Today sees the publication of Unleashing Community Ownership, a report initially commissioned by Labour MP Lisa Nandy, and led by the economist Mark Gregory and the Co-operative Party. It sets out a prescription of how to increase access to assets for communities to purchase, how to support communities to acquire those assets, how to move to a place-based funding model for community ownership, and how to increase community involvement in decisions relating to funding and local growth plans.
A necessary step
We’re losing our public and social spaces. The number of local places for people to come together to learn, play, create, and access services has been in precipitous decline for a while now. This was, perhaps, most starkly summarised in Skittled Out from 2018, and most viscerally palpable in the degradation of our town centres and enforced public sector trade-offs, resulting in the rise in sales of council-owned buildings. These losses are particularly acute in areas of higher deprivation and disinvestment, where there is greater community need, weakened social fabric, and high levels of low-income households and unemployment. If there is nowhere to go, communities go nowhere.
Building back our lost social infrastructure across Britain should be a national effort, and communities should be enabled and empowered to have ownership of that infrastructure; whether it manifests as housing, community centres, shops, businesses, leisure facilities, libraries – or whatever is felt to be of need and good purpose for that community. These spaces are the foundations of a strong society. They build pride, community connections, skills, and economic opportunity. Bringing them into public ownership increases circulation of local money – and increases resilience. It’s notable that community-owned businesses were remarkably more likely to survive the pandemic than similar-sized small businesses.
The Community Ownership Commission policy recommendations provide a detailed and effective build on the 2011 Localism Act. The recommendation of a framework that specifies the minimum set of facilities a community should have access to, which can be used to determine listings for Assets of Community Value and listings of vacant and derelict sites, should create stronger pushes and incentives to make decent use of – and preserve – spaces that are necessary to the prosperity and wellbeing of a community. It could also support local council strategies to shorten the distance people need to travel in order to access the things they love, want and need.
More than bricks and mortar
Whether from philanthropy, the Community Ownership Fund, the future Community Wealth Fund, or other sources of investment, finance must be structured to support early-stage capability and feasibility development activity for communities. It would be easy for this critical requirement for the growth of community ownership to get lost, but it is fundamental to realising the latent potential already identified in hundreds of communities across the UK – specifically those that have suffered from under- and dis-investment over the last 15 years.
In addition, communities in this position should not be left to do all the heavy lifting to corral different kinds of money from different funders. There should a route for communities to secure equity, debt and grant mixes from just one place, through new place-based vehicles that can crowd in different kinds of finance, and facilitate deeper community involvement.
There is a huge innovation opportunity here; 80% of community businesses are pubs and community hubs, but only account for around half of recognised Assets of Community Value (ACVs). Outdoor spaces, cultural, sports, and education facilities are also often listed as ACV’s – and there are multiple opportunities to expand the breadth of services offered by a range of community-owned spaces and services. This might even invigorate our highstreets through community-owned repair shops, games cafes, maker spaces, retro-fit and energy advice shops and so on, through the exercise of more social imagination. A Community Right to Buy – called for by the We’re Right Here campaign for community power and within this report – would better enable this.
There seems to be a pattern of asset transfer approvals for community hubs and recreational venues, which will continue in their current use. There is also a significant rejection of applications to run different kinds of spaces and services, or seek change of use. Given the successes of many community-owned spaces, we should have rather more faith in and appetite for risk when considering new kinds of assets that might serve a community well.
In 2021, the Institute for Community Studies at The Young Foundation published shocking evidence of a 0% change in the relative economic advantage of the UK’s most deprived neighbourhoods over 15 years, despite targeted investment of over £20bn across consecutive Labour, coalition and Conservative governments. Community involvement in decision making was (in the main) consistently absent from these investments. A disconnect between community priorities and local economic growth strategies was equally apparent. However, this Commission’s report demonstrates – in thoughtful, implementable but radical ways – how we can get Britain building back its lost shared spaces; spaces which are foundational to vibrant community life, public sector reform, and increasing economic opportunity in places that most need it.
Community ownership is often sniffed at for being niche, or too small-scale to have significant impact. But it is that mindset, and the lack of attention and investment following from it, that keeps it so. The local ambition for communities to be active participants in creating great places to live, work and thrive is big – and so should be any government’s.