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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Laird

Levelling Up through Community Ownership

Updated: Mar 18, 2021

Andrew Laird welcomes the announcement of the government’s new Community Ownership Fund and its potential to be a catalyst for change in local areas. A version of this article was originally published in the MJ on 5th March 2021.

Manchester Centre. Photo by (CC BY 2.0)

Rishi Sunak used the Budget to resurrect an exciting proposal which featured in the 2019 Government manifesto: the plan to create a new £150 million Community Ownership Fund. Many people, myself included, had assumed that it would be regarded as too much of a ‘nice to have’ given the COVID-19 pandemic and a need to prioritise spending.

But it’s great news that this idea now finds its place in the suite of funds (alongside the Levelling Up Fund and the Community Renewal Fund) aimed at rejuvenating local areas. At some point, someone will do a very interesting Venn diagram which shows how each of these funds interact and cross over with each other – but in the meantime I want to focus on community ownership.

Through this fund, community groups will be able to bid for ‘matched funding to help them buy local assets to run as community-owned businesses’. The idea being to ensure that ‘important parts of the social fabric – like pubs, sports clubs, theatres and post office buildings – can continue to play a central role in towns and villages across the UK’.

There is plenty of evidence about the positive impact of community ownership both for the community itself and the economy. Power to Change estimate that there are more than 6,300 community owned assets, contributing £220 million to local economies every year. They also tend to be more sustainable and robust than traditional privately owned enterprises. Research by the Plunkett Foundation shows that community-owned and run shops have a 94 per cent success rate versus 46 per cent for average small businesses.

Personally, I have a strong belief that people want to be a part of their community and can usually come up with better solutions to local challenges than a distant government. The experience of communities responding to COVID-19 has only further proven this.

I hesitate to say this – but this undoubtedly links back to the ‘Big Society’ theme of 2010. Back then it became overly politicised. With the financial crisis, it was seen as just a ploy to cut Government spending. But when you strip the politics out of it and add in some Government support, the fundamentals of communities playing a more active role in their own welfare starts to feel very relevant for our time.

There are some excellent examples of where community ownership has worked fantastically well. Community shops tend to evolve into community hubs. Nearly 60 per cent host post offices, nearly half have cafes and 20 per cent are co-located with other community buildings.

I imagine a lot of you are keen to experience being in the local pub again – but many will not have survived the crisis. So, let’s take community pubs as an example:

The Dog Inn at Belthorn (near Blackburn) is a community owned pub. Over the years, the village had lost over 10 pubs, a shop, tearoom, chip shop, newsagent and a community centre. In 2015, the residents of Belthorn took the decision to stop the rot and take on the running of The Dog Inn. They co-located the amenities that had disappeared and brought life back to their local community. The Craufurd Arms in Maidenhead is located in a densely populated residential area. It was put on the market in 2016 and a community action group formed and raised £310,000 in community shares from 229 people who invested sums of between £250 and £20,000 – and they bought it! The pub is now a thriving hub e.g. hosting autism and dementia groups. The community believes the Craufurd Arms has supported community cohesion and reduced social isolation.

This is pretty exciting in itself but this agenda shouldn’t stop at community assets. It should also look at local public services where appropriate and safe. This would build on the success of the exciting organisations created by the Government’s Mutual Support Programme for public services.

There are a whole range of fantastic examples of libraries, arts, culture and youth services which would not have survived remaining in the public sector and have now ‘spun out’ into more entrepreneurial and sustainable mutuals, often co-owned by staff and communities, i.e: York Explore, Libraries Unlimited, Dorset Arts Development Company, and Devon Space Youth Service.

Councils tend to be forced to cut these types of services first. As you will know, this can be unavoidable in the short term but counterproductive in the medium/long term, as these services play such an important role as local community hubs enhancing well-being and life chances. The better ones have managed to demonstrate their health and well-being impact to commissioners (including Clinical Commissioning Groups) and are securing sustainable funding streams to continue their important work with vulnerable groups – keeping many people healthier, happier and away from more expensive interventions. This is ensuring libraries, arts and culture etc. remain an important part of the public service ‘furniture’.

There are obvious public services (such as defence) where national delivery is appropriate but as a rule of thumb, responsibility for assets and services should always be devolved to the lowest appropriate level. This new fund makes community ownership a realistic option and councils should be encouraging their local communities to explore what they might do.

For more information on our work on community ownership and to talk to us contact John Copps


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