About a year ago, I sat in an east London pub with Mark Walton, Lorraine Hart and Ben Metz plotting the launch of a new organisation, aimed at transforming the relationship between asset owners, communities and society. We weren’t sure whether we could fund its start up, but we could see there was a need, and collectively – with generous encouragement from Tudor Trust committed to having a go at making it work. Looking back now, participating in the launch of Shared Assets already feels like one of the most important things I’ve done during 2012.
The last twelve months have not had many highlights, otherwise. Communities across the country are facing challenging times, and the evidence is they are going to get worse. As a nation, our economy has stalled and shows no evidence of recovering quickly. Living standards have at best flatlined over the last ten years. Our biggest trading partner – Europe – remains itself mired in economic and political instability. The ability of the state to continue to finance services at levels we have become used to is no longer a given. And sources of patient funding for new social enterprises are nowhere near as available as the fag-end of Big Society rhetoric would pretend. Launching a new organisation against that sort of background requires real belief that you are doing the right thing.
But we felt the need for an organisation like Shared Assets was critical. Kickstarting growth in a moribund economy will require more than announcements of government backing for a few large scale infrastructure schemes. If we are to return to a path of economic activity, innovation and growth it will require mass mobilisation on a scale not seen in over sixty years. The responsibility lies with us all – shifting from a culture and economy dependent on government and corporate finance-driven growth to one that takes individual and community responsibility for generating economic activity and tackling unmet community need. And at the heart of it will need to be a mobilisation of under-used economic assets across the country – people, resources, places. And it is here that Shared Assets hopes to make a difference.
At a neighbourhood level, many of our deprived communities contain significant unexploited and/or inefficiently deployed economic assets – places to work, gather, organise and under-utilised human resources. Where buildings and spaces stand empty they contribute nothing (generating GDP only through security guard employment, if that); and their under-utilisation further destabilises communities, reducing the likelihood of future economic activity and diminishing existing social capital. A key contributor to generating new growth will be to focus on bringing these resources back into use by and for our communities. We can start to build economic growth through embracing this sort of mass localism.
This isn’t – and can’t be – about old-style large scale funding pots, traditional approaches to regeneration or the usual mechanisms for business support. It will require a scale of intervention which is massive, but at a micro level: myriads of people operating at a local level bringing resources back into use, sometimes on a temporary basis, and seeking – always – to deliver multiple benefits in terms of economic, social and environmental pay-offs. This scale of intervention goes beyond what can be directed by national or local government – their role should not be to organise but to empower – it is a growth strategy which is micro-localist in nature.
To achieve it we need to create an the environment in which we can mainstream meanwhile and self help type approaches, and championing the now as opposed to the long term. Asset transfer is fine for the right assets in the right places, but more important is the bringing of resources into use by communities who will quite rightly be more focused on impact, viability and cashflows than long term ownership. Where every nook and cranny of the existing urban and rural fabric is put to positive social and economic use.
Shared Assets seeks to make its difference by working with major landowners – both public and private sector – to help them play their part in that new story of community-led growth. It aims to help identify where existing assets are under-utilised, and develop models that help to harness them to deliver new economic activity and wider social impact. It is a critically important agenda – particularly now – and one we’re committed to and incredibly excited about taking on.
Matt is Chair of Shared Assets and CEO of HACT