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The Research Brief: more community and cooperative ownership, please

Your weekly dose of policy thinking.

By Spotlight

Welcome to the Research Brief, where Spotlight, the New Statesman’s policy section, brings you the pick of recent publications from the government, think tank, charity and NGO world. See more editions of the Research Brief here.

What are we talking about this week? We’ve got a report – “Unleashing Community Ownership: Report of the Community Ownership Commission”. It’s been published by the Co-operative Party, which is (the clue is in the name) very much in favour of an expansion of community ownership.

Never heard of them. Do they have any MPs? Councillors? Yes, actually. There are 26 of them in the Commons. So there.

Oh wow. More than the Lib Dems and the Greens combined, then? Yes, and add in the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) too. But they keep a low-ish profile because they are affiliated with Labour – so all of their members of parliament are also Labour members of parliament. People like Stella Creasy, Meg Hillier, Seema Malhotra – they’re all Labour and Co-op MPs.

The Co-operative Party has been involved in what’s called the Community Ownership Commission, and it has written up the report based on extensive research. The authors include academic experts and well-regarded local government practitioners such as Donna Hall – an originator of the celebrated Wigan Deal. This reformed public service delivers, particularly in social care, for the Greater Manchester-based local authority by enlisting the participation of community groups, third-sector organisations and local people.

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So what’s this report saying? It’s about encouraging and extending the use of cooperative and community ownership of local assets, which, the paper says, can help revive struggling high streets and communities. Rather than having companies or shareholders owning businesses, they want to see worker- and customer-owned organisations popping up throughout the land.

Sounds good. How do we do that? The report goes into how the government could help bring more assets of community value (ACV) into community ownership models. Under the 2011 Localism Act, which was David Cameron’s attempt to launch a wave of devolution and decentralisation to local councils, ACVs were defined as buildings or other land that have “recently been or [are] presently used to further the social well-being or social interests of the local community and could do so in the future”. Since this category was established, ACVs have been established across the country. Most of them (80 per cent) are, you guessed it, the Great British pub, but there’s also non-league football stadiums, green spaces, cultural centres, religious buildings, and much else besides.

Currently, local people have what is called a “right to bid” for ACVs, which is supposed to help keep these assets in communities if and when they go out of business or are up for sale. Community groups are meant to be given preference and a better chance to raise the cash, write up business cases and, crucially, bid for these assets.

Nice idea. What’s the issue, then? The Community Ownership Commission says the right to bid on ACVs isn’t effective, and should be replaced by a much stronger right to buy.

Right to buy? Like for council housing? Same name but a very different concept. This would be about putting private assets into the hands of community groups, rather than selling off public assets to individual buyers. “Unleashing Community Ownership” also says that “local authorities and other organisations with significant estates, such as the NHS, should be required to review their portfolios to identify assets which can be transferred or sold to communities”. That would mean a large expansion of community ownership via transfers from the public to the cooperative sector.

It also says communities “require more support to enable them to acquire and operate assets” and suggests that “Labour should ensure the alignment of the objectives and operation of the Community Ownership Fund (COF) with Dormant Assets”.

Whoa, whoa, whoa. What does that mean? OK, we’re getting technical here, so strap in. The Community Ownership Fund is the main funding vehicle for community ownership projects. It’s a centrally controlled £150m funding pot that distributes grants to community groups wanting to take ownership of assets that are “at risk of being lost”. That could be local charities, volunteers, congregations or community activists saving their church halls, local pubs or other treasured venues.

The report then mentions Dormant Assets, referring to a scheme that has raised almost £1bn from bank accounts and other financial products, such as insurance or pensions, that have been unused for a long period of time, with money going into social and environmental initiatives. “Unleashing Community Ownership” says some of this money should go into community ownership support funds, targeted at deprived areas, and that finance should be available not just to pay for land or buildings, but also “to support communities [to] undertake early-stage capability development”. In other words, to write up and develop professional business plans and feasibility studies for their projects.

So is it going to happen? Very possibly. Labour and the Co-op Party are two peas in a pod, and both parties have engaged in a lot of talk around “community wealth” initiatives like this. Labour’s “Take back control” bill will also supposedly devolve powers to local leaders, councils and communities, tying in nicely with this kind of localist agenda. When she was shadow levelling-up secretary, Lisa Nandy talked up a “community right-to-buy” scheme, and she celebrated these kinds of community-led, participatory governance models in her book, All In.

In a sentence? We need to target more money towards community groups take ownership of local assets.

Unleashing Community Ownership: Report of the Community Ownership Commission.

[Read more: Why centralised funding is a waste of money]

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