Our thoughts on the Protecting Community Assets Inquiry Interim Report from our Head of Government Affairs, Georgie Holmes-Skelton
What’s your favourite place near to where you live? I live in Reading, and mine is the Abbey ruins. Nestled between the river Kennet and Forbury Gardens with its famous lion statue, this is the site of the medieval Reading Abbey, built at the order of Henry I.
It’s completely ruined, but with huge sections of stonework still standing, and walking around you can get a really wonderful sense of the grandeur and scale of what was once one of the largest monasteries in Europe. Recently refurbished and reopened, it’s a fabulous place to explore. It’s also really well used, providing a space for community events and activities such as live music and theatre, historical tours and educational activities.
There are all kinds of reasons that places are special to different people, but research shows that this connection is real and makes a difference to our health and wellbeing. The link between place and community is particularly important, and the buildings and spaces where we come together to work, play, learn and relax can play a key role in our lives – whether that be a football stadium, pub, library, swimming pool or museum. These places are assets for the community, and when they are lost, there can be real impact on both individuals and the community as a whole.
But looking after these places and keeping them open to the community can be a challenge.
I’ve written previously about the Trust’s research into urban heritage, and its findings about the problems facing urban historic buildings. Many of our findings could apply similarly to the wide range of places which are primarily aimed at serving the community – whether the building itself be historic or not, in both town and countryside. They all require money and expertise to maintain and run, and community organisations and Trusts that are set up to try to manage these places can struggle to access the funding and support they need to be around for the long run. At the same time local authorities are under a lot of financial pressure, and as a result many community assets are facing closure, sale to private developers or otherwise uncertain futures.
By way of illustration of the challenges, think for a moment about the skills you might need to create a local campaign and fundraise to successfully save a building. You need to be able to communicate, to spread your word in local news and on social media, convince people to join your cause. You need to be persistent and persuasive, and reach out to key stakeholders to make your case. All extremely important and useful skills for any organisation.
However, once the building has been secured the capabilities needed to keep it running and generate income can be quite different. You now need to be able to write a business case or a detailed funding application, and understand how to balance operating costs against income. You’ll need to employ and manage staff and volunteers, and perhaps project-manage a restoration effort, or put in place a long-term maintenance plan. These are all specialist skills, and while some community campaigners will have experience in these areas, many others will not. Being able to grow capability and access support can make all the difference.
The National Trust has been supporting the Protecting Community Assets Inquiry which has been looking at the challenges for communities that want to protect assets, and this week published its interim report. Its findings are stark – a fifth of existing community assets could be at risk of falling out of community hands unless steps are taken by funders, government and community organisations to protect the community interest in them. It notes recent high-profile losses despite strong community campaigns to try to save them – Hadlow Tower in 2015, and both Hastings Pier and Unity Hall Wakefield in 2017.
The report sets out a range of proposals aimed at improving the situation, with points for funders and finance providers, central and local government, and community groups to consider alongside specific new ideas for ways that communities could be helped to protect their places. These ideas include new pots of funding and principles that could be applied to help funders direct money to have the most impact, approaches for registering community assets and offering protection for community interests during sale or insolvency, and ways to share research, learning, support and good practice between those involved in community assets, and help people build the skills they need.
The National Trust will continue to work with the Inquiry as it develops these ideas further. We’re also looking at what more we can do directly to help communities look after their historic buildings and assets. While organisations such as ours may be able to intervene in some cases and either offer support or take them on to keep them open, it’s not feasible for us to do so in every case – and nor is it our role to do so. Making it viable for communities themselves to take over key assets – or enabling them to protect the community interest when they do change hands – would ensure that people can have a real say, and be able to protect the places that make a difference to their lives.
What’s most important is the recognition that places mean something. Whether that be for historic, cultural or community value, or simply because of the personal connections and memories they spark for people. People should be able to have a say in the future of the buildings and built environment around them, and we want to help find ways to help this to happen.