In StalyBridge we saw two local boating lakes taken over by the community and reopened to provide activities for local youth, as well as becoming an opportunity for informal upskilling and job readiness.
In Sheffield, Westfield Big Local got a crucial asset transfer of a 25 year lease on a community centre. This was the only community space left in the neighbourhood – even the GP surgery had closed down. At first they were intimidated by the transfer negotiation process, but were able to get some support from a lawyer, and soon realised the local authority also lacked practical expertise in the process – in the end it was a learning journey for everyone.
“I think it ended up being a learning process for everyone. Because we learnt the process together we came together in a new way.”- Westfield Big Local
Some community organisations do not have capacity or desire to put resource to the ongoing management of an asset, and good partnership working can also ensure regeneration and maintenance of a space without necessarily taking on ownership or a long lease. In Northampton, Growing Together Big Local were able to protect a number of green spaces from development with their Neighbourhood Development Plan. In Chatham, in Arches Big Local area a number of regular groups have turned their local park into a well-used asset, but kept their involvement informal.
Most of the community organisations we spoke to who had taken on an asset saw it as a way of providing a stable base income for their organisation once the Big Local funding has finished. This can build community resourcefulness, but these projects do need a good business model and a dedicated group of people behind them, especially at early stages.
The flexibility and long-term nature of the Big Local programme is a great support to their development, and could be seen as an experiment in participatory budgeting. In my opinion how you give money is almost as important as the amount given, although the hefty £1 million sum was reported by some to be useful in changing power dynamics in their local area and getting groups a ’seat at the table’. I wonder what other ways to enable these ’seats’ exist? Progressive procurement or innovation partnerships may offer some possibility. In some places, communities are clearly seeing owning land and assets as a way to maintain that local influence.
As we ride out the permanent restructuring taking place under the name of ‘austerity’ it’s crucial that local people are enabled to step into the place-keeper role they are well suited to. Someone who plans to be in a community for 20 or even 50 years may have a longer-term lense when making decisions than a business-person pursuing profit, or even local politicians driven by electoral cycles. Communities empowered to enact their own bottom-up version of regeneration look to add value in every way. Sites are not passively managed but actively become opportunities for creating employment, providing training or tackling obesity and mental health.
Over the next two years, we will be providing business and organisational support to Big Local areas developing land or asset-based initiatives. We are excited to continue watching and supporting the development of innovative community-led collaboration, space regeneration and enterprise development. We are sure many inspirational innovations and ‘possibility models’ for collective self-organisation will emerge.