If your council hasn’t considered community asset transfer, why not? asks Mutual Ventures’ John Copps
What we all want in our local area are strong, resilient communities. Community assets – whoever owns them – are critical to any well-functioning place and its public services.
At the start of July, CCIN launched its new report, Beyond Asset Transfer, to look at what works and what doesn’t work when transferring local government assets to community organisations.
Although it is not new, Community Asset Transfer – the transfer of land, buildings or assets from councils (or other public sector bodies) to the ownership and/or management of a community or third sector organisation – is gathering momentum as part of the solution to rebuilding communities following the impact of COVID-19.
This renewed impetus also coincides with the imminent release of the government’s £150m Community Ownership Fund, originally announced as part of the budget in March. Through this fund, community groups will be able to bid for matched funding to help them buy local assets, with the aim of ensuring ‘important parts of the social fabric can continue to play a central role in towns and villages’.
CCIN’s report draws on combined experience across member councils and reflects their experience.
What works in asset transfer?
The report highlights several features of successful community asset transfers:
- A positive strategy and vision – a positive, proactive strategy for community assets provides a strong basis for discussions with your communities. The report contains an example community asset policy from Newcastle City Council that helps to focus around social value and set the conditions for developing a shared vision with residents.
- Capacity within the community group – asset transfer works best where there are robust governance and management structures, with experienced staff/volunteers. The report contains examples including from Plymouth and Newcastle where existing organisations were able to take on assets.
- Good relationships between councils and community groups – the process of transfer is not easy and there will be sticky points. This requires patience and a commitment to learn together. Post transfer, a ‘duty of care’ approach has been adopted by some councils to support community groups. For example, South Tyneside’s Third Sector Strategy has invested in a funding portal to allow community groups to bid for external funding, giving residents the tools they need to develop the assets they now run.
- Evidence of a sustainable business model and financial plan – to provide the confidence that a transfer will be successful in the longer term. This includes initial financing needs, future sources of income, and costs.
What are the challenges?
Many of the barriers are practical, including knowledge, support and capacity. The report includes the following areas of challenge:
- Having the right people, with the right know-how – this includes existing staff/volunteers and the ability to bring in external support where required (especially with project management and legal expertise).
- A realistic assessment of the resources needed and the time taken – an ability to set realistic expectations at the outset around issues and risks. Done properly, asset transfer takes time and does involve ‘red tape’, including waiting for legal advice, quotes for work and condition surveys, negotiating leases, and respecting local authority decision-making processes.
- Focus on social value, rather than just saving money – successful asset transfer isn’t about councils disposing of assets and all the costs that come with them. Making the most of community assets means allowing them to be managed by whichever party is best positioned to do so. If councils can save lots of money then that is great, but any transfer must be based on a robust financial assessment.
- Managing and overcoming legal issues – legal concerns are sometimes seen as a barrier to asset transfer. However, none of the respondents to the calls for evidence cited a lack of statutory powers or councillors’ fiduciary duty as a barrier to transfer. With the right advice, you can overcome most issues if it is in the best interests of the community.
What needs to change?
The report shines a light on the potential benefits of Community Asset Transfer on the wellbeing and prosperity of communities and makes a number of recommendations for central government. These include:
- Use of the Levelling Up Fund and Community Ownership Fund to promote Community Asset Transfer as a strategic priority.
- Funding for the development of guidance, replicable models and model legal documentation to facilitate transfers.
- Strengthening the provisions within the Localism Act (2000) to encourage and support more community ownership of assets.
The future of community asset transfer
As our communities recover from the impact of COVID-19, local government has a vital part to play in building bridges within communities and supporting the process of rebuilding.
Community Asset Transfer is one tool that councils should consider for ensuring effective use of assets. It is hard work but – as the examples and contributions in CCIN’s report show – the rewards can be great.
The aim of this report is to inspire you to think about what is possible. If you haven’t already considered community asset transfer, why not?
Managing Consultant, Mutual Ventures
Mutual Ventures is a consultancy that works with local and central government, NHS organisations and the third sector to make public services better, more sustainable and more connected to communities. Mutual Ventures is proud to be an affiliate member of CCIN. You can get in touch with John about any issue, including opportunities relating to the Community Ownership Fund.