asset’—despite increasing evidence that the community business market is growing and can be a resilient part of the local public service offer.

Communities taking back control—Case study

Liverpool Council has been subject to spending cuts of 58% in real terms since 2011. By late 2014, they were consulting on closing 11 of their remaining 18 libraries.

Building on their successful asset transfer of Croxteth Library in 2011, Alt Valley Community Trust worked with the local authority to take over Breck Road and Dovecot Libraries in 2015, saving these services from closure and keeping them open for local use. 10,000 books were also transferred to the Trust for free, with a legal covenant that they could all be bought back for £1 if the Trust failed to maintain the library service.

Ailbhe McNabola, Head of Policy and Research at Power to Change, said:

Councils are obviously supportive of the idea of giving communities the chance to run local assets. But the abolition of the Asset Transfer Unit, and the difficulty now of finding officers responsible for this work, shows just how hard it is for local authorities to make it happen.

Local authorities are under more and more financial pressure, and we have seen how community groups can breathe new life into local assets. There is plenty of potential for local people to take control of more of the services on their doorsteps, but we haven’t realised it yet’.

Abby Gilbert, the Researcher from New Local Government Network, said:

‘We need to create systems or spaces which allow people and communities to harness the power which they already possess. As local public services change in response to budget cuts, rising service user demand, and demographic pressure, new opportunities to release community influence and creativity must be explored.

‘Asset transfer has huge potential to respond to these challenges by creating more self-sustaining services that respond directly to need, such as libraries, railways, and even urban farms. Beyond provider and commissioner roles, councils could then increasingly become a platform: helping to raise those with good ideas up and connect them with the rest of the community’.