Community Ownership: A risk worth taking

Blog post by Graeme McDonald, Director of Policy and Communications, SOLACE

Community ownership is heralded as one of the big ideas for the future. Public services owned and delivered by the community can be more responsive, provide greater choice and offer more responsibility to local people.

‘Giving people a stake in society’ has been a common response to the recent disturbances on England’s streets. Community delivered services could play a small but significant part, but how can local authorities help make this happen?

The Government has just announced its £30 million Transforming Local Infrastructure Programme to help frontline civil society organisations to grasp new opportunities to run public services. This dovetails with the Open Public Service White Paper that proposes to transfer services directly to communities and give neighbourhood groups democratic control.

While we should recognise this isn’t a brand new solution, it is one being taken forward with renewed zeal and purpose.

In the same month that the White Paper and the programme were announced, evaluation reports were published by the MLA and the Asset Transfer Unit that point to some inspiring examples of how organisations have made a real success of community ownership.

However, the reports also demonstrate the importance of investment when starting down the road of community ownership, and that there is no guarantee of success. While such a programme can test an authority’s community engagement skills, it is the on-going support and training in areas such as finance and legal, which help ensure the approach is sustainable. Communities are not able, and nor should we expect them, to simply pick up where local government left off.

So the big questions facing each community group is do we have the capacity to take this on? Or conversely, can we afford not too?

In Ealing I worked with just the sort of local charity you would expect to be chomping at the bit to maximise this opportunity. They provide modern office accommodation to a wide range of voluntary and community organisations across West London.  But they offer much more than a few desks, a meeting room and access to a colour printer. The centre brings a wide range of organisations together that would otherwise be hidden away in a passionate volunteer’s front room. The centre enables them to support each other, share knowledge and hold a stake in their local community.

As with much of the third sector, finances are tight. Income is down and grant funding opportunities are more restricted. One way to ensure its future is to grow. By expanding and running other community assets, be that more office accommodation, community centres or even libraries, their own fixed costs can be spread more widely. But what about their own capacity to expand? Is growth really sustainable, and would it negatively impact their existing successes?

In the past, local authorities have done much to support local community and voluntary groups to build the capacity and skills they require to take on the activities a council may have otherwise delivered. They have invested in potential and often reaped the rewards in the passion, agility and responsiveness the third sector can bring. We all have an opportunity to learn from past successes.

The question for local authorities is what help can we now afford to give? Can we afford to invest in capacity when we know not all will succeed or where success is intangible? Unfortunately some may not prove to have the long-term capacity to succeed, and if one of our stated outcomes is to give the public choice, inevitably not every one will be chosen.

The mainstreaming of this approach will need investment, and as the stock market shows us, every investment comes with a risk. Not every community organisation will want to take on this challenge and some will find that despite their best efforts they are just not able.

Local government might invest in some failures before they find the gems. But in the current environment, can we afford not to take the risk?

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