Whose community is this? Asset transfer and community ownership

Oliver Henman was Head of Partnerships & International at NCVO, and blogged about civil society around the world. Oliver left NCVO in July 2014 but his posts have been kept here for reference.

Over the past year we’ve been looking at models for transferring ownership of local services and assets to community organisations. This is a changing landscape and with the support of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation we have identified some emerging themes.

The scale of this transfer is still relatively limited, but where it does work there is a real demand and appetite for fuller involvement. Many of the projects seem to rely on a few highly committed people  who act as volunteers and they may need support to develop their skills in areas like business planning, legal requirements and governance. Without these core skills there is a real risk that asset transfer will remain very limited in its scope.

We will be running a session at Evolve to identify how to support volunteers to step forward in the delivery of public services – ‘Understanding the new public service commissioning environment and volunteer’s place within it

What do we mean by ownership of assets?

The concept of ownership by the community itself is hard to define. In this project we mainly considered projects centred on a physical asset like a library in Walthamstow (The Mill), a community bakery in Liverpool (Homebaked) and a parent-owned cooperative nursery in Lambeth (Childpsace).We also considered groups that enable a sense of joint ownership over an area.

Local context and identity

The scale of community ownership is still relatively small. This is in part due to the importance of local context to the delivery of services. Many of the most successful transfers, such as in North Deal in Kent, are based on long-term community engagement rooted in trusted relationships. Many of these partnerships are not interested in ‘scaling up’ their work to other areas of the country but instead focus on a deep long-term involvement in one particular area.

These locally rooted partnerships are often looking for meaningful relationships with local authorities, alongside small scale contracts and support for core administrative operations. In many cases the level of finance is not the greatest barrier but rather a need for better relationships with local decision-makers and accessible funding on a long-term basis. The report found that without this connection community champions can often face months of waiting for answers to vital questions.

Governance and model of organisation

Connected to the question of ownership is the model of organisation and governance. Some of the projects we identified chose to register as charities, such as Bold Vision, whereas others were registered as Community Interest Companies (CICs) such as the Marches Access Point. In some cases the role of the Board is essential but others had developed more informal ways of enabling local citizens’ voices to be included, such as through regular open meetings within the community centre.

However in all the projects there was a major focus on enabling community representatives to engage, set priorities and ultimately take decisions on the asset. This level of engagement can be very demanding and therefore requires support to understand the legal requirements of becoming a trustee or joint owner and identifying the appropriate legal form. Volunteers also reported difficulties in balancing their time on community projects with paid work and family commitments. Further support and accessible information on business skills and legal formats is essential  if quality standards are to be maintained.

Leadership and partnership

The final key aspect of the research is the major role played by a few engaged individuals in driving forward the transfer and delivery of a service. In some cases, such as the Didsbury Dinners and community gardens, one individual is responsible for developing and designing the project with the involvement of local residents; in other cases, such as the Longmeadow Tenants & Residents Association, there has been a collaborative process with a range of volunteers over a number of years.

The underlying challenge is to ensure the right balance between leadership by committed individuals and a transparent decision-making process that is open to all members of a community. This requires skilful project management and ability to facilitate quite complex shared interests.

At the same time, the other central issue is managing expectations on the part of a local commissioner. A number of our case studies highlighted that volunteer leadership is not always taken seriously by local authorities. Continued support for commissioners is therefore essential  to develop their awareness of engagement with volunteers and voluntary bodies.

Read the full report

This is an area of growing interest for our members and we believe support for the development of community assets is vital:

download the full report (PDF, 890KB)

download the research paper (PDF, 1MB).

Find out more

There is some useful information available on the Locality website and we would also be keen to hear your views.

Join us at Evolve 2014

Why not join us to continue this conversation at our session at Evolve ‘The role of volunteers in the new public service commissioning environment

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