Tony Armstrong: Why charities and funders must step up to help save community spaces

19 Jun 2018 Voices

On the launch of Locality's campaign to Save our Spaces, its chief executive urges charities to think about how they could get more involved.

Against impossible seeming odds, in local communities across the country, ordinary people are making a big difference in the face of major trends and shifts in society. One of the most important and inspiring stories right now is how local people are coming together to Save our Spaces. 

For almost a decade now, the UK has been living under the shadow of a grinding austerity programme. Local authorities have borne the brunt of this – and if the early years saw some sensible efficiencies being made, by now the cuts have gone deep into many of the things that really matter to people. 

At Locality, we’ve repeatedly heard from our members that local swimming pools, community centres, parks and libraries are disappearing. These are the bedrock of community life; the crucial spaces where people take their children, walk their dogs, get to know their neighbours and access vital support. Under pressure from spending cuts, many local authorities have been either unable to keep these places running or have been tempted to sell them off for a quick profit.

Over 4,000 buildings sold off every year

We’ve heard countless tales of celebrated public buildings being taken over by coffee chains or turned into luxury flats. But with no official figures published, it’s been difficult to get a clear sense of the overall scale of the sell-off that’s spreading round the country.

So we submitted a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to all 353 councils in England to try and gain a clearer picture of what we know is happening in many of our communities. What we’ve found is startling. 

More than 4,000 buildings and spaces are being sold off every year. To give a sense of just how big this number is, there are 951 Starbucks in England. So while Starbucks feels ubiquitous, we’ve discovered that the local public sector is consistently selling off four times their number, every single year. 

But despite the scale of the challenge, local people are fighting back. They are coming together across the country to save these spaces, by taking them into community ownership. These groups – usually small charities and community organisations - are committed to protecting them as a vital hub in their community and a space to offer services for the whole community. And they are doing this with little or no help from anywhere else – with just the power of community on their side.  

One example is Byrne Avenue Baths in Merseyside. Located in an area of high social deprivation, local people have come together to form the Byrne Avenue Trust and save this 1930s swimming pool. The council has agreed to transfer ownership to the Trust, which aims to restore and re-open the building as a thriving community space and sports centre offering opportunity to everyone in the community, while preserving the history and heritage of the Baths.  
They hope to have dance, Zumba and Tai Chi at the Baths, as well as a wide range of activities and sports including football, netball and badminton. It will also be available for use by community groups. The Trust hopes to run a time bank, which would see people volunteering their time to help with the running of the building in exchange for activity sessions or refreshments in its cafe. The aim to create a truly inclusive community space. 
Jane Richards, coordinator of the Byrne Avenue Baths project, said: “I’m Birkenhead born and bred and I love these baths. I used them as a child and they hold wonderful memories. They’re well-built and beautiful.  I got involved in this project because I wanted to give something back. This area is hugely neglected with high unemployment, social deprivation but a real sense of community and buoyancy.  There’s a real need for something in this area and the baths provide this.  
“There will be opportunities for jobs, volunteering and work experience; sports and health activities giving local people the opportunity of a healthier lifestyle within their own area; along with social events to help reduce social isolation for all ages, including older residents.” 

Community heroes need support

At Locality, we want to see these community heroes properly supported and rebalance the odds in the community’s favour when decisions are being made about our public estate.

So we’re calling for central government to kickstart a new Community Ownership Fund to enable communities to take ownership of local buildings and spaces. If government leads the way, we believe this can create to a co-ordinated pot of £200m per year, bringing together contributions from a range of funders and also drawing in new sources of ‘dormant assets’ - unclaimed pensions, insurance, stocks and shares – that have been identified.

We’re also calling on local authorities to put strategies in place to consider potential community benefit, rather than simply thinking about short-term profit. Our FOI revealed a worrying lack of foresight and long-term planning, with fewer than half of councils (41 per cent ) currently having a strategy to support community ownership.

Margaret Mead’s famous quotes encourages us to “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” We see this at Locality every day, with many hundreds of local community groups stepping up and fighting for community ownership. But they urgently need support and help with start-up costs if they are to compete with the commercial developers. 

That’s why we need central government, funders and local government to work together to give our communities a helping hand. 

Charities play a vital role

And it’s why we need as many people as possible to support our ‘Save our Spaces’ campaign. Charities play a vital role in protecting these spaces - they are the ones that usually step in and take on community ownership. Their governance means they meet the criteria for councils to transfer ownership - they have community needs at the heart. And we know that for those local community organisations that take on these spaces it can mean greater financial sustainability and capacity to adapt to an ever changing funding environment. And these spaces offer vital hubs for local people that they exist to support.  

That's why we are asking the charity sector to consider the opportunity of taking on community ownership of an asset under threat. Locality is here to advise and support you.  

Be part of the campaign to protect our public buildings and spaces. For all of us. Forever. To find out more or support the campaign visit our website.  

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