Labour’s landmark 2017 manifesto declared Labour to be ‘the party of devolution’ and promised to hand power back to communities. Expanding community asset transfers (CATs) would help us to live this creed, acting as a catalyst to empower our communities to become self-sufficient.
Bristol city council is exploring how the transfer of community assets – both land and buildings – can encourage communities to become more sustainable and empower them through reduced reliance on council funding. It currently lets out 137 assets on concessionary terms totalling £1.5 million. Most of these are in fact below £10,000 per year, with the overall picture distorted by half a dozen assets which account for almost half of the total value.
Our mayor, Marvin Rees, has set out a vision to enable sustainable organisations, community and third sector groups to become genuine partners in development: giving them a seat and then the table, rather than just providing them with a menu of funds for which to bid.
Pump priming, plus grants. Innovation and development loans. Low-interest loans instead of long-term grants. Local government is changing – forced not just by the financial constraints which all councils are facing, but by the times, and based on what local communities need.
While there’s never any single perfect answer for every community, ownership of assets is one of the means to this end. The benefits can be enormous when citizens, communities, and councils work together. Sustainable revenue streams give organisations long-term stability. Heightened civic pride and responsibility give local people a meaningful stake in their future, utilising and increasing social capital. The asset itself can leverage new finance and further expand good work; a local resource can be used to develop a sense of place and provide bottom-up services tailored by the community for its own needs.
The Greenway Centre, a former school site in a deprived area in the north of the city, was transferred to the Southmead Development Trust in 1992. In 2006, they signed a new 125 year lease to continue operating the community hub and business centre which is now home to a GP, church, rugby club, nursery, health promotions team, and the local police. Self-sufficient since 1999 through grant aid for specific projects, funded contracts and direct trading, earned income and general fundraising, the centre is testament to what empowered communities can achieve. Having a multi-purpose, entrepreneurial team involved, in running this project, as in another self-sustaining one, Up Our Street, which now owns four retail units on a millennium-long lease in inner-city Lawrence Hill, is of course crucial to the success of any CAT.
In Bristol, we will soon undertake a comprehensive corporate asset review, including a revised community asset management and disposal strategy to satisfy the growing numbers of speculative community asset transfer requests which we receive every week.
The financial considerations are also important. This work would not only rationalize our assets to reduce revenue costs – Bristol council has lost almost £200 million since 2010 and faces a further gap of more than £100 million over the next five – but has the potential to generate the capital for affordable housing and key infrastructure across our city. Bristol is also exploring new ways of working and collaborating with partners from citizens to corporations. From examining the co-operative council model to asking Bristol’s businesses to invest ten percent of their corporate social responsibility budgets into a shared Fund for Bristol, matched by external sources, to make progress on shared city priorities, we will use our values for best effect in the city.
At the Fabian’s Labour party conference’s fringe in Brighton this week, I proposed that the next Labour government, led by Jeremy Corbyn, should highlight best practice across local government, including on CATs; revise guidance to local authorities on asset disposal; work alongside other organisations like Power to Change, NESTA, and Locality to create risk-benefit assessment toolkits for communities. Most of all, with austerity now firmly discredited, and a magic money tree found out back in Number 10 for the DUP, Labour should commit a £100 million national asset transfer programme to help increase the flow of land and property into community ownership.
CATs can be a key plank of the devolution and localism agenda, and one which Labour, when next in government, should use to empower communities and build their resilience so that they can not only survive but thrive.