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24 April 2024

Community ownership matters

Extending cooperative models of ownership for core community assets can open the path to true decentralisation.

By Tim Davies-Pugh

Recent research from Power to Change, conducted with More in Common, found people are more positive about their local area than the country itself. This is positive, at least from the perspective of people and their locales – it suggests familiarity breeds positivity rather than negativity, which remains associated with less well-known parts. And yet many communities are likely to have lost their local pub, local post office, or local shop in recent years. Roads are poorly maintained. Community centres, libraries and leisure centres have closed. A neglected park is a visible sign of council budgets that no longer stretch beyond the necessities and obligations.

All this is symptomatic of a political economy disconnected from the lives of ordinary people and their aspirations for where they live. Large corporations might be able to identify countrywide consumer trends from masses of metadata, but they’re unlikely to know what the needs of a community might be, let alone what people wish their community was like. At the same time, political decision-making is distant from the lives of the people it affects.

A move to a more localised political economy is needed. Part of the answer is communities having more of a say over the spaces in their local area, and a stake in them too. One tool we could use to achieve this is community ownership. That means community assets – from pubs to social clubs, or football grounds to cinemas – being held in cooperative ownership by real people and the communities they serve. Local collective ownership is important because – with the control it brings – communities are better able to shape their assets to their needs. Not only that, but it can be the basis for the financial sustainability and self-sufficiency of community business.

We’ve seen this in places like Stonehouse in Plymouth, an area in the city once blighted by high building vacancy rates. Nudge Community Builders set about changing this by refusing to let buildings lie empty, instead bringing them into community ownership. Nudge filled 25 per cent of the empty buildings on Union Street – the main street in the area – including the iconic C103 and the Millennium Building, to act as multi-purpose hubs and creative spaces where profits are reinvested to grow more local businesses.

Recently, the Community Ownership Commission – chaired by the former chief economist of Ernst and Young, Mark Gregory – launched its report, “Unleashing Community Ownership”. It looks at the credible and realistic measures government can take to spread community ownership models. It should be required reading for anyone interested in how we can create places that people want to live in, by giving them more of a say about the spaces in those places. A Labour Party that has pledged to shift power out of Westminster would be well advised to take note as drafting begins on the manifesto and Keir Starmer’s flagship “take back control” bill.

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The report recommends at least one measure that Labour has already committed to, and which appears in the party’s final National Policy Forum document – a “community right to buy”. This would strengthen the powers that voluntary organisations, local charities, organised groups of neighbours, workers or service users have to purchase the assets they care about. New powers on their own, however, are not enough if we are to ensure that it is not just the sharp-elbowed middle classes, well-off retirees and those with the time, experience and inclination, that take advantage of them. New resources are needed too. Reshaping the already extant Community Ownership Fund and extending it into the next parliament would be a concrete way of doing this. Importantly, ring-fencing a proportion of the fund so that it is targeted at areas of higher need, combined with capacity support, will help to make sure it is not just wealthier places that benefit.

For too long, local authorities have been beholden to bidding for centralised funding pots directed from Whitehall. These need to be moved closer to people. The place-based funding model that the report recommends is an effective way to do this. Alongside funding moving closer to people, decision making should be decentralised, too. Local authorities should be encouraged, incentivised and resourced to work in partnership with communities so that real people, on the ground, have a genuine influence on decision-making.

Together, this would help increase community ownership. But that’s not an end in itself. More than that, it would be a step towards a political economy that appreciates and values the local.

[Read more: The Research Brief – more cooperative ownership, please!]

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