Andrew Walker worked with Shared Assets as an intern from March to June 2013. Here he shares his reflections on the experience
“Before my internship at Shared Assets I knew that there was an important role for community groups and social enterprises in public life. I have always thought that participation is vital for democracy and active citizens create a healthy civil society. However, I was less clear on how to make this rather abstract aspiration a reality. But when I started here I discovered a small, committed team who are excited about community engagement, while approaching it in a level-headed and practical way.
What excited me about Shared Assets is the idea of the commons, which underpins all the work it does. This is not a new idea, by any means, but it has a rich history in Britain and around the world. Campaigns for equality, representation, and rights have repeatedly focussed on the commons, fighting back against their enclosure by the rich and powerful.
The enclosure of the British commons, including forced clearances of the Scottish highlands, has become a symbol of the way power and money can dispossess ordinary people of their livelihoods. In the 17th Century Gerard Winstanley led the Diggers up St George’s Hill, in Surrey, to assert their ancient right to work land which was held in common by the community:
Take notice, That England is not a Free People, till the Poor that have no Land, have a free allowance to dig and labour the Commons, and so live as Comfortably as the Landlords that live in their Inclosures.
Far from reinventing the wheel, Shared Assets is committed to campaigning for a commons in the 21st Century by helping communities to manage and use the assets in their local environment.
I find the approach really interesting because it addresses a yawning gap in the public/private debate. It demonstrates that there is more to choose from than just private accumulation on the one hand and the clunking fist of state ownership on the other. The commons approach recognises the shared importance environmental resources and seeks to distribute them accordingly.
But Shared Assets is also grounded in an understanding of planning and organisational governance which provides the all important link between aspiration and practice. They focus on management and what a group can realistically achieve, rather than campaigning exclusively for full ownership. Many groups do not aspire to ownership. They do not want to take on the liabilities and may not have the capacity to assume all the responsibilities. They do want to have a say in the decisions and take part in the management process, however. Being able to participate in the management of the commons means that communities can participate on level which is meaningful to them.
In three months I have spent working with Kate and Mark I have learnt practical ways to engage with groups, to help them develop ideas, and to come up with balanced solutions to the problems they raise. I have discovered the importance of land and the power that accompanies a healthy understanding of planning legislation.
They are embarking on a project that is not only fresh and exciting, but vital. I feel very lucky to have been a part of the Shared Assets journey and I am sure it is headed for some great destinations.”