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August 15, 2012

Challenges of community ownership

The Big Lottery has just released an in-depth evaluation of its major community investment programme – Growing Community Assets. The report tries to get to grips with what really happens when communities take control of an asset.  The good news is that the report’s findings are overwhelmingly positive. The not so good news (although no surprise) is that taking on assets also throws up significant challenges. Interesting reflections on this from a community on Skye with long experience of asset ownership.


West Highland Free Press, 8th August 2012

An in-depth evaluation of various community-owned ventures — from the purchase of large estates in the Highlands and Islands, to village shops and even some urban facilities — has found that in an overwhelming number of cases they provide tangible benefits to local residents and users.

However, the report also makes clear that there are some major issues still to be overcome if the principle of community ownership is to be continued and extended.

The Big Lottery, through its Growing Community Assets fund, has been a major source of finance for a whole range of community enterprises since 2006. In terms of the high-profile community land buy-outs, they have been the main backers along with the Scottish Government, through the Land Reform Act. They have also supported various community buy-outs of shops.

But, of course, it all needs to be evaluated and a report has now been published which focuses on work in the third phase of a five-year programme which runs till next year.

First of all the headline findings on a positive note. A total of 32,000 Scots use facilities assisted by the GCA fund; the fund has safeguarded 269 full-time jobs and a further 206 part-time; 66 per cent of people would not have access to such facilities without GCA funding; and 65 per cent of users have made new friends or social contacts as a result, particularly the elderly.

All very positive and welcome — but it’s only a part of the story. There is also a need to continue to find “new blood” and new members, and only 12 per cent of people wanted to actually run the projects. As the report put it: “Community asset ownership requires long-term commitment that can be hard to sustain.”

Jackie Killeen, the Scotland Director of the Big Lottery Fund, commented: “This evaluation is adding to our understanding of what can be achieved when a group of people in a local area take control of and develop their own local assets.

“Sometimes they are stepping in to plug the gap when a local service faces closure, or stepping up when an opportunity to acquire an asset arises, and we can now see the quality of what they can do in and for their communities.”

One of the various projects to benefit from the GCA fund was the community purchase of a petrol station, garage and post office near Armadale pier in Sleat in south Skye. It has been one of the undoubted success stories.

Duncan MacInnes, who chairs Sleat Community Trading — a subsidiary of the Sleat Community Trust, of which he was a founding member — agreed with at least some of what is contained in the report.

“Certainly there are challenges and certainly there are benefits,” he said of their own venture. “Interestingly, though, Sleat Community Trust has always been remarkably well supported in terms of people who signed up to be members. It’s something like 80 per cent of the adults in the community.

“It’s been like that right from the start and if we had known it was going to be like that we might have asked them to contribute to the pot because one of the challenges is getting enough capital for community investment.”

He added: “On the whole we have never found difficulty in getting people to help and we seem to have quite a good mixture of people joining and staying for their allotted term of three years, but also a turnover, so we don’t have the issue that other societies have in that they’re run by one person for years and it never moves forward.”

One thing that Mr MacInnes is very clear about is that without the community being energised to come forward and take over the facilities they would probably have been lost.

“Who knows what would have happened to the filling station and the garage,” he said. “It might have been taken over by another garage owner and developed, but our general feeling was that nobody in the private sector in their right mind would have continued to sell petrol, so that would have been lost anyway.

“But it might well have disappeared altogether and been developed for holiday houses. But the outcome at the moment is that we have a petrol station, we have a post office and a thriving garage space leased out to a local mechanic who’s just about to open up for MOTs. Whatever else might have happened, it wouldn’t have been as good as what we have now.”

BUT IT’S NOT always such plain sailing. The report makes it clear that community ownership comes with very distinct challenges.

“Awareness of community ownership is not always as high as might be expected among users,” the report states. “It tends to be higher among rural projects where the project is well known, rather than in urban ones, perhaps because visitors are primarily using a service rather than interested in its ownership. It is certainly something that a number of projects have been anxious about and the use of community engagement officers and efforts to raise profile have been common.

“The survey also supports the view that while people are very supportive of community ownership it does not necessarily mean that they want to be involved. They want community ownership but are happy for others to deliver it. This may reflect satisfaction with what is being done and a sense that if they want to influence it, they can. Or it could just indicate an unwillingness to take on responsibilities.”

And in a remote setting, where people tend to have more of an emotional investment in local projects, the attitude can turn into downright hostility, as some of the community buy-outs are now experiencing.

“In rural areas, there can be distrust and scepticism towards those involved in the project who are from outside the community,” the report said. “In some cases project managers from outside the community can find it difficult to gain the trust of locals.”

There were also difficulties reported where the presence of a community body had threatened existing businesses.

However, the report added: “It should be noted that in all cases where difficulties were reported, a resolution had been reached. Project managers felt that problems could be overcome as long as there were clear channels of communication and all project plans were very open and transparent.

“For example, one rural community facility had plans to develop an extensive cafe but a local restaurateur had objections, as they felt that community cafe would negatively impact on their revenue and footfall. In this case, the community group reached a resolution by agreeing opening hours and menu offer.”

The truth is there may always be an element of resentment by some in the community, even if the general consensus is one of widespread support. It could simply be that a community landlord is a more accessible target than an anonymous private one. Or it may just be a case of expecting too much too soon.

“Ownership of an asset – whether it is a large tract of land or a small village hall – can be a liability if it comes to be a drain on resources rather than a generator of income,” the report states in its conclusion.

“The ability to generate a sustainable income is crucial not only to the success of a project, but also to the extent of community empowerment that follows. For example, although one community buy-out had led to huge pride within the community and enormous goodwill amongst external stakeholders, the group now struggles to maintain the interest and involvement of community members.

“The confidence and self-belief that the original buy-out engendered have somewhat dissipated and it is taking time for the GCA investment (in a sub-project) to lead to real results. The ongoing challenges in keeping the community engaged have been linked to the fact that they have not yet secured a source of major revenue generation. Income would allow for investment in community projects, which in turn would spark renewed vigour in the community.”

While the report has certainly given an airing to a number of issues which do need to be recognised and addressed, the overall tone is still overwhelmingly positive. That will provide real hope that the GCA — or whatever its equivalent might be — will continue in future years. There is a lot more still to be done.