Thursday’s seminar on community asset transfer at Farset International was well attended by anyone with an interest in the subject and rightly so; there were fascinating insights from the speakers from Locality, good examples of asset transfer in practice from the Housing Executive and a presentation by Dr Brendan Murtagh of the findings of the Queen’s research with sound, practical recommendations for the future. All this, together with good exchange and questions from the floor, provided the bones of a much needed framework for action for both government and the sector.
The energy and enthusiasm for the subject were summed up in the opening remarks of Michael Pyner from Locality and Chair of Development Trusts Association NI when he said ‘the more you can give people a stake, a sense of belonging, the more you develop their ability to take what’s theirs and move forward…there’s nothing like having a vested interest.’
Steve Wyler (CE of Locality) perhaps provided the most useful analysis of the steps undertaken and progress made to date in England. Their recent wins included:
- introduction of ‘less than market value’ legislation;
- reviewed Treasury guidance that disallows local authorities from insisting on immediate payback from group’s profits;
- ‘community right to bid’ legislation – an English hyrbid of Scottish right to buy measures;
- establishment of the community builders programme;
- opening of the Asset Transfer Unit (which is run by Locality with support from government); and
- introduction of the ‘meanwhile assets’ concept wherein empty properties are used for something/anything in the meanwhile and which can often result in further action/asset transfer down the line.
Overall there are about 1,000 attempts at asset transfer across England at present. An impressive figure but as Steve said:
‘This isn’t easy work. It takes a lot of time and persistence. You need passion and stamina as this is almost always fraught with difficulties and you need people with business acumen and other valuable skills, but they are there, even in the poorest communities.’
Brendan Murtagh focused on the three key things needed here: 1) enabling legislation along the lines of community right to buy which, while alone is not the answer, within an enhanced policy framework will send out the right message; 2) investment in the skills and knowledge needed by the sector including ways of sharing information; and 3) introduction of appropriate finance/patient capital to encourage creativity and freedom in the overall process.
Elma Newberry (NIHE) described the Executive’s self image as a ‘wholesaler’ or enabler for communities and how the transfer of assets to communities can often help build cohesion and heal division in otherwise fractured and segregated spaces. While positive about the AT experience locally (and the six interesting examples she described) she did recognise the need for continued support for groups and how at times revenue funding is required to keep projects going. She also emphasised the importance of business planning and upskilling within the sector.
Mick Fealty rounded off proceedings by describing this as a new paradigm and asking how the conversations could be kept going; how the stories could be shared. He suggested that the internet and forums like Slugger were the obvious and best choice.
Summing up Quintin Oliver (Stratagem) called for a top ten list of actions/things that we need. These included:
- New best value guidance for local authorities on simplified procurement and commissioning procedures;
- DTNI to take the lead on bringing together independent funders to see what action they need;
- Sharing and hosting of information either through JRF or DTNI;
- Coherence among key players (NICVA, RCN, Building Change Trust, etc) with a view to making a co-ordinated response/presentation to government about what needs to happen next;
- Adequate support and training for the sector in the form of coaching and mentoring;
- Provision of information to the sector on the public sector trawl of assets identified for disposal;
- Establishment of an at risk register of public buildings;
- Examination of future markets and how the AT landscape will change and grow in 10-20 years – will communities start landbanking for example;
- A realisation by the sector that it can compete at the top, at the highest level and not to shy away from that in future.
All in all an interesting morning with tangible outcomes and actions that if followed will indeed move the local asset transfer agenda forward and help ensure a more level playing field for communities. They in turn will feel more empowered and supported to undertake meaningful projects that while challenging and risky will have sustainablilty and success right at their very core.