The network of community development trusts that represent rural and urban communities across the islands of Britain and Ireland have a shared interest in community ownership; that is, the acquisition of land or buildings that support a collective purpose – usually delivery of public services.
For community development trusts the accumulation of property assets is not primarily about profit. Assets are about supporting and meeting the needs of people and place, to fulfil several connected social purposes, including contributing to the social economy and the physical environment of neighbourhoods.
When we talk about community ownership in NI, we are still largely focused on the right to own or acquire surplus public assets, normally via the NI Executives Community Asset Transfer (CAT) policy framework. However, the net beneficiary of the disposal of public assets in NI is still the private sector and the preference of the public sector is to receive the cash value for its property. Though the CAT policy was designed to provide an alternative route map to advance community interest, it remains a challenging process and it bears a strong resemblance to disposal under market conditions.
Moreover, the ownership of public assets transferred to the voluntary community & social enterprise (VCSE) sector are subject to clawback conditions, so that if a social purpose organisation goes under, its assets are either transferred to like organisations or to a public body such as local government.
Across the UK, a fire sale of public assets is occurring, these deals being snapped up, largely, by the private sector. Localityand the Cooperative Group are campaigning to save publicly owned buildings and spaces from being sold off for private use, putting buildings and spaces back at the heart of the community to protect them for future generations.
A Community Rights Act for Northern Ireland.
So why would an NI Community Rights Act secure the community right to own: do we not already have a right to own by purchasing assets under market conditions? And, as far as participation is concerned, is that not already accounted for in the new community planning process?
In part the answer to both is yes. Communities can own and can participate, and they are guided by a common approach, but the approach is open to the interpretation of those with the authority to enact it. And therein lies the problem: it is one of authority and in whose hands it resides. People and communities are furthest from the seat of decision making; their potential to participate lies in the hands of others, diminishing the power of their voice.
In his book, New Enclosure Brett Christophers states:
“It is called ‘public land’ not because ‘the public’ necessarily has a right to access and use it, but because the public – via the state that represents it – ultimately owns it. And the public, at least in a democracy, therefore in principle has the power – again, through the apparatus of the government it elects – to shape how this land is used. If the government disposes of public land, it disposes of the public power associated with it.”
Therefore, the community right to own confers authority to citizens to shape how assets are used to meet local needs and to challenge the actions and decision making of public bodies in their management of public assets and delivery of public services.
The Ownership of Process.
Ownership should mean the active participation of citizens and community voices in the planning, design and delivery of public services. Participation should extend to the right to challenge how public assets and services are delivered. So, there is a continuum of rights from participating, to challenging and onwards towards ownership.
The community right to bid i.e. to nominate public assets as buildings of community interest (Localism Act 2011, England), or to present proposals to access non-surplus assets, is outside of the CAT framework. Notwithstanding this, community development trusts and the wider VCSE sector should be afforded the opportunity to present reasoned business plans to use public assets where the case for enhanced public service can be demonstrated.
It is surely time for the debate on ownership in NI to move beyond surplus public assets and give wider thought to those that are privately owned, for example where private ownership is an obstacle to regeneration and public good. Scotland & England present us with examples of how we might begin to think about our rights when challenging private ownership; See the Localism Act 2011, Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016 and the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015.
The community right to own should not be at the expense of public ownership and management; rather it must be a complement. We should acknowledge everything that is good, efficient and effective about our public sector and recognise that community needs are frequently best served by existing arrangements in which public bodies manage the public estate and deliver associated services.
However, community need might, in some instances, be better served by transferring the management of public assets and delivery of public services into the hands of local communities. That requires detailed consideration and a deeper understanding of how we engage and support local community development trusts to that purpose.
Several local government authorities in NI have adopted community asset management/transfer policies to inform their approach to disposal of public assets and community participation through community planning is progressing – significant first steps.
But the VCSE’s right to own through CAT needs to be strengthened and its social value case needs equal weighting against the preference for a cash sale.
We need to challenge the orthodoxy which favours the competitive marketplace – an NI Community Rights Act could provide this challenge.
 Christophers, B. (2019). The New Enclosure. Verso.