During the public consultation on the Localism Bill I campaigned with others for the inclusion of a “community right to manage” to sit alongside the proposed rights to bid, challenge and build. The “right to manage” sought to provide communities with a mechanism to negotiate access to publicly owned green spaces, woodlands and waterways in order to manage them for public benefit.
At one campaign meeting a senior civil servant questioned why we were lobbying for a new right. Given the unpredictability of what would emerge from the legislative process he suggested that it might be more effective to work with landowners to change their practice.
Having established Shared Assets to do just that we are now finding that many local authorities and public bodies are actively looking at how they can engage local community enterprises in the management of their woodlands and green spaces. The main driver for this shift is not legislation but austerity. As the attempt to sell off the forestry estate demonstrated, the public do not want to see these assets sold off or transferred to new owners. However, as the squeeze tightens, public bodies are seeking new ways to manage them at lower cost, and in ways that deliver new social and economic outcomes.
Over the coming months and years we will increasingly see our publicly owned woodlands and green spaces being managed by community enterprises. These organisations are likely to integrate other public services such as health, education and training into their business models, and supply sustainable sources of timber, wood fuel or food to local communities. For them the new publically available local authority asset registers are perhaps more important than any of the new community rights, enabling them to see which areas of land might be available for community management.
Whilst shared management can bring mutual benefits the move towards more local control of environmental assets also raises issues.
Community enterprises, especially new or small organisations, are not on an equal footing with private contractors. The procurement process often bundles green space and woodland management into a wider environmental services contract that can be difficult to disaggregate or sub contract. It also fails to recognise the diverse range of activities that may be required in the future to make the management of these local assets viable. Community management of a local woodland or green space is not simply about a challenge to deliver an existing service better, it is about a different vision for the benefits the asset can deliver and its relationship to the local community. Greater flexibility in the way services are procured will be required if a thousand local flowers are going to bloom.
Changes to the way our local environment is managed raise great passions and need careful brokerage and facilitation. It is important that localism is not seen as simply as a way for the state, locally or nationally, to withdraw in the face of the current financial crisis expecting others to fill the void. Like many other approaches to localism, greater local management of environmental assets will require the development of a partnership between public agencies and community enterprises who are willing to share risks as well as knowledge. This is an active and enabling role for the state in developing new ways of working and creating shared value.
Finally of course there is the question of money. The establishment of new local organisations, or growing existing ones to take a more active role, does not come cost free. The capacity-building funds associated with the new community rights are welcome and there are new social investment mechanisms emerging, but it can be hard for new organisations developing new business models to access the right kind of money at the right time and the right price.
At Shared Assets our experience tells us that even without a “community right to manage” there are public landowners opening up their environmental assets to new forms of shared management with local community enterprises. The barriers are often cultural and procedural rather than legal, and a bit of flexibility, openness and imagination can enable new local solutions to emerge.
One year on from the Bill becoming an Act, whilst welcoming the new rights, I am still unsure of the extent that they, rather than political will, imagination and entrepreneurialism, are the key to delivering localism.