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GUEST BLOG: Thinking about taking on an asset?
By Steve Browning (Big Lottery Fund)
Encouraging communities to take over assets has become a central feature of the government’s Big Society agenda, as the launch of the Community Ownership and Management of Assets Grant Programme demonstrates.
What that programme rightly does is to highlight the importance of feasibility studies and of ensuring that groups are ready to take on ambitious, but often challenging projects.
That’s in line with Big Lottery Fund’s experience of developing and running asset transfer and capital development programmes. Indeed, our Scottish Land Fund was the first big grants programme in the UK devoted to asset transfer. It showed much of the potential and enthusiasm in communities for taking charge of buildings or land that could help give them more control over their future. Entire communities (often backed by international supporters) took on a whole range of projects, many of which successfully established new businesses and attracted visitors and residents to what had been declining rural communities.
One factor in the success of those projects was arguably the fact that community bonds and identity in isolated rural areas were already very strong, and that the potential benefits were much clearer.
But things aren’t always that clear-cut. The evaluation of our Village SOS programme (which you may have seen on BBC1 last year) has suggested that the most commercially viable projects tend to focus on business and attracting visitors rather than prioritising other social and community needs. It’s a tricky balance.
So while many communities are likely to be attracted to and enthusiastic about what taking on assets can offer them – and the rewards can be great – the reality is that doing this is a daunting challenge that will test all those involved to the limit. Capital projects can take a long time, demand a lot of money and expert input, and can by their nature easily exclude resident input and control.
But perhaps most importantly, they are not an end in themselves – the real benefits come from using a new or improved facility. Many groups have frankly worn themselves out by the time that the facility is available, and as our experience suggests, that’s the real start of the journey. Those new facilities need to attract users, but they also have to charge them. The costs of running and maintaining buildings may be higher and more complex than many groups realise, and again many of the most sustainable projects tend to adopt strict businesslike approaches that may conflict with what many in the wider community had hoped for.
BIG has funded and evaluated many capital projects. What strikes us is how often evaluations come up with very similar findings about some of these dilemmas. As a result, we’ve produced a two-page document to highlight some of the fundamental points that any community group considering a capital project should think about. I certainly don’t want to dampen ambition, but hope to encourage people to consider the wider consequences from the outset.
I hope that you’ll find these points (and Big Lottery Fund’s wider learning in this area) useful, and I would be very happy to offer further thoughts or to help put you in touch with projects that we’ve funded to help you learn more – just drop me an e-mail – firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is a guest blog by Steve Browning, Policy and Learning Adviser (Research) Big Lottery Fund.
Big Local Trust was established by the Big Lottery Fund with a National Lottery grant of £196,873,499.