Local public assets are being sold at an alarming pace. From library buildings and school playing fields to community spaces, our latest research estimates that £15bn in local community assets have been sold since 2010 – often by austerity-hit local authorities struggling to make ends meet. This risks diminishing, once again, the access citizens have to public services such as libraries, public space and leisure centres.
Despite the “levelling up” rhetoric, it is unlikely any of these assets will be replaced. IPPR North’s research shows that while an estimated 75,000 council assets have been sold in the past 13 years, just 2,500 have been transferred into community ownership during the same period.
People are very much alive to what they’ve lost. It was reflected in the stories I heard during a series of citizen conversations we held in Hastings, Redcar and Stoke-on-Trent over the past year. During those hearings a picture emerged of proud, hopeful communities compelled to patch up the threadbare social safety net, uncertain about what they could expect from local or national public services.
Under pressure local authorities often have little choice but to sell local assets. It is a recurring story across the country and particularly hard felt in many urban authority areas. Councils such as Birmingham, whose financial plight has been well documented, will now be forced to sell more to make their books balance. And this time the assets are said to include treasured historic and cultural buildings.
For people across the country there is a profound sense of loss. Many spoke of former greatness and a proud history jarring with a sense of recent decline, decay and abandonment in their places. People we spoke to felt compelled to support each other, as they were all too aware of crumbling local public services around them.
The levelling-up agenda has also just this week received a double blow to compound this sense of loss. The government is now threatening to undo plans to build HS2 between Birmingham and Manchester after years of planning, investment and promise. This decision would also undermine plans for Northern Powerhouse Rail spanning from Liverpool to Hull, which in part relies on HS2 infrastructure. Symbolically, in principle and in practice, this would be the wrong decision. Besides, as our previous work has shown, if the north had received the same transport investment as London over the decade to 2019, it would have received £86bn more in funding, so we are already more than overdue investment.
Based on our conversations, we have set out a citizen’s blueprint for regionally rebalancing wealth, power and opportunity across the country. The national government may have taken its eye off the ball, but local and regional leaders remain focused; regional rebalancing remains imperative for improving the fairness of society and the efficiency of our economy.
We are calling on Westminster to fund regional and local government fairly, starting by committing to a fair funding formula for local government so councils can put a stop to the continual sale of our community assets. We need transparent decision-making on major public sector investment projects so that areas that need investment receive it, beyond tweaks to the Treasury’s Green Book, which has so far had little impact on where money flows. Councils also need more than a one-year public spending window.
We also need common good property registers. Too often communities are not aware of the wealth held in their communities on their behalf. We need to improve transparency around public asset ownership, so communities can then seek protection from continual losses, alongside support for communities to regain assets.
Finally, local people need far more power. Time and again people told us of their dissatisfaction and feelings of powerlessness to influence the direction of politics in the county. We need better ways to empower them. We want to see 1 per cent of local funding allocated to “participatory budgeting” so that citizens can get directly involved in the decisions made about their area. Regional and local government should also consider paid-for community leaders to improve local representation and participation.
Reversing the sense of loss citizens feel and regionally rebalancing the country remains a central challenge for the next government. From our citizen conversations, it’s clear that communities are all too painfully aware that our economy and democracy still do not work for them or their places. But they also know change is possible.