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Community Ownership Fund needed to protect public spaces

More than 4,000 publicly owned buildings and spaces are being sold off every year, a report published today has revealed.

The report, ‘The great British sell off,’ published the results of a Freedom of Information (FOI) request made by Locality to all 353 local authorities in England in January 2018.

Each year, more than 4,000 buildings and spaces are being sold, with many being lost to private developers for the highest price, which will never be used for vital community services and support.

No official figures are published on the speed and scale of the sell off with these findings, which show consistently high numbers of public buildings and spaces being sold year on year in England form 2012 to 2016 – the only indication of the size and scale of the problem.

Just 41% of councils have a strategy to support community ownership, demonstrating the “significant lack of planning” and a short-term approach to decision making about public buildings and spaces being permanently lost to the community.

Locality is calling for an increase in the number of public buildings and spaces transferred to community ownership, rather than sold to private developers, which it says would ensure that they are kept for use by the whole community, providing a hub for local people and a source of vital services and support for future generations.

Although the charity says that selling some land and buildings for private use is appropriate, there is a danger that it becomes the only option for councils that are unaware of the longer-term benefits of community ownership, and austerity means that many are using this as an opportunity to make short-term financial gain at the cost of losing “some of the country’s most valuable assets.”

Tony Armstrong, chief executive of Locality, called the problem “a sell off on a massive scale.”

He said: “We know that many of the buildings being lost have valuable community uses.

“They are owned by the public and they’re being sold off for short term gain to fill holes in council budgets.”

He added: “Many hundreds of local community groups are stepping up and fighting for community ownership. But they urgently need support and help with start-up costs if they are to compete with the commercial developers.

“Funding to support community ownership has dried up in recent years, and government, investors and charitable funders must come together to unlock a set-up fund for community ownership.”

Locality is calling for the government to help to protect these spaces with £200m a year for five years for a Community Ownership Fund for local community organisations.

Responding to the report, Cllr Richard Watts, chair of the Local Government Association’s resources board, said: “Local councillors, elected by local people, understand the deep connection communities have with their public spaces and buildings.

“If we are to be able to maintain them and fund front-line services, the government must address our funding shortfall of over £5 billion a year by 2020 as soon as possible.

“It is essential that the funding for local government, which has faced cuts of 40 per cent over the last eight years, is put on a sustainable footing, so we can support our communities through essential services and vital infrastructure.”


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