22 March 2019

Protecting public spaces

Last year a Freedom of Information Request by Locality, the national network supporting community organisations to be strong and successful, discovered that more than 4,000 publicly owned buildings and spaces are being sold off each year. These are our parks, libraries, town halls and swimming pools.

Locality’s CEO Tony Armstrong makes it clear the devastation this causes. ‘This loss has huge consequences. These are the crucial community sites where people come together, meet their neighbours, take their kids and access local services.

‘The country feels more polarised than ever and we are living increasingly separate lives. With the government currently bamboozled by Brexit, the broader political agenda has ground to a standstill. This needs to change. By showing a lead and supporting community ownership, the government has a huge opportunity to address the economic and social divides that led to Brexit in the first place.

‘Instead of being lost to the private sector, we want to see our public buildings and spaces protected through community ownership. For all of us. Forever.’

Locality recognises that local authorities have borne the brunt of austerity since 2010 and councils have often found themselves struggling to keep these vital spaces open, or have sold them for a short term cash boost to the private sector. It highlights that there are other ways. It’s not all about selling off and boarding up. Local community organisations can be key to economic boost.

Community organisations provide spaces for business start ups and social enterprises, creating hubs of local enterprises. Locality worked with NEF Consulting to measure the contribution this makes to the local economy: the economic value community organisations create not just through their own activities, but by hosting tenants. The findings were startling. Ten Locality members had collectively enabled approximately 1,400 jobs and contributed £120m of gross value added to the local economy through their tenant organisations.

This economic contribution is particularly important because Locality members tend to work in the most deprived neighbourhoods – places the public sector finds ‘hard to reach’ and the private sector tends to forget.

So community organisations are a critical way of boosting the economy in so-called ‘left behind’ areas and creating genuinely inclusive growth.

But in order to harness the power of community, councils need to work with them. Locality Trustee and CEO of Windmill Hill City Farm, Steve Sayers, working with the Victoria Park Action Group, (VPAG) was key to saving the historic Victoria Park Lodge in Bristol. Here, Sayers, who recognised the potential of this historic but increasingly run down building, the only one in the 60 acre Victoria Park, talks about the vital need for collaboration.

He says: ‘In 2017, there was a lot of conversation driven and coordinated by Locality about community asset transfer. I knew it could help save the Lodge. VPAG were keen about my suggestion for Windmill City Farm to take on the lease and the community asset transfer for the Lodge.

‘I put in to register it as an asset of community value. Then an expression of interest for a community asset transfer.

‘I am fortunate to have a good relationship with the community building lead at the council which helped with engagement. But other departments internally were coming up with plans to sell the Lodge as a four bedroom house. Local people, myself included, knew nothing about this idea.

‘Working with VPAG we came up with business plan using it a community centre. This would keep the Lodge in local authority hands, improve it as a financial asset and make it a valuable community resource. We knew we could generate income. Businesses wanted to have office space in the Lodge. We would start a café and opening a meeting room.

‘None of this had been thought of by the council. We had to show there were other options apart from its sale.

‘I urge councils to open up discussion, meet local residents and come along to groups that support the asset they want to discuss. The rhetoric councils like about working together doesn’t always translate into action. Recognising local community organisations as a valid, safe and enterprising means of keeping assets in public ownership would be so helpful for councils. We could help them by exchanging ideas, posing challenges and getting input.

‘Crucially in these tough financial times, we have access to funds they don’t such as Power to Change. We can bring in capital to improve council assets as well as having access to this ourselves. It doesn’t have to be councils doing all the work but we need the council to help us to save a space, then we can run with it ourselves. Encourage people, allow them to be involved. Use us as way to connect you to those you serve, your electorate. Our resources are flexible, get to know us, we are here already in the community you need to reach.

‘VPAG, for example has already achieved so much for Victoria Park including winning a European grant worth over £100,000 to provide more facilities for young people, setting up a ground breaking park watch scheme to improve security and reduce antisocial behaviour as well organising popular annual events. ‘There are further day to day ways councils could make engagement better. Due to my work I am used to navigating my way around the council structure. But for people without this, looking to save their space or even just finding out who you need to speak to is hugely challenging. Councils need to be more sympathetic to this. There needs to be a structured route for people to connect and share their ideas – otherwise it can feel like you are outside just shouting at the ramparts.

‘With Victoria Park Lodge, the future looks promising. There is a large site, Bedminster Green, next to the park but their charity tenants meant development could not go ahead. The Development department at the council now plan to move the charity into Victoria Park Lodge and the developer of Bedminster Green will refurbish it along with creating a Park café and public toilets.

‘It may not be our business plan but by getting involved and working together a much loved publicly owned building will be saved, re invigorated and the council will maintain an increasingly valuable asset.

‘We want to see our places that bring us together and that can transform lives protected community organisations can do this, now and for future generations, let’s work together to make it happen.’

For information about the Save Our Spaces campaign visit www.locality.org.uk

This feature first appeared in Local Government News magazine.

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