As we explore the signs of a new economy, I’m reminded that co-operation in the UK has always been about communities of people coming together to support one another to get the things they need, whether food, housing, or access to education or learning. And there are all sorts of situations where local communities are coming to together to do just that.

Governments are fond of intervening in neighbourhoods and pretending they invented community action, whether referring to it as “localism” (the favoured term of the coalition), “neighbourhood renewal” (the Blair government’s agenda) or even Mrs Thatcher proclaiming that there was a “big job to do in some of those inner cities” in 1987. The reality is communities have consistently sought to build their own resilience, to take ownership of their own destiny, entirely independently of loudly trumpeted government proclamations.

For example, local communities have been creating and taking control of assets (or seeking to do so) for hundreds of years. Communities have been developing their own housing solutions, places of learning and places to meet and have never really stopped doing any of these things, despite a near universal narrative of state provision after 1948. More recently, there has been a sense that this community ownership of assets and services has been increasing, just as (and sometimes in response to) public ownership and provision are reducing in the face of austerity.

Whereas after the Quirk review in 2007, typically we would see one building or asset transfer to one local group, we now regularly see local Councils wanting to transfer all their community centres, or all their leisure facilities, out to a new provider. And whilst we would urge a careful approach (to avoid the downloading of liabilities), there are inspiring examples of communities succeeding in transforming run-down buildings and bringing them back into full and constructive use (Assets case studies « Locality).

Communities – particularly rural communities – are taking ownership of shops in their towns and villages. Where a traditional, profit-led model is no longer viable, communities are stepping in to own and manage their own solution, using volunteer time and labour to make the shop work. At the end of 2014, there were 325 community shops trading across the country, up from 270 at the end of 2011. There has been a surge of interest in communities managing pubs, and a number of community share issues have successfully raised finance as part of this.

Community-led housing is increasing in profile, and efforts are being led by the Building and Social Housing Foundation to coordinate activity across a “rainbow” sector of housing co-operatives, community land trusts, co-housing and other networks. One outcome of this was the recent work on a proposed definition of community led housing, partly in response to the extension of the “right to buy” to housing association properties (click here)

Local communities have also been involved in community-owned energy production (though some recent announcements from Government haven’t helped), in meeting need through food banks, in running cafés and gift shops and waste recycling services … the list is probably not quite endless but it is considerable.

There is also significant community and co-operative activity around libraries. Whilst there remains a statutory duty on county and unitary councils to provide library services, the funding for this is increasingly under threat. As a result, a number of local communities have taken over the management of individual libraries (including Manor House Development Trust in Hackney, click here and Fresh Horizons in Deighton click here). A small number of councils have gone further and have “spun out” their library services into multi-constituency owned mutuals, including Suffolk Libraries and Explore in the city of York, to allow library organisations more flexibility in making savings and generating new revenue.

At this point some will take issue and say that if the public sector were being properly funded, local communities wouldn’t have to do any of these things. The reality is that state-led, top-down service provision has not shown itself to be without flaws. And it’s no bad thing if citizenship becomes important again.

There is a different, broader narrative about local communities taking control, people actively participating in their own neighbourhoods, and developing solutions that are flexible, locally-owned and managed. Community organising is starting to take root in some of the communities where it was practised during the recent programme; at the Selby Trust in north London, they report numerous new projects that have come out of the listening work.

Some of what is happening may well be born of necessity, but there is also a strong sense of the relationship between local community and state changing, as the state rolls back. In the Scottish referendum and, indeed, in the energy around the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, there is an impatience with solutions perceived as being imposed from Westminster, and a desire for local determination and local ownership.

None of this is easy. Forms of organisation and ownership will differ; we will argue, undoubtedly, about what governance is “co-operative” in nature and what isn’t (we’re very good at that). But within all this activity there are the seeds of an economy that could be locally-accountable, locally-owned and managed; where money, energy and time are used for the benefit of the places where people live.

For more information

Please contact  David Alcock

This article was first published on The Co-op news website and is article one in a series of four articles written by Anthony Collins Solicitors.  To read the others please click on the links below:

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