There is now an opportunity to change how local areas are organised
COVID-19 has rocked local public services and communities to their core.
Councils, the NHS and the voluntary and community sector have responded by moving faster in two months than in the last decade. They are working together to draw in communities and neighbourhoods in a true spirit of co-operation and togetherness.
Local areas now need to think about what comes next and how they ‘recover’ and ‘reset’ as we emerge from the crisis. This thinking needs to happen now or there is a risk we end up back where we started with no positive dividend from this terrible pandemic.
There is an opportunity to change how local areas are organised for the better and for good. I have previously written on the idea of ‘Family Hubs’ - many councils are establishing community hubs in response to COVID-19. Another timely idea that featured in the government’s manifesto is around encouraging and supporting communities to take over ownership of local assets and services. As communities have responded to the crisis with overwhelming generosity and co-operation, government and councils can recognise and reward that effort by showing more trust in local people.
Let’s look at this in more detail.
Last year’s government manifesto read: ‘We will establish a £150 million Community Ownership Fund to encourage local takeovers of civic organisations or community assets that are under threat – local football clubs, but also pubs or post offices.’
This pledge was designed to reinvigorate ‘left behind’ communities and towns. And there is plenty of evidence about the positive impact of community ownership both for the community itself and the economy. Power to Change estimate that there are more than 6,300 community owned assets, contributing £220m to local economies every year. Research by Plunkett Foundation shows that community owned shops tend to be more robust than traditional privately owned enterprises, with a 94% success rate versus 46% for average small businesses.
Like it or not, this links back to the 2010 manifesto ‘Big Society’ theme and the principle that people want to be a part of their community and can usually come up with better solutions to local challenges than a distant government. In my view this was (and still is) an excellent governing philosophy. The response of communities to COVID-19 has demonstrated this to be true.
There are some excellent existing examples of where community ownership has worked well. Community shops tend to evolve into community hubs. Nearly 60% host post offices, nearly half have cafes and 20% are co-located with other community buildings.
Here are a couple of examples of other community owned assets.
The Dog Inn at Belthorn (near Blackburn) is a community owned pub. Over the years, the village had lost over 10 pubs, a shop, tearoom, chip shop, newsagent and community centre. In 2015, the residents of Belthorn took the decision to stop the rot and take on the running of The Dog Inn. They co-located the amenities that had disappeared and work is also underway on a community garden and allotments beside the pub.
The Linskill Centre in North Shields (originally build as a school and latterly used as a community centre) was taken over in 2006 by local community organisation Linskill and North Tyneside Community Development Trust. It is now a thriving hub and financially sustainable through hosting 54 groups weekly for classes etc. as well as 20 permanent tenants who hire the affordable spaces within the centre.
This is exciting in itself but this agenda shouldn’t stop at community assets. It should also look at local public services where appropriate and safe. This would build on the success of the exciting local organisations created by the Government’s Mutual Support Programme for services. There are a whole range of fantastic examples of libraries, arts, culture and youth services which would not have survived remaining in the public sector and have now ‘spun out’ into entrepreneurial and sustainable mutuals, often co-owned by staff and communities (e.g. York Explore, Libraries Unlimited in Devon, Dorset Arts Development Company, and Devon Space Youth Service). In all these cases, a precursor to success is a strong vision and business plan.
These mutuals ensure libraries, arts and cultural organisations remain an important part of the public service ‘furniture’. There are obvious public services (like defence or elements of national transport infrastructure) where national delivery is appropriate - but as a rule of thumb I think responsibility for assets and services should be devolved to the lowest appropriate level. As we all look to pull together and emerge from this crisis, this would be both just reward for communities and an operationally sensible approach.
Andrew Laird is managing director of Mutual Ventures