Work needed if councils are to hand over assets

Work needed if councils are to hand over assets
Jamie Carpenter, Regeneration & Renewal

Third sector leaders gathered at the Victorian property on a cobbled street in Hillsborough – which had been handed to a community organisation by Sheffield City Council 12 years previously – to hear the conclusions of the study.

The review by Barry Quirk, chief executive of the London Borough of Lewisham, said there were ‘no substantive impediments to asset transfer to community groups’. It set out a vision of a society in which community asset ownership had become the norm. The then communities secretary Ruth Kelly accepted its recommendations in full.

Two years on, research from public services watchdog the Audit Commission suggests that the Quirk review has not had the impact that Kelly would have liked. Nearly half of the 80 councils surveyed in the study said that the review had raised awareness of asset transfer, but only one local authority said that it had led to a ‘marked increase’ in the transfer of its property to community organisations. The watchdog pointed out that some councils are already active in transferring their assets to community groups. But it found that 31 per cent had not transferred any assets to community groups in the past five years.

So why – as the watchdog’s report states – does it appear unlikely that the Quirk review will lead to a radical change in the way town halls manage their assets? The single biggest barrier to community asset transfer cited by councils was a perceived lack of capacity among community organisations to manage assets. Ministers have put a number of measures in place – including a new Asset Transfer Unit – to help community bodies develop such capacity. But more radical steps may be needed if more assets are to be placed under community control.

The Quirk review examined the potential of introducing a Scottish-style community right to buy in England, giving community organisations the chance to register an interest in a particular asset and then get first refusal to buy it if it comes up for sale. In the end, it ruled the proposal out. However, it said that this decision may need to be revisited ‘in the light of experience following the implementation of the review’s recommendations’. Given the Audit Commission’s findings, it may be time for ministers to examine the idea again