Event report: Community Assets – a Holyrood policy event on the Community Empowerment Act

Written by Jenni Davidson on 9 February 2016 in Inside Politics

Efforts continue to empower communities to do their own thing

“Nothing more rapidly induces panic in my finance director colleagues than the idea you’d have to hand an asset over to somebody else,” said Colin Mair of the Improvement Service, as he set the scene for a day exploring some of the practicalities of implementing the community assets section of the Community Empowerment Act, which is expected to come into force in September.

Nicky Donald of the Community Ownership Support Service opened the first session with a look at success factors, challenges and good practice in the asset transfer process.

“I think there is a lot of fear both within communities, but also within agencies, about how this can all work and I just wanted to show you that it does work, that it has worked and it will work,” she said.

The Community Ownership Support Service (COSS) has been working with local authorities and other public bodies to help them put asset transfer policies in place. Owning an asset is one way of empowering a community, she said, but the key question is whether the need for it exists, since community groups have often wanted to take over buildings that are about to be shut down.

The basis for a community takeover has to be more than just “a sentimental desire to keep that building open,” she said. “It’s about identifying needs.”

Jean Waddie, policy officer in the Scottish Government’s community empowerment team, highlighted what ministers aim to achieve through the Act. “People and communities actually know best what works for them and for their area and we need to draw on that to solve the problems that we haven’t managed to solve in the past,” she said.

While local authorities already have the ability to transfer assets, the Act “shifts the balance of power in favour of communities”, she added.

“The Community Empowerment Act as a whole sends a message out to the public sector and says that trusting communities and empowering them to do their own thing is the right thing to do – this is the way we expect the public sector in Scotland to be working,” said Waddie.

Eric Samuel, senior policy and learning manager at the Big Lottery Fund, then outlined the funding and support offered to community buyouts by the Big Lottery Fund over the last 15 years, which led into the second session looking at three different case studies demonstrating good practice and how the asset transfer could work.

Asset transfer was introduced by East Ayrshire Council as part of a wide-ranging transformation in how it works with communities. While the initial focus was to reduce their assets by 25 per cent from a list of 81 facilities, this has changed. “It’s become not about that list any more, it’s become about driving change in our communities,” said Katie Kelly, head of housing and communities with the council. She also highlighted that their involvement doesn’t end with the transfer process.

“We don’t walk away at the end, we’re in it for the long haul, because this won’t work if we just hand the keys over and walk away,” she said.

Delegates heard about two ongoing community projects: the Crags, a sports hall in Edinburgh that was closed by Edinburgh Leisure in 2010, and is now run as a community facility by Simon Turner, basketball coach turned chief exec; and a former steelworks in Tayport that is about to be transformed into a community-run sports centre, which development manager Dan Rous said would address “hidden need” in the town for employment, training and sports facilities.

Rounding off the day, Sam Cassels, Scottish Futures Trust’s strategic design adviser, looked at barriers to progress and ways to move forward, challenging public sector bodies to collaborate more and think differently about strategic outcomes.

“When you go to a town, it’s not about what are we going to shut, what are we going to rationalise, what are we going to sell off; it’s about what do we need and what’s the best way to deploy these resources to get the shared outcomes we want,” he said. The key question to ask is “what does it mean for someone in this place?”

He advocated an inclusive ‘one public sector’ approach to strategic asset management, working together to achieve multiple outcomes. “How can the way we work with the police achieve some better health outcome over here, how can the way we work with this learning institution achieve this economic benefit over here?” he asked.

“It’s not enough to achieve all the outcomes we said we were going to achieve. That’s necessary but not sufficient. We’ve also got to look at how we can help someone else down the road who’s got a different set of outcomes.”

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