News and Comment

Putting public assets back in community hands

Friday 3 February 2012

This is the latest in a series of posts in anticipation of new research from OPM about what local government can do to unlock local capacity. To find out more about the free evening seminar on Tuesday 21 February where the research will be launched, click here.

Reading the news this week about the Circle Partnership’s takeover of Hinchingbrooke Hospital in Cambridgeshire it’s understandable that people might conclude that where a service is struggling the only viable alternative to public sector management is a solution involving significant private sector input. But in some cases community ownership can be the best answer.

Take the Battersea Arts Centre, for instance. A little while ago I was sitting there helping to facilitate an event about the future of health services in South West London. The venue had a ‘shabby chic’ feel to it and a cat (Pluto – on the staff list as Head of Security, Sleeping and Prowling) who strutted about checking everyone out. But I wondered if I was the only person at the event who was aware of the great transformation that had taken place there?

The Battersea Arts Centre is a shining example of how local people can take over the management of a public asset and not only save a service from possible closure, but also improve it. The building has been threatened with closure many times in its long history, but finally it seems to have found a sustainable future. Since taking over the asset the Centre has broadened its range of projects and seen an increasing number of visitors.

Wandsworth Borough Council never wanted to close the building, but in a time of financial constraints was struggling to see a future for it. Through discussions and guidance from Asset Transfer Unit a new vision for the future was mapped out. In short, a five year programme was developed which would see the council transfer this asset on a 125 year lease to the local community. The first 10 years of this lease will be rent free, but from then on rent reviews will happen every 10 years.

The Battersea Arts Centre is just one of many asset transfers that have happened. The Glendale Gateway Trust in Northumberland is another inspiring example of what local people can achieve and how acquiring one asset can be the first of several. In 1996 a village appraisal identified the need for a community resource centre. A derelict building was transferred from Berwick Borough Council on a long lease and £750,000 raised for converting the building. Next the Trust developed a Youth Drop-In Centre by taking on a building which was owned by a defunct charity.

Other activities of the Trust have included buying properties on Wooler High Street to convert into shops to rent out to local businesses with affordable rented flats above. It has also purchased land and built 15 affordable homes, and purchased a youth hostel in Wooler with the idea that visitors will spend money in local businesses. The Trust now holds £1.4 million in assets, generates £143k annually in income from these, and employs 7 staff.

If anyone reading this is still thinking about Pluto, I can tell you that the Battersea Arts Centre also has a dog on its staff, Charlie the Dog whose job is Part Time Theatre-Dog. What greater incentive do you need to visit?