When a much-loved community space was set to be sold to developers, campaigners in Bristol decided to put up a fight.
Women from the activist group Sisters Uncut staged a takeover to try to protect the Cheltenham Road Library, which had been lending books to the local community for 60 years, from being lost.
But in a story that is being echoed up and down the country, the protest failed. The historic site was sold for £2.9million, well in excess of the asking price, to a property developer. It has since been turned into 36 upmarket flats, none of which are classed as affordable despite council targets.
The library sale was the most lucrative made by Bristol City Council in 2016/17. It also sold its former offices in Wilder House to property developer Juniper Homes for £2.6m. None of the 41 apartments developed on that site are affordable, either.
Getting rid of a public asset and replacing it with something that’s going to further gentrify the area is very harmfulSophie Pritchard
In total that year Bristol council made £30m from selling public assets, including a farm depot, some public toilets and a car park. It spent £5.3m of that money on making people redundant.
The number of people who were made redundant at the council that year jumped to 401, compared to 39 in 2015/16.
This was the same year the council’s chief executive Nicola Yates received a £200,000 pay-off after she left her job. The council said no so-called flexible receipts (the term given to money raised from selling off public assets) were used to finance the payment to her.
Sophie Pritchard, one of the activists who occupied Cheltenham Road Library in March 2017, says the sell-offs have harmed the community – and boosted gentrification. “In terms of damage to a community, getting rid of a public asset and replacing it with something that’s going to further gentrify the area is very harmful.”
One of the main issues for locals is the lack of transparency, she says. “If it was their intention all along to sell the library to fund [redundancies] then people should have known.”
But Bristol is not alone in this. After a decade of severe and sustained cuts to local government budgets, the sell-offs are happening on a national scale. In addition to dwindling council budgets, many cash-strapped local authorities have resorted to offloading public assets – such as playing fields and community centres – to make ends meet.
A major investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, in collaboration with HuffPost UK and regional journalists across the country, has compiled data on 12,000 public spaces that have been disposed of since 2014/15.
The data has revealed for the first time that local authorities are using the money raised from selling off buildings and land to pay for hundreds of council redundancies, including in vital frontline services.
This is because in 2016, the government changed its policy on how councils in England could use proceeds from selling land, meaning they could use the cash made to fund reforms to their services if the changes generated “ongoing savings”.
But, like the residents in Bristol, many communities are fighting back.
The 12,000 public spaces sold, transferred, or otherwise no longer in council ownership since 2014-15 include:
227 car parks, 135 allotment sites, 96 shops, 93 community centres, 92 playing fields, 92 libraries, 72 plots of garden land, 68 farms, 47 youth clubs or youth centres, 44 day centres, 42 public toilets, 29 electricity stations, 22 heritage assets, including a tower, memorial cross, statues and mayors’ chains of office, 20 care homes, 18 pubs, 18 leisure centres, 16 picnic areas, 13 council offices, 12 Gypsy and Traveller sites, 11 children’s homes, 9 lorry parks, 9 swimming pools, 9 advertising hoardings, 9 special schools, 8 bus stations or garages, 7 museums, 7 theatres, 6 bowls pavilions, 6 sewage works, 5 sports grounds, 4 golf courses, 2 mortuaries, 2 health centres, 2 quarries and a youth hostel, airport, prison, chapel, church, coroner’s court, GP’s surgery, factory, nunnery, port dockyard, territorial army centre
‘This is atrocious’
The fate of Cheltenham Road Library is one that people in Essex are now dreading.
In November, the county council announced proposals to close as many as 25 of its 74 libraries, with a further 18 to be run by volunteers. The news was met with outrage by residents and in February, hundreds of people, fearing the buildings could be sold off, took to the streets of Chelmsford to protest.
The writing is not yet on the wall, however. When Essex, which has the second largest number of libraries of any local authority in the country, announced the proposals it also launched a public consultation into the changes. This closed on 21 February, and the final decision will be made this summer.
Campaigners launched Save Our Libraries Essex (SOLE), and are hoping the council listens to their pleas to keep them open.
I didn’t realise they were using this money to balance their books and pay for redundanciesMichelle Shavdia
Michelle Shavdia, a regular user of Prettygate Library, said the idea that money from the buildings could be used to fund staff layoffs was “heartbreakingly tragic”.
“I am worried this could happen in Essex as we are already seeing our public services being sold off, such as hospitals and turned into flats, but I didn’t realise they were using this money to balance their books and pay for redundancies,” she said. Prettygate is one of the sites under threat.
The council’s response is that library usage in Essex is dropping, and the service needs to be redesigned and modernised.
The council confirmed it has not yet decided what it will do, adding that it would decide on a case by case basis, “including the opportunity for development of the asset (for example into housing).”
Asked directly whether it was possible they could be sold and the proceeds used as “flexible capital receipts,” meaning the council could then use them to fund further cuts if they wished, a spokesperson did not explicitly rule it out, but said it had not used capital receipts to fund service reforms.
‘It’s about meeting people and forming friendships’
In Leeds, a different kind of community fight took place to save Bramley Baths, a Grade II-listed Edwardian swimming pool. In 2011, the council announced plans to reduce the opening hours at Bramley Baths from 90 to 48 hours as part of £90m of savings to its budget. At the time, the pool was losing money, and the following year councillors approached the community to see if there was appetite for them to take over the running of the facility.
Local campaigners feel sure it would have been closed and at risk of sell-off if they hadn’t stepped in themselves.
In something of a remarkable turnaround, the pool is now profitable after being taken on by the community, who were granted use of the building on a peppercorn lease (a very small, nominal sum) for an initial three-year period, which was extended to 50 years.
At the end of the financial year in 2018, there was a £80,000 surplus in the budget, which was then reinvested in the building, while grants from Power to Change, a charitable trust that supports community businesses, have helped support the purchase of equipment, including new pumps, filters and boilers.
Sue Stones, head of the group which runs the baths, said the community had been able to do far more with the facility than when it was run by the council. Since the so-called asset transfer, a mechanism that allows community themselves to take over the running of a service, the baths have hosted an orchestra floating on a platform in the pool, as well as ballet and opera performances.
“When it was part of the council, the baths were by necessity being run in the same way as the leisure facilities built in the 1980s,” Stones said.
Stones believes if the community hadn’t stepped in with support from Locality, a national network of community organisations, the baths would have closed altogether. “The community would have lost access to the health and wellbeing services, a place for children to learn to swim and a community hub,” Stones said. “We don’t have a gym full of bodybuilders, it’s about meeting people and forming friendships in the area that people live in.”
Councillor Richard Lewis, Leeds City Council executive board member for regeneration, transport and planning, said community asset transfers like this were an important alternative for councils facing financial pressure. “The council simply can’t afford to hold on to all of its buildings or provide services in the way it has done in the past, which has forced us to look at a number of different and workable alternatives for what are significant and valuable assets for the city.”
While campaign groups want to see more public spaces remain within the community, rather than being sold off for private use, many local authorities are ill-equipped to ensure this happens. Research last year by Locality found less than half of councils had a strategy or policy in place to support community ownership.
Tony Armstrong, chief executive of the national membership network, said councils were under a huge amount of pressure, so it was not surprising they were looking at any way to plug the holes in their budgets.
“I think the flexible receipts rules [where councils are allowed to sell off assets and use the funds as they wish] are unhelpful. It increases the pressure, increases the incentivising climate of getting rid of assets to plug short-term revenue gaps,” he said.
“But actually I think the fundamental issue is local authorities don’t have a clear understanding of the benefits of community ownership. If they did they would understand there are longer term economic and social benefits.”
‘I felt we had to do something’
When Kirklees Council began selling off buildings in 2014, two years before the flexible receipts policy change came into force, a group of residents from Meltham came together to fight against one sale in particular.
The Carlile Institute, an imposing Victorian Building in the heart of the village, had been empty for many years, but had a special place in the community. Richard Noon, one of the local residents who helped save the building from private ownership, describes his fear the building would be sold to developers and turned into flats. “It was vacant, there was damp and neglect by the time I registered it [as an asset of community value], for nearly 10 years, it was a blight on the high street, cracked windows, a big imposing building.
“I felt we had to do something, I didn’t know what, but we have a town council who weren’t doing anything, but if they sell it off for flats there’s nothing anyone can do then.”
The building now houses the library, a post office with disabled access, an office for Meltham Town Council, local businesses and a dancing school. Three large spaces in the building are used for over-60s lunch clubs, art groups and ‘keep fit’ classes.
It wasn’t an easy battle, though, and many in the council doubted the community would be able to make it work. One councillor gave it six months before he thought it would close again.
The process began in 2014 when Noon met with Kirklees Council to register the building as an asset of community value. Residents then formed the Meltham Carlile Community Interest Company. With help from Locality, Noon and the other Meltham residents worked with the council to transfer the building into community ownership for a notional fee of £1.
“We went to the pub afterwards, I bought everyone a pint and then we cracked on.”
After the celebration, he said the feeling of responsibility hit, but when the post office agreed to open a main branch there, it meant they had a regular income. He says he “only cried twice in the project”, and once was when the post office opened.
“There was a dumbfoundedness, but then an elation and a determination that we needed to get on and do what we had set out to do. We were really pleased … The asset transfer was the fight against the body that was the council. I felt like I had done my job. But when the post office opened in September there was a huge relief that we were in business.”
Kirklees Borough Council has since provided a £100,000 grant for the renovation of the building, but Noon is calling for better guidance and support for communities who want to protect buildings from being sold to developers, including transparency over which ones local authorities plan to sell.
“We had to come up with something and prove that it’s better than them doing nothing,” he says. “There must be a better way of doing it that isn’t a burden on residents who just want to go to a coffee morning, or run a library.”
Graham Turner, Kirklees council member for corporate strategy, says transferring the asset saved the council money it would have otherwise spent on operations.
“We have had the failed policy of austerity for number of years, which has placed the council budget under pressure,” he says. “By transferring the building to the community, it allows the community to develop it to meet their needs, and residents have a real stake in the future of the building,” he said.
Turner says councils should have a robust asset transfer policy in place to allow communities to take control of assets.
“This was one of the first asset transfers we did, and consequently, took more time than we perhaps would have liked, but we have learnt a lot from the experience and are now much better at it.”
Additional reporting by Adam Cantwell-Corn and Emma Youle.