Communities must be equipped with the tools they need to take back control

Joe Fortune

In the Co-operative Party, we understand that widening ownership and increasing community power is central to the post-Covid political settlement. We also know that the current impulses and favoured models of the government in Westminster have not facilitated and will not likely usher in a new community ownership revolution.

It’s a great tribute to those advocating for communities that new community ownership funding is becoming available – they have worked hard to make the case. But to be truly revolutionary and unlock community ownership, I believe that the funding announced today for community pubs and anything that follows tomorrow must come hand in hand with systemic legal and regulatory change, and new political leadership.

Community businesses have been at the forefront of the crisis response, whether community shops offering isolated communities a lifeline when access to supermarkets became difficult, or community pubs repurposing to provide meals to people shielding. Now more than ever, as we shift focus from firefighting to long-term economic recovery, community ownership is critical.

Whether a pub or a post office, we’re clear that communities – not absent landlords and private investors – are best-placed to provide services and lead regeneration of their area. Town centres are the beating hearts of communities, and over the past few months we’ve been meeting with communities across the country who are fed up with empty shops and absent landlords, and who have been taking things into their own hands.

In Dumfries, for example, local residents have been breathing life into the town centre by redeveloping empty high street properties – based on the principles of local wellbeing, not profit. In Plymouth, the volunteers behind Nudge Community Builders have been buying back unloved spaces and buildings and reopening them as community hubs, markets and cafes.

Data from Power to Change shows that there is no shortage of demand: even before this Covid crisis, communities have been clamouring to take back control of their neighbourhoods. The past year has only exacerbated the need. Almost 10,000 licensed premises including pubs, clubs and restaurants closed permanently as they tried to navigate lockdowns, shifting restrictions and last-minute changes.

This should be the perfect moment for communities to step in to reopen and regrow the hospitality sector for the benefit of their community, rather than those pub and club buildings being snapped up at bargain basement prices by private property investors.

Funding certainly is a barrier, and the £150m community ownership fund will help to plug the gap left by the community pub business support programme, which is due to end this month. However, with communities able to bid for £250,000 to save their local, the gap between demand and delivery is wide. Many thousands of pubs could be closing their doors forever during this crisis, yet this fund may only offer hope to a few hundred.

Critically, funding alone will not result in a community ownership revolution. There are other necessary levers that communities need to pull in order to genuinely take back control. First, we hope that any money committed will include revenue and not just capital funding. Buying a building is one thing – but the revenue to get a viable community business off the ground is crucial for this to be meaningful.

Secondly, until a premise is up for sale there is very little a community can do about the empty shop or pub next door. Property ownership in the UK is hugely opaque, and communities need better transparency on who owns our high streets. Only once absent owners can be tracked down can disused properties be coaxed back into productive use. Linked to this, as the Shadow Chancellor set out recently, ’empty shop orders’ would give communities and local councils the power to bring vacant shops back into use.

Thirdly, the government’s new Right to Regenerate is yet another cover for the selloff of public property. Under the guise of community empowerment, this potential new power leaves private property developers and landbankers alone, focusing solely on public land without any criteria established for community benefit. With the UK’s biggest house builders sitting on 600,000 plots of land, which are unused despite having planning permission, the focus must shift from public land to private with genuine community benefit and ownership baked in from the start.

The fourth barrier to community ownership is contained within the Localism Act of 2011. While the act contains important powers for local communities, it needs to be strengthened as the existing regulations and timetables still present many barriers for communities. In particular, it is still a real challenge for them to mobilise quickly enough when a local asset is under threat, especially when the owner of the asset refuses to engage in a constructive dialogue.

The balance of power needs to shift in favour of communities, by extending the protected period within which communities can mobilise, with a further extension where the asset owner refuses to speak to interested groups. And when communities have successfully listed assets, they should be given a ‘first right of refusal’ to purchase the asset, making the right a real ‘right to buy’ – not simply a ‘right to bid’.

Finally, rather than giving with one hand and taking away with the other, the government needs to commit to protecting social investment tax relief (SITR), an important measure that has helped raise millions of pounds for social enterprises and co-operatives looking for the investment they need to grow. This policy provides many in the co-operative and community-owned sector vital investment that they rely on, and it is at risk of being scrapped by the government. Tomorrow’s budget must be used to extend this scheme.

Unleashing community ownership is the right aspiration – but only with these further tools in their arsenal can communities genuinely take back control.

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