Protecting social infrastructure
Author: Grace Newcombe |
Physical assets act as centres in community life – be they local businesses, commons or high streets serving as economic or social anchors. Individually or collectively, these assets are hubs providing vital social infrastructure to support their local communities. Local Delivery looks at how communities have adapted and protected their social infrastructure in the face of an often hostile and ever-shifting political-economic landscape.
Globalisation – the UK’s economic, social, cultural and political interdependence and interconnectedness with other parts of the world – has for many communities resulted in a decline in local businesses and amenities. At the same time, a decade of austerity in local government funding has led to discretionary assets such as parks, libraries and museums have often ended up sold or in disrepair. In the face of permanent closure, communities have often united to raise money to save pivotal local assets of social value.
Not only has the number of community-owned hubs increased over the past decade, they have also diversified away from the classic social roles of parks or community centres and toward more innovative varieties, as a response to specific area need. The report provides some case study examples of communities and councils working together to reclaim, protect and invest in social infrastructure, as well as providing some recommendations for how both central government and local authorities can make the process easier and more equitable for.
National government must set the conditions for community institutions to increase capacity and give them the ability to take on devolved power, responsibilities and resources. When first introduced, the Localism Act 2011 was pioneering, the catalyst for devolution of powers from central government to communities. As progressive legislation, while there has been a marked success, there is much to be improved upon. Current issues that arose in the research for this report worthy of a considered policy response can be split into recommendations to central and local government, many of which are based around advancing the principles established in the 2011 Act.
Local government policy
There must be more consistency across the local government sector in recognising the importance of local social infrastructure. Local government can also play a key role in fostering a network of community organisations, groups and hubs where resources and knowledge can be shared locally. To strengthen and enhance the hyper-local resilience fostered by community hubs, councils should have an active community assets register taking stock of physical assets, hub spaces and community enterprises.
Social investment should come in the form of low-cost loans from local authorities as part of ‘co-investment’.
- This retains the local authority stake in asset management whilst allowing for community control.
- ‘Payback’ for loans should encompass non-financial capital benefits such as health and wellbeing dividends of park management.
- There are instances where the benefits can only be measured over time – for instance health impacts of access needs to be measured in conjucntion with local primary care health services.
Local authorities should promote investment in community groups as a positive factor in the evaluation of social value elements when awarding public contracts.
Central government policy
Secured and core funding should be made more readily available by central government for community bids. This could include:
- Ring fencing funds from national bodies such as the National Lottery Community Fund.
- Extra support and resources should be allocated for community organisations in less affluent areas.
- Eliminating benefit cuts for people who volunteer locally on a regular basis.
Community Asset Transfer should be redesigned with more stringent recognition of liabilites taken on by community groups.
- Councils should be required to hand over buildings in good condition to ensure security of tenure or provide a reduction in the transfer cost to the community to cover liability costs.
Central government should establish a fund to provide access to pre-feasibility and feasibility funding (early-stage development funding), rather than funding provided once there is more certainty in the project.
The six-month moratorium in selling an asset which is currently allowed to the community under Right to Bid should be extended to 12 months.
Provision of parks and open spaces alongside support for ‘friends of’ groups should be a statutory requirement for councils.
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