Community spaces: central to our national renewal

March 23, 2021   By Nick Plumb, Power to Change

The Community Ownership Fund announced in the budget is designed to help communities buy local assets. Power to Change’s Nick Plumb looks at the difference that community ownership can make and how to make the new fund a success.

Across the country, community spaces are being lost. This was apparent before the pandemic and will likely be one of the consequences of the economic shock in the coming months.

At the Budget Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a £150m Community Ownership Fund – something that the community sector has been campaigning for some time. It will help communities “buy or take over local community assets at risk of being lost, to run as community-owned businesses.”

This commitment is something to be celebrated, but its success will depend on getting the details right. From our experience, this means giving communities flexibility to use grants to develop their ideas and making sure matched funding rules don’t lock out deprived areas.

The power on your doorstep

Saving a space from long-term dereliction or sale so often acts as a catalyst for community action. At Power to Change, we’ve seen it time and time again through our work with community businesses:

In each case, this has led to a positive cycle of neighbourhood renewal.

Radcliffe Market Hall

This month we published Community business: The power on your doorstep, our latest impact report. It estimates that there are 6,300 community owned buildings in England and shows how Power to Change funding has helped community businesses raise an additional £19m to keep local assets in community hands.

We need to learn from these successes, especially with economic challenges on the horizon. The decline many of our high streets have suffered in recent years has been accelerated by the pandemic.

We have lost, and will lose more, important small businesses on our local high streets, which will join the list of high-profile casualties like Debenhams and Arcadia Group.

Communities and local people have the most invested in their places. Local government can play a huge role in helping communities to regenerate their areas by supporting community ownership – through long low-cost lets and giving communities time to raise the funds to purchase buildings.

Community ownership is a ready-made solution to rising vacancy, but it needs to be supported to flourish.

The two things that will determine if the Community Ownership Fund succeeds

The details of this support matter. Based on our experience of grant-giving, at Power to Change we think there are two elements of the government’s Community Ownership Fund that will determine its success.

First – it is vital that grants made available to communities are flexible.

As well as investing in bricks and mortar, communities need help with smaller grants to think through whether their business idea has legs or to assess the technical feasibility of their aspirations.

The fund should also set aside a proportion of the funding for contingency support. Without this sort of practical support, the fund is unlikely to have the impact we (or government) would hope.

Second – we need flexibility in requirements for matched funding.

Many community ownership funds require matched funding, i.e. ‘for every pound given by the scheme, so much money must be contributed from another source’.

Our evidence shows that investment in community ownership does help bring in funding from other sources including crowdfunding, Community Shares, local government, and charitable funders. The extra £19m raised by communities following our funding is a testament to this.

However, we’ve also learnt through our Community Business Fund that the ability to leverage further funding varies hugely according to the type of asset and, importantly, according to levels of deprivation in the local area.

That doesn’t mean community ownership can’t work in poorer parts of the country. The demand is there. Community facilities and places to meet were identified as top priorities in a poll of 225 ‘left behind’ areas in England, above even funding for job opportunities and tackling unemployment. (Survation and Local Trust polling, October 2020)

If the Community Ownership Fund wants to help meet this demand, support these communities and truly ‘level up’ the country, then it must have flexibility in matched funding rules that takes account of local circumstances.

Jubilee Pool in Penzance

As government works through the details of the fund in the coming weeks and months, we won’t stop making this case.

Nick Plumb is Policy Manager at Power to Change.

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