I suppose Community Asset Transfer is not the sexiest subject in the world around which to convene a conversation, or more accurately a series of small conversations. It’s true also that what I personally knew about asset transfer (community or otherwise) before the last few weeks you could have written on the back of the proverbial postage stamp.
And yet, fitfully both on and off Slugger, there have been some passionate insights and criticism aired around the subject. By the end of Thursday there were some 174 tweets using the #catJRF hashtag, many of them retweets, but also some healthily sceptical comment on the whole concept of the project beyond the hashtag.
Red Rob posed a number of question which beg concrete answers:
Is the Sector in NI ready to accept management and ownership of substantial public assets? What level of support needs to be provided to the Sector to enable it to compete on a level playing field?
How do we change mindsets across a traditionally risk averse public sector, bound by audit and financial constraints?
Will a new policy framework be sufficient to embed asset transfer across central and local government?
Quintin Oliver, Northern Ireland advisor to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation also noted a call for:
…further exploration of the Crown Estate’s estate, as it were, for transfer potential (at which I maybe confused the audience by introducing the diversionary concept of ‘Devo-max’, in respect of the Crown Estate, but that’s another post.
One of our regular commenters FitzJamesHorse has resiled to his own blog and expresses his general misgivings about Slugger’s involvement in creating what he sees as a non debate, on line at least. In general terms though, his particular misgivings might be (not unfairly I hope) summarised by quoting this passage from the blog:
Essentially there are two ways of looking at Capital Assets Transfer. One is not far removed from David Camerons “Big Society” idea…..a conservative model which sees locals providing services (eg libraries) which are at present in the hands of a cash-strapped public sector. The other model is essentially a socialist model which genuinely empowers the working class. From my perspective, I of course identify with the socialist ideal but fear this whole process has been driven by a capitalist agenda.
melegis suggested that this line of argument misses a crucial point:
It is a red herring to conflate community asset transfer with aspects of public sector cuts and Big Society.
Most transfers are small scale and either keep an asset live for community use or bring back into use an unused or closed builing for community use. There is a much greater chance of job creation that job loss.
Asset transfer can be a catlyst for change in communities, bringing local people to the fore and bringing real meaning to a long overused word “empowerment”. It is not about sacking the lollipop person and having someone volunterring to don the yellow coat the next day.
As to the question of why there was no a more permissive regime in Northern Ireland compared to Scotland, Wale and England, there was only one response, from, erm, cynic2:
“why are civil servants so cautious about handing over assets?”
Perhaps because, in Northern Ireland, the Civil Service:
1 is 20 years behind the curve in the rest of the UK
2 isn’t very competent
3 shifts all the responsibility to Ministers who are weak and fearful
Aquifer added a slightly different sceptical tone pointing in the opposite direction:
Since the community is essentially paying to maintain the asset values of private property by donating blood sweat and tears to zombie bankers, maybe we should claw something back by way of taxation on indolence and greed. Sammy’s tax on vacant property is a great start. How do taxes on churches and night clubs compare however?
And it really was the seminar that kicked some of the good stuff off. Micheal Pyner (from whom I hope we’ll hear more in the following week) was pretty clear that the old rules don’t apply any more:
Yet there was some scepticism that any of this is viable, and does anything more than put money into the pockets of intermediaries (aka lawyers):
At the seminar itself, there was some irritation at the slow pace of progress within government. Brendan had earlier made a related point on Slugger:
The problem here is that the mechanisms that could help such as disposing of assets at ‘below best value’, community right to buy and specific investment programmes to purchase and refurbish buildings are not available in Northern Ireland. The Social Investment Fund could make a meaningful contribution to developing this and give asset transfer a real boost.
And if you are still with the majority of vocal Slugger readers and are still wondering what asset transfer is all about, there’s some good insight in this video:
You can pick all Community Asset Transfer threads here. All are welcome to participate, either sending us a short blog piece, or using the #catjrf hashtag on Twitter. Or just ping an email to: email@example.com
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty