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Save Our Spaces: Our Public Land And Buildings Are At Risk Of Being Sold, Cut Or Shut

24/11/2016 16:03
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Our community spaces are in jeopardy. Parks, community centres, swimming pools, town halls, you name it; in one part of the country or another, many of them are under threat.

Apart from our homes, these are the places we live our lives in. They're the places where we meet our friends, play with our children, watch our loved-ones get married, do our exercise or get a dose of fresh air.

But cash-strapped councils, under pressure to mitigate cuts to their budgets, are being encouraged to sell off their valuable assets which, once lost, will be lost to the community for ever.

This week's Autumn Statement was a missed opportunity to protect our public land and buildings and we're at risk of losing these precious assets unless urgent action is taken to safeguard them.

The Chancellor's commitment to investing £23bn on infrastructure and innovation will most likely generate headlines and signal a bullish approach to economic growth.

Sophisticated approach

But big ticket infrastructure projects have seduced Chancellors in recent years with no clear and tangible impact on local jobs, local economies and communities. We need a more sophisticated approach if we genuinely want an economy that works for everyone and we need to tackle the deeply-entrenched inequalities across the country by investing in another kind of infrastructure.

The Treasury has suddenly found hundreds of millions of pounds of public funds to invest in renovating Wentworth Woodhouse in the Yorkshire countryside and Buckingham Palace. But in the rest of the country, precious local buildings and land are at risk of being sold, cut or shut.

Six years of austerity measures and cuts to local authority budgets has meant that hard-pressed councils are looking to sell off their land and buildings to the highest bidder in an attempt to raise badly-needed cash.

Former Iceland and Wickes boss Bill Grimsey lamented this fact in the Guardian last week, saying "the vital role of building and nurturing communities is quietly being replaced by the need to make a quick buck".

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Bramley Baths

"There's not a building, park or open space that council managers aren't eyeing up to exploit," he said and, after our new Chancellor Philip Hammond's first Autumn Statement, I'm reminded of what George Osborne urged this time last year.

To mitigate cuts, we needed to "encourage and empower" local authorities to sell off their owned assets to spend the revenue on "delivering more sufficient and sustainable local services", he said.

A year has passed, and we have a different Chancellor, but the message seems to be the same; councils are still being urged to sell off the family silver to help pay for services.

This is a very short-sighted view which puts communities at risk of permanently losing important public buildings and spaces for the sake, as Grimsey says, of a quick buck.

But entrusting public assets to communities who can turn them into thriving and profitable community enterprises can safeguard them for generations to come.

Crucial community infrastructure

We want central government and other funders to invest in a new community asset investment programme for community groups and organisations to take over the management or ownership of local public land and buildings so hard-pressed local authorities don't have to sell, cut or shut crucial parts of our community infrastructure to raise revenue.

It can be done. When Locality member Bramley Baths was threatened with closure, a group of local residents campaigned successfully to take over the management of the leisure centre from Leeds City Council.

The building is now open to the public seven days a week for swimming, gym facilities, and dance and fitness sessions and an imaginative events programme helped the transform the failing business into a profitable community enterprise in its first year of trading.

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Granby Four Streets

In Liverpool a group of residents set up Granby Four Streets Community Land Trust to save their beloved local streets and rebuild their community, taking on the ownership of derelict housing in Toxteth and renovating them to develop housing, workspaces and community facilities to meet the needs of the community.

In Tottenham, north London - an area of lower than average employment with historically low levels of investment - the Selby Trust manages a multi-purpose community and social enterprise centre on a 25 year lease from Haringey Council. The former school building houses community facilities and services, hosts 38 other local organisations and has supported more than 100 'micro businesses', with a particular focus on helping women and disabled people to set up as social enterprises.

But a lack of consistent support means we urgently need the government and other funders to step in to support organisations all over the country to do exactly what community organisations like Bramley Baths, Granby Four Streets and the Selby Centre are doing.

£1bn worth of investment - from government, social investment and other funders - over five years could save hundreds of public assets from being sold, cut or shut; at least one a year in every county or metropolitan borough in England.

Knock-on effect

And the benefits don't stop there. Community ownership of assets has a knock-on effect to the wider neighbourhood, promoting resilience and sustainable growth at a local level and giving people a greater stake in their local areas as well as control of the activities and services that matter to them.

In the wake of the EU referendum this has never felt more important. Post-referendum we know that communities across England are feeling disenfranchised and that there is a real appetite for people to have genuine control over the decisions that affect them.

But, without a comprehensive programme of support, inequalities highlighted by Brexit could be at risk of becoming even more entrenched.

Our research shows that deprived areas are particularly at risk of losing their community spaces, leading to inequalities across England becoming ingrained; places which already feel left behind are also likely to have more budgetary difficulties, leading to more pressure on councils to sell assets to support spending on services.

These assets can only be sold once - once they're lost, they're lost for ever - and there is a real threat that short-term decisions being made by cash strapped councils will seriously weaken local communities which are already feeling disempowered.

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