Karin Woodley unpicks some of the practical challenges facing communities that want to own and manage neighbourhood assets.
In spite of its many successes, London remains a place of profound need. Our city has higher poverty rates after housing costs than the rest of the country, and those in poverty are facing deepening deprivation: children in London are more likely to miss out on everyday items than children elsewhere in England. As a result, London is the most unequal city in the country, with higher rates of wealth and income inequality than everywhere else. 33 At a time when we are increasingly concerned about the extent of inequality in our city, community spaces are as important as ever to neighbourhood empowerment and resilience.
This is nothing new. Serious need and deprivation, sitting uncomfortably alongside serious wealth, has defined the city throughout its history. There are also continuities in the way the city has responded. People have always created spaces to come together, share information and resources, build social ties, and ultimately solve their problems. Spaces that serve these functions don’t follow one form, and some types have been more popular in particular eras: church halls, working men’s clubs, friendly societies, libraries, cafés and community centres are all examples of places and institutions that have worked. Sociologist Eric Klinenberg has called these kinds of spaces “social infrastructure”, as helping to produce the “material foundations of social life”. 34 My own organisation, Cambridge House, was established as part of the University Settlement
Movement in order to tackle extreme poverty and social inequalities in Victorian South London. 130 years later, we are still in the same place, dealing with the same problems.
Community spaces, however, are under threat. Since 2010, local government in London has been hit particularly hard by cuts to funding. Total budgeted spending in the capital has fallen by 35 per cent in real terms. 35 These cuts have seriously impacted departments which have historically supported the kinds of places and spaces that help underpin collective life in London. London’s overheated property market also increases the threat. For councils, the pressure to deliver housing targets means public land becomes immensely important as a potential development site. For private landlords, the incentive to turn spaces which have a community function into a more lucrative use is hard to ignore.
The very public campaigns against closures of leisure centres, community halls and libraries across London also demonstrate the importance of community spaces, and the value placed on them. For lower-income Londoners, the impact of a closure can be particularly hard. More affluent Londoners may take access to books or cultural activities for granted, but for others they are sorely missed when the council starts cutting back. For particularly marginalised groups such as young people and families in crisis, disabled people, or people in desperate housing need, the withdrawal of the state can have even worse impacts. In addition to providing “universal” benefits to the neighbourhood, many community spaces also host services where people can receive targeted help and build their individual and collective resilience. The high levels of population transience and rapid social
change in many boroughs mean that stable, established community hubs are crucial grounding points, providing a deeply rooted sense of attachment and belonging to a place.
Protecting spaces: handing control to the community
Naturally, communities and local authorities have looked for ways to protect these kinds of spaces. One of these has involved the transfer of local neighbourhood assets to community control. In some ways this is an attempt to replicate certain features belonging to past eras of mutual aid and collective action, rather than being a wholly “new” approach.
The vision of community empowerment through local assets has been supported by politicians of all parties in recent years. The last Labour government undertook a thorough review which aimed to encourage the transfer of public buildings to community control in order to support social wellbeing. 36 The idea was that local assets could help provide a steady source of income, as well as improving local capacity and building confidence.
Similarly, the coalition government of 2010-15 made supporting local civic action a significant feature of their vision for society, 37 although with less focus on local economic development and capitalising deprived communities. Amongst local authorities now, there is evidence that transferring community assets into community ownership is seen as a way to support “co-production”, i.e. the involvement of people in designing and delivering the services they use 38 – as well as safeguarding a locally valued space. Hence, there are a lot of good intentions behind the desire to support community ownership of neighbourhood assets.
A growing phenomenon
Community asset ownership is growing: based on the available data it is estimated there are around 6,325 such assets (defined broadly as “land and buildings with long-term ownership rights and control by local communities, to provide benefit for local people”) 39 in England. Due to the lack of a central registry, it is impossible to say precisely how many are in London. Of those we do know about in England, almost a third came into community ownership in the last decade. 40 As well as fulfilling a vital social function and providing a mechanism to safeguard services, recent assessments based on the available data demonstrate that 56p out of every £1 spent by community-owned assets stays local. 40 Similarly, where community-owned assets are able to hire people, they are overwhelmingly likely to come from the local area. 40 But there are also some serious financial challenges to face.
The aspiration for asset ownership to act as a financial lever for community groups and organisations is a good one in theory. The idea is that once community groups are in possession of an asset, the space can be used for revenue-generating activities, providing a return which can support local wealth creation and activities with a community benefit. Existing building-based community “anchor” organisations are potentially well placed to take advantage: having an asset to draw on should mean that those who already provide services through a neighbourhood centre can develop and grow. In reality, however, the long-term sustainability of financial models, asset development and renewal plans, facilities management arrangements and marketing strategies are rarely given the necessary attention.
To make a sustainable difference, community assets often need more investment in building infrastructure and services upfront, so that planned maintenance and service costs are as low as possible, future-proofed and environmentally friendly. I have managed community assets that have been developed on the basis of service user numbers the drains could not accommodate and been painted in bespoke colours that were too expensive to maintain.
As such, while neighbourhood assets are increasingly coming into community ownership, there aresignificant financial vulnerabilities. 75 per cent of total assets in community ownership report they are in good financial health, 40 but up to 20 per cent report that they do not have sufficient reserves to deal with an unexpected modest expense or an income shock. Similarly, 30 per cent felt that they did not have their debts under control. When we look to a more detailed level, we can see that in deprived neighbourhoods, the proportion of assets in good financial health is much lower at around 50 per cent.
The financial benefits of community asset ownership are promised on the basis that the asset can serve as just that – an asset. But without adequate support and resources, there is a danger that community organisations could be set up to fail. Asset transfer becomes liability transfer instead. The risks of this are highlighted by the evidence – just under 50 per cent of assets in community ownership reported the cost of maintenance as having an impact on financial health. Despite the best intentions of landlords, handing over buildings in poor condition could create an unsustainable burden for community organisations. The risks of this are heightened when we consider the wider funding landscape
Delivering bottom-up change
Cutbacks in public funding over recent years have meant not only reductions in revenue spend on services, but also fewer available capital grants to cover the kinds of maintenance issues asset ownership creates. Social investment – i.e. providing finance through loans to be repaid with interest or equity – has increasingly been turned to in order to fill the gap.
While loans can play a part in capitalising community groups, they need repayment and are still a commercial product. This commercial reality can result in risk-averse lenders not supporting projects which don’t align with their ideas or funding requirements, 44 limiting the potential for community groups to deliver real, bottom-up change. For marginalised groups in London, who can find experiences of mainstream public services and institutions alienating and even discriminatory, 45 this represents a huge missed opportunity to provide appropriate and much-needed support. When projects are designed to meet funder imperatives, rather than being designed with and for local communities and their intended beneficiaries, we have to ask: how much, if any, “empowerment” is involved? Genuine co-production can only take place when there is a realisation that it can’t be imposed top-down – either explicitly or implicitly through overly stringent or prescriptive funding and procedural requirements.
This is as true for local authorities as it is for social investors. Transferring a local asset to community control on the basis of meeting particular siloed service needs identified by professional commissioners can run the risk of missing the bigger picture. Having genuine community involvement in the entire process, rather than just at the “delivery” end, means the potential for real transfer of power is much higher. 46 Without making the most of the unique strengths of community leadership – deep local understanding and reach, lived expertise and emotional investment – attempts to just build a “community hub” without real participation will miss the mark.
A top-down approach can even threaten the survival of existing community-led hubs, as resources are used to support new asset transfers without regard to an existing neighbourhood ecosystem. In some cases, planning gain is used to encourage private sector investment for new community spaces in areas well served by existing hubs. This runs the risk of disempowering local people and creating a financially unviable environment for both existing and new spaces.
What lessons can be learned?
There are two principal issues to address – financial and cultural.
The desire to support community asset ownership must be matched with the resources to enable a genuine transfer of power. This will vary in different situations and could involve, for example, making sure that buildings handed over to communities don’t come with hefty maintenance responsibilities attached – or equally, providing alternative, sustainable sources of grant funding and capital reserves.
Related to this are the attitudes and power relations which underpin the relationship between community groups and local authorities. Transferring assets to community control should be seen in the broader context as a method of transferring power, rather than just management responsibilities. In order for this to be successful, the tendency for those with power to hoard it has to be challenged. When asset transfers or funding are made overly contingent on meeting the demands of those who hold the purse strings, it runs the risk of not challenging these basic imbalances of power, but replicating them instead. In order for the real potential of community asset ownership to be realised, local authorities will have to learn to let go of the reins a bit, and allow communities to take the lead in the ways that those of us who work with them – and in them – know they can.