It is heartening to read in the advance "trailers" for tomorrow's budget of the Community Ownership Fund, which we understand will set aside £150m into which community groups will be able to bid, for grants of up to £250k to take over local community assets including pubs, local shops, post offices or even theatres.
Community ownership of local assets has an honourable history, and has been promoted by governments of both parties since the 2007 Quirke Review confirmed that community ownership is a) feasible within the current rules, and b) often beneficial in terms of the long term future of such buildings. Bodies like Locality, Power to Change, and others have built up a strong bank of support and information to assist groups thinking about taking over local assets.
There are many fantastic examples of buildings given a new lease of life by community ownership. Personal favourites include Stretford Hall because it's a great example, and also because we helped; Jubilee Pool in Penzance just because it's amazing; and closer to home, Perry Common Hall in Kingstanding, run by the incomparable Witton Lodge Community Association.
However, community organisations should think carefully before taking on their local swimming pool, community café or even the pub. If a commercial business or the local authority has tried (and probably failed) to run the facility at enough of a surplus to keep it going, then this pretty much guarantees that a community group will find it a challenge too. Stripping out the profit motive and relying on volunteers doesn't fix the leaking roof, nor does it get punters through the door. A robust business planning process is absolutely necessary, to show that enough of a surplus can be built up that when repairs are required they can be paid for. Advice on the terms of the transfer is key; it's no good getting a long lease and then discovering that you can't secure any borrowing because of the terms (as happened to a group we advised). Community goodwill is great, but it only gets you so far with the bank manager...
There is much that is good here, and if the announcement is confirmed it will be something to celebrate. But before you make plans, make sure that you have a long hard think first. The Protecting Community Assets enquiry came into being because too many community buildings were going bust, and suggests some safeguards that we and others are continuing to explore.
I'm a believer in community ownership and community enterprise; I've spent much of my career promoting it and advising about it. But I also know it can fail, sometimes preventably. Don't let that happen to you.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak is expected to announce a £150m pot ($208m) in the upcoming budget that will allow communities to take over not just their local pubs but also sports club and theatres that have been hit hard by the pandemic.