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Pop ups, policy bubbles, and think tanks

Mark Walton

Our Director Mark Walton looks back on the conversation five years ago that led to the creation of Shared Assets, and the ongoing tension between changing culture, practice and policy when you’re making land work for everyone.

Five years ago today a small group of people gathered in an ex Subway sandwich shop on London’s Exmouth Market. The empty shop had been converted into POPse!, the world’s first pop-up social enterprise think tank, and the meeting was to discuss a proposal for a “community right to manage”. I didn’t realise it at the time, but this conversation would lead directly to the creation of Shared Assets.

It was 2011, the Coalition Government had recently withdrawn its plans to sell off the public forest estate following a massive public outcry, but it remained committed to establishing a new charitable body to manage the nation’s canals. The future ownership of other public environmental assets such as parks and nature reserves looked uncertain. Meanwhile the Localism Bill was passing through Parliament, proposing a suite of new “community rights”.

Over the previous nine months I had been working on The Waterways Project, looking at the potential for greater social enterprise and community management of Britain’s canals. We had identified that our waterways, like other environmental assets, were not being managed in ways that delivered benefits to the communities that lived on and around them. But how could we change that? The new provisions of the Localism Bill didn’t seem to offer much in the way of solutions, giving communities only limited opportunities to seek to purchase land and buildings, and to challenge local authorities to run local services themselves.

Our solution was to propose a “community right to manage” and POPse!, with it’s focus on “exploding policy bubbles” and its promise of “constructive critique and opportunities to collaborate on new solutions”, seemed a perfect place to test out the idea.

Seven people joined me that afternoon including representatives from Keep Britain Tidy, the National Trust, Locality, Hill Holt Wood and the Department for Communities and Local Government. Our discussion quickly highlighted the problems of seeking legislative change. Instead it focused on the need to develop a narrative of “environmental localism” and to change the culture and practice of landowners in order to create a “presumption in favour” of managing land for public benefit. It also highlighted for need for “a shared resource, or coalition, to undertake research, share learning, provide critical analysis and peer support” to create “greater understanding of the policy and practice of localism in relation to environmental assets”.

Five years later and that’s a pretty good description of what Shared Assets does. When we started out we were mainly providing business support for land based social enterprises managing woodlands, parks, waterways and farmland, to create sustainable livelihoods and better places. Soon we were also working with local authorities and other land owners across the country to help them manage their land for the common good. Critically though it didn’t take long before we found that the landowners and practitioners we were working with faced policy issues that needed to be addressed, and so we secured funding from Esmée Fairbairn Foundation to develop our policy work.

Perhaps there is only so far you can get changing cultures and practice after all…

These days we consider ourselves a “think and do tank”, learning from research and practice, and applying that learning to influence policy, and to improve our own practice and that of the people we work with. We were pleased to be described recently by one of the organisations we work with as a “think tank for the grassroots”.

Five years on from that fateful conversation at POPse!, and as we start business planning for Shared Assets’ next five years, the tension between advocacy, policy and practice remains a source of regular, and creative, debate as we strive to make land work for everyone. But we’ve certainly come a long way since we sat bursting policy bubbles in a repurposed sandwich shop on a sunny May afternoon in 2011.

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