Fraction of lost public spaces saved through community ownership

18 March 2020

Only a fraction of community spaces are saved each year, compared to the thousands of publicly owned spaces such as parks, libraries and swimming pools that are lost, according to a new report published today (18 March).

The report issued by the Co-op and Locality, both campaigning to protect public spaces from being sold off to private developers for short term gain,uses Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to reveal that less than 350 buildings and spaces are being transferred each year to community ownership, compared to the 4,000 known to be sold off and lost to private ownership annual.

The report publishes the results of a Freedom of Information (FOI) request made to all 353 local authorities in England in August 2019. The results build on the previous FOI revealing that more than 4,000 buildings and spaces are being sold off every year.

This means that with less than 350 public assets being transferred into community ownership, the vast majority of spaces lost to private developers for the highest price will never be used for vital community services and support.

The FOI results also show that less than half of councils have a strategy to support community ownership, demonstrating the significant lack of planning and a short-term approach to making critical decisions about public buildings and spaces being permanently lost to the community.

Locality,the national network for community organisations,and the Co-op, owned by its 4.6mmembers, are in partnership to help save 2,000 endangered spaces by 2022. Together they are calling for government to establish a national strategy for community ownership including new funding and legislation.

Paul Gerrard, Campaigns Director at the Co-op said: “In the weeks ahead we will see the compassion and power of strong communities but the very spaces which creates and nurtures that strength is are under threat. Our unique Community Wellbeing Index, which collates data from 28,000 communities across the UK, shows that there is a direct link between wellbeing and the lack of spaces. When people have less opportunities to interact with each other there is clearly an impact on health.

Tony Armstrong from Locality said: “At a time when we are facing huge uncertainties and challenges, we are seeing now more than ever just how much we need strong, resilient and powerful communities and local organisations. This research shines a light on the pioneering local authorities who have been supporting communities to take on ownership of much-loved buildings and spaces over the last five years, providing the roots for community action to flourish and growing networks of mutual support and connection within our neighbourhoods. Community ownership can provide a sustainable foundation for vital community infrastructure and local services, and can make sure we have the inclusive and sustainable community spaces we need for generations to come.

“Once in community hands, these spaces can be at the centre of extraordinary things. At a time when mutual aid and neighbourliness will be a lifeline for many in our communities, community organisations will be adapting their community spaces to respond flexibly to the changing needs of their communities, mobilising outreach, coordinating support packages and maintaining bonds and connections, even as society is told to physically distance. These centres of resilience and hope are all made possible through the power of community ownership.

“So, with a government committed to “levelling up” and with a Community Ownership Fund announced, there is now a huge opportunity. We can build on what we now know has worked over the last five years and support a step change in community ownership over the next five.”

More detail about FOI findings:

• This report uses data from a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to all local authorities and finds an estimated average of 341 buildings and spaces being transferred into community ownership each year for the last five years through Community Asset Transfer (CAT).

• But the rate of community ownership is a fraction compared to the wider sell-off we are facing. Locality’s Great British Sell Off report in 2018 found that 4,000 council-owned buildings and spaces are being sold-off on the open market each year.

• These findings therefore show the urgency for unlocking the potential of community ownership as a powerful alternative to private sale. Yet our findings also reveal a lack of strategic approaches to CAT by local authorities. Less than half of local authorities (45%) have a local policy in place to guide their process and decision-making for CAT, and less than 20% of councils said they review assets available for CAT as part of their future asset management and planning. This suggests that for the majority of councils, CAT remains an ad hoc process, rather than playing an embedded role in their local plans.

• We also find that those assets that are being transferred by councils without a CAT policy are more likely to be transferred on shorter term leaseholds. This can make it harder for community owners to leverage external funding and develop sustainable business plans.

The research can be found at: https://locality.org.uk/about/key-publications/in-community-hands-report/

Dave Smith

e-mail: dave-smith55@hotmail.co.uk Tel: 01477 535191 Mobile: 07702 152771