Charities and community groups can apply for grants from a new government programme to take over local assets such as pubs, theatres and parks.
The first round of the government’s Community Ownership Fund (COF) opened to applications last week and will close on 13 August. It will distribute £150m in the next four years.
Charities can bid for grants of up to £50,000 in revenue funding, and the government will match fund up to £250,000 in capital costs.
The fund is one part of the government’s levelling up strategy, which aims to target funding at parts of the UK previously overlooked for investment.
However, sector experts warned that the design of the fund meant that charities in the poorest parts of the country risked losing out on grants, and urged the government to rethink its approach in future rounds.
In a statement published alongside the details of the COF, Robert Jenrick, the secretary of state for housing, communities and local government, said: “Whether it’s the pub on the high street that’s facing closure, a village shop or a local sports team that might lose its ground – this is an opportunity for groups to take them over and to run them as businesses by the community for the community.”
Charities will also be able to apply for funds to run local assets like post offices, galleries and cinemas.
Groups will have to prove that an asset is likely to be lost to the local area if the community does not intervene, and that local people will use it if it is taken over. Applicants will also have to show how the asset will be sustainable in the long term once it moves into community ownership.
‘Real risk’ that poorest communities will miss out
Ed Wallis, director of policy and engagement at Locality, said: “We have long campaigned for a Community Ownership Fund. It’s a fantastic opportunity to protect much loved places and spaces, build community capacity, improve local economies and support community wellbeing.
“However, we know from our experience supporting community organisations to save spaces and own buildings that the details matter. So the design of the fund is vital in ensuring its effectiveness in levelling up.”
Wallis warned that the first round of funding “is focused on very tight timescales and eligibility criteria. While we hope there will be opportunities for some, many of our members will find themselves ineligible to bid and will be disappointed.
“This means many projects in disadvantaged areas that would have the biggest impact will not be able to access much needed funds. So we’ll be working with government to improve future rounds – to make sure the Community Ownership Fund makes the most of its transformative potential.
“In particular, the onerous requirements for community groups to find new match funding as part of their proposals is a big barrier for many communities to take on ambitious projects. There is a real risk the funding will exclude communities in need, as it will only be affluent areas who can raise enough cash to access the funds.
“To achieve its levelling up goals, future rounds need to make sure the COF benefits the people and places that need it most, rather than just seeking to support ‘shovel ready’ projects that can put together a fully costed bid in the next month”.
Vidhya Alakeson, chief executive of the community business funder Power to Change, said: “Taking on land and buildings comes with unique challenges, so it’s great to see revenue funding to support communities with the process of taking them on.
“With the first bidding round opening today, and only lasting four weeks, we’re likely to see oven-ready projects such as pubs and shops, being taken into community ownership in the first instance.
“The match funding requirements will create barriers for more disadvantaged communities, who are often less able to raise capital. Therefore, we urge government to review this after the first bidding round and adopt a more flexible approach. Ensuring money reaches places with lower levels of community asset ownership should be central to the levelling up agenda.
“As we’ve seen during the pandemic, community businesses have time and again proven resilient. So I’m delighted to see government’s acknowledgement that successful community-owned spaces need viable community businesses underpinning them.”
NPC: Government must help build sector capacity
Dan Corry, chief executive of the charity think tank NPC, said: “The COF should have a good chance of making an impact. It’s good to see a focus on evidencing community benefit and using data to target need.
“However, we’re not seeing enough to actively encourage applications from places where civil society has become so eroded that applications are less likely to be forthcoming.
“We hope the government pays attention to where applications are coming from and how this relates to deprivation. The government should consider dedicated capacity building support in future funding rounds.”