Will community ownership be at home in the new world of localism?
Nig Society and Localism share a common agenda that matters are best managed by the people they most closely affect, and the more those people are involved, the better, says Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
f the Big Society is Prime Minister David Cameron's passion, the Localism Bill is its legislative counterpart.
And just as the Big Society has spawned volumes of debate and dissection, so too has the Localism Bill, which lumbers into its report stage in the House of Lords on 5 September. No wonder – it is a legislative monster, dealing with everything from local authority governance to housing policy, neighbourhood planning and community rights.
No fewer than 35 official supporting documents have already been published before the legislation has received Royal Assent. And this is one of the difficulties of government action designed to make things simpler and to give people new powers. It turns out that armies of civil servants and legislators are required to bring about changes that are supposed to do away with the need for armies of civil servants and legislators.
If community organisations are to play their part in this new world, the vision of community asset ownership propagated by ministers needs to become a reality. The legislation needs to be reinforced by concrete examples of achievement, showing how local ownership and management can make a difference to disadvantaged areas.
The recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation programme of community assets research and seminars highlighted many such examples, from Coin Street on London’s South Bank to housing-based schemes like Caterham Barracks and social enterprises like Hull’s Goodwin Development Trust. But few, if any, of them came about because of legislation. And nearly all of them took many years to reach fruition.
A new era of community asset ownership?
Anyone hoping that the Localism Bill might lead to a new era of community asset ownership might do well to take a look at Scotland. A study by the Scottish Government, prepared for the second of the JRF seminars last year, showed that the six pieces of legislation providing a community right to buy in Scotland had resulted in nine successful purchases in half a dozen years.
There have been more since, and arguably the legislation has created an environment in which disposals of assets to community groups are more likely. But so far the returns to local communities from the legislation itself have been modest.
In England even the principle of the right to buy is under threat, with the Country Land and Business Association seeking to reduce the time available for community groups to bid for property from six to three months.
At the same time public agencies and local authorities are putting an unprecedented volume of public assets up for sale in an effort to balance their books and protect frontline services at a time of spending cuts. There is cause to fear that land and buildings acquired at public expense will be sold not to neighbourhood trusts or social enterprises, but to private developers and speculators.
So is all the ministerial talk of a bright future for community groups pie in the sky? Not quite. In Scotland there have been real and significant achievements, such as the community-owned Isle of Gigha that runs its own housing and renewable energy businesses. As a proportion of the land and assets of Scotland they may be negligible, but they have set a precedent and fuelled an aspiration that goes back to the Land Leagues set up in response to the Highland Clearances of well over a century ago.
In England and Wales, too, the scale of community asset ownership is small and is likely to remain so in the near future, especially as many organisations seek to consolidate what they have before risking new investments. But the Localism Bill's best service could be to send out an important and powerful signal about our future – a future where our stake in society is no longer limited to what we can own as individuals, what we buy from corporations or what we expect the state to do on our behalf.