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The Missing Link in the Localism Act?

Mark Walton
An  new ‘Community Right to Manage’ is required in order to deliver effective localism.

The Decentralisation and Localism Act sets out three new ‘community rights’ which aim to enable the process of decentralisation.

Shared Assets believe that an additional new ‘community right’ is required in order to deliver really effective localism. We believe that a ‘Community Right to Manage’ has the potential to reconnect communities with their environment and support sustainable economic development.

The key new ‘rights’ set out in the Bill provide exciting new opportunities for communities. They are described by government as follows:

  • Community Right to Challenge – giving communities a right of challenge to run local authority services
  • Community Right to Bid – giving community organisations greater opportunity to identify and bid for assets of value to them, from which they can deliver existing or new services
  • Community Right to Build – giving local communities the power to take forward development in their area without the need to apply for planning permission

We believe that the process of decentralisation would be further supported by an additional new ‘community right’:

A Community Right to Manage would enable communities to propose new management arrangements for environmental assets (or functions) currently held or delivered by government, or indeed by private or charitable institutions.

For example, Britain’s waterways are being ‘externalised’ by the Coalition Government and will shortly come under the management of a newly established charity, the Canal and River Trust. However transferring ownership and management to the charitable sector, whilst effective at shrinking the state, does little in itself to deliver decentralisation. Indeed it risks simply outsourcing the previous centralising tendencies of the state, creating a new ‘big beast’ within the charitable sector.

Of course more ‘localist’ approaches, enabling communities to own or manage aspects of a national asset, risk fragmentation and variable quality of delivery. There are also valid concerns that communities do not have the capacity, the resources or the desire to take on the myriad new roles expected of them by government – or at the very least that these are unevenly distributed.

A new ‘community right to manage’ could provide a mechanism for moving from ‘central’ to ‘local’ leadership, without fragmenting ownership or compromising robust governance.

Where a community organisation or social enterprise comes forward with a proposal to manage an asset, such as a canal or woodland, it would have the right to enter into negotiation with the asset holder.

It would need to be able to demonstrate that it had the skills and capacity to meet all relevant legal requirements as well as standards for management set out by the asset holder. Furthermore it would have to show that it was able to effectively manage and enhance the asset whilst delivering social, economic and environmental benefits to the local community. These negotiations would form the basis for a ‘licence to manage’ with a formal agreement to lease the assets over a number of years.

There would be an expectation that the arrangement would deliver cost savings to the asset holder. Where significant financial benefits would arise from the lease e.g. from trading activity, energy generation etc., it would be reasonable for the asset holder to negotiate a revenue sharing arrangement with the community.

At Shared Assets we believe that such a ‘presumption in favour of community management’ would effectively facilitate a process of true localism. It could provide local communities with access to the resources they need to create jobs and build sustainable local economies, whilst improving the quality of the their environment and ensuring robust governance and protection for nationally significant assets.

A version of this post was first published on the popSE! website in May 2011

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