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The great British sell-off

Source: PSE Aug/Sept 2018

Tony Armstrong, chief executive of Locality, takes a look at the number of publicly-owned assets being sold off to the private sector after bearing the brunt of austerity, and considers what can be done. 

We have known for some time that many of our important local buildings and spaces are being lost. These are our swimming pools and libraries; our parks and play areas; our community centres and town halls. Local authorities, which have borne the brunt of austerity since 2010, have often found themselves struggling to keep them open, or have been seeking a short-term cash boost by selling them off to the private sector.

At Locality, we hear these stories every week from our member local community organisations. But with no official data available, it’s been impossible to gauge the overall scale of the sell-off.

We issued a Freedom of Information request to all local authorities in England to try and get a better picture of what’s happening in our communities. The results have been staggering: we found that more than 4,000 publicly-owned buildings and spaces are being sold off by councils every single year.

To give you a sense of just how big a number this is, it’s more than four times the number of Starbucks shops across the country being sold off by councils annually.

We believe this ‘Great British Sell-Off’ is hugely damaging to our communities. These are the places where people come together, take their kids, exercise and get to know their neighbours. When the country feels more divided than ever, when social isolation is one of our biggest challenges, this loss of social space couldn’t be happening at a worse time. We are never going to bring our country back together if we don’t have welcoming places where people can come together.

That’s why we want to see our places protected through community ownership so they are there for all of us forever. Community ownership doesn’t just mean a building is saved. It can also mean revitalising a space that the council has struggled with and putting it to productive use for local people.

Take Bramley Baths in Leeds, for example (pictured). This is a beautiful local building – a Grade 2 listed Edwardian Bath House – that provides a crucial service. For years, it’s been where local families have taken their kids to learn to swim, or where young adults have learned to be lifeguards.

In 2013, the council was looking to close it due to budget cuts, but the community rallied round and took over the baths. It’s now a shining example of community ownership. Not only are the swimming baths now profitable, but opening hours have doubled and more children are being taught to swim.

The benefits of community ownership

Community ownership has such wide benefits. We want to see councils prioritising it when they think about the future of their property portfolios.

We know through our work at Locality that the community organisations who have been most resilient to recent ill winds have been those that own an asset. This gives an organisation a sustainable income stream, which makes them less dependent on grant funding or contracts. It gives them the independence to invest in the services their community really needs.

There is also a wider economic impact to be gained from community ownership. Community organisations provide spaces for business startups and social enterprises, creating hubs of local enterprises.

We’ve been working with NEF Consulting to measure the contribution this makes to the local economy: the economic value community organisations create not just through their own activities, but by hosting tenants.

We found that 10 Locality members had collectively enabled approximately 1,400 jobs and contributed £120m of gross value added to the local economy through their tenant organisations.

This economic contribution is particularly important because our members tend to work in the most deprived neighbourhoods – places the public sector finds ‘hard to reach’ and the private sector tends to forget. So community organisations are a critical way of boosting the economy in so-called ‘left behind’ areas and creating genuinely inclusive growth.

Community ownership fund

So community ownership not only guarantees that a building or space will be available for the whole community, it also invests in the local area and helps the community take control.

But we need more support for more communities to stop the sell-off. We’re calling for government to kickstart a Community Ownership Fund of £200m a year for five years, to provide communities with the resources they need to take on ownership of local buildings and spaces.

We also want to see local authorities put in place a Community Asset Transfer policy to make sure they give the community the consideration it deserves when making decisions about the long-term future of our crucial public buildings and spaces. We have lots of resources for how to do this and the key considerations available on our website.

There is no sign of an end coming soon to the spending squeeze, and we know the pressures on the public sector will only intensify. But while it’s an understandable urge, looking for a capital receipt from a public building or space can only ever offer temporary respite.

Local authorities need to think about how to maximise long-term social value for their places – and they can do this by saving our spaces through community ownership.


Image: Bramley Baths in Leeds

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