While citizen involvement has become an election buzzword, local groups are left railing against the reality.
A warm, sunny Sunday in April brings the season’s first sunbathers on to the shingled beaches of Hastings, in East Sussex. A perfect day, too, for promenading on the pier – or it would be if it hadn’t been closed for four years as a health hazard to the public.
Hastings pier, owned since 2000 by Panama-based property company Ravenclaw, is a potent symbol of community decline. Behind its barred gates, the shops lie empty and the attractions are boarded up. It needs at least £2m in structural repairs after successive owners have let its pillars and trusses decay.
Citizen involvement is a main plank in the political parties’ election campaigns, with the Conservatives promising a community right-to-buy as part of its plans for a big society. This would give groups the first right of refusal on assets – such as parks and libraries – sold off by public agencies. Labour, meanwhile, can point to the Advancing Assets for Communities programme, a series of pilot schemes designed to transfer local assets to community groups.
But the fight by the Hastings Pier and White Rock Trust (HPWRT) to take control of their local amenity is a salutory lesson in how difficult community ownership can be in practice.
Angela Davis, an HPWRT trustee, says it has been “three years of battle” to get the Conservative-run borough council to back the idea of handing over the pier to the community group, using a compulsory purchase order. The group believes that a rejuvenated pier – with a traders’ market, bars and shops – would help Hastings to reverse falling visitor numbers and regenerate the town.
It has taken seven months for the group to get a £75,000 grant, from the government’s Community Builders programme, for a feasibility study of its proposals.
“You do need business acumen within a community group,” says Davis, pointing out that her fellow trustees include the manager of a local shopping centre and a hotel owner. If all goes well, she plans to ask Community Builders for the £2m needed to restore the front section of the pier, and the Heritage Lottery Fund for at least another £2m to tackle the rest.
The other big obstacle is time – or lack of it. Davis, a former business and IT consultant, has the financial security to work unpaid for over 50 hours a week, but points out that, for most people, “life is difficult enough earning a living, raising a family, and so on” without trying to take over the local library or community centre.
A recent report by the Asset Transfer Unit (ATU), the government-funded arm of the Development Trusts Association, reveals that only 11 of the 75 pilots launched in April 2007 to transfer local assets to community groups have been successful, with a further 15 nearly completed.
The little-used Sneyd Green community hall in Stoke-on-Trent is one success story. Taken over and transformed by the local community association, it is now fully booked for events months in advance. Another success is in South Gloucestershire, where a local group is now running Winterbourne Medieval Barn and using it to host community events and education programmes.
However, the ATU’s report identifies problems on both sides. Many councils are risk averse, and are unwilling to invest the time, energy and money needed. Some have “confrontational” relationships with community groups, or are seeking to offload only assets damaged beyond repair. On the other side, many community groups “require significant time and in-depth support”, especially where they have little or no experience of running assets.
The report says it is too early to say if those problems are greater in deprived communities, where most pilots take place, but it admits that the subject “may well merit further investigation”.
In particular, groups need “unfettered investment capital” – something that may be harder to find in poorer areas. The bottom line, the report says, is that asset transfers can take, on average, five years from first contact.
Back in Hastings, Davis remains optimistic that, if all goes well, her group could have control of the pier by the end of the year. But, given the obstacles they have faced, she says that to expect hundreds of other local groups to follow their lead is “very much an ideal”.
First published in The Guardian