Why looking back could be the best way of looking forward

Why looking back could be the best way of looking forward
Joseph Rowntree Foundation

A backdrop of global upheaval set the scene for a series of seminars on community assets. Julian Dobson reports from the launch event.

If there was something slightly apocalyptic about the first of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s seminars on community assets, it wasn’t out of place. Placing today’s challenges within the sweep of history only emphasises their scale.

So it didn’t seem incongruous for Will Hutton, chair of the Commission on Ownership, to quote Deng Xiaoping’s 1991 speech announcing the death of international communism – and to suggest that private markets were going through a similar upheaval, expressed in the 2008 financial crisis. A different way was needed, he argued.

As a backdrop to the launch of a historical review of community and mutual ownership, it might sound lurid. But such global shifts are important in understanding how we came to be where we are.

The review (Community and mutual ownership), published last week by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and undertaken by Tom Woodin and colleagues at the Institute of Education, found five models of shared ownership over the last 2,000 years.

These began with the loose collectivism of early societies, and progressed to the communal approaches of mediaeval times. They exploded with a plethora of cooperatives and friendly societies, and the burgeoning of charitable institutions, in response to the rise of capitalism. They shifted again with the advent of municipal and state control in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – followed by privatisation and a retreat from the view of the state as guardian of the public good.

Fascinating, you might say – but what about now? What about the coalition government’s vision of passing public assets to community and voluntary organisations and its vision of a ‘big society’?

The first point worth noting is the loss of faith in state and municipal ownership as a way of holding land and assets for the common good. This underpins both the ‘Big Society’ school of thought and the rise of community and mutual ownership locally.

The second is that a sense of perspective is invaluable. New models of ownership, occupying the gaps between the individual and the state, have emerged over centuries and are far from inevitable.

The venue that hosted the event told its own story. Coin Street Community Builders is a jewel in the crown of community ownership. It has a brand new neighbourhood centre, runs four housing co-ops and numerous local services, has created a riverside park and has helped turn London’s South Bank into a buzzing tourist destination.

It would be tempting for a fledgling community enterprise or visiting government minister to say, ‘I want one of those’. But Coin Street has taken 30 years to become what it is today. You can’t build the skills and know-how and contacts and understanding of what works overnight.

As Stephen Thake, adviser to the JRF’s community assets programme, pointed out, the current urgency in considering different forms of ownership follows a 30-year renaissance of community action.

Such action needs time to succeed – and protection from the caprices of policy-making. As Dr Thake put it: ‘History tells us that those in power have not protected the interests of co-ops and mutuals. We cannot take the ability of the community sector to thrive for granted. I think this needs to be written into the constitution – a bill of rights for the community sector so it can thrive in the 21st century.’

Over the next year JRF will host five more seminars exploring the future for community assets. They promise to be lively – and timely.