The Great Sell-Off & How to Prevent It

A new campaign has been launched by Locality, DTNI’s sister organisation, to combat a massive sell-off of public buildings around England. More than 4,000 public buildings and spaces in England are sold every year, with more than 7,000 others at risk over the next five years. Most assets are sold to private developers interested only in a return on their capital investment as opposed to a long-term community development vision.

This problem is not exclusive to England. On this side of the Irish Sea, public buildings are routinely sold to the highest bidder but the level at which this occurs is not yet known. What is known is that there are pressures on public bodies to maximise the value of surplus public buildings by way of a sale.  Community Asset Transfer (CAT) offers community development trusts a route to access those buildings where a case for its sustainable use and social need can be made, but these cases may be more accurately described as ‘Community Asset Purchases’ as opposed to transfers. 

Undoubtedly, untapped opportunities exist within our public estate. Within Knockbracken Healthcare Park and Muckamore Abbey Hospital sites alone there are dozens of redundant buildings. In Omagh the former County Hospital is closed and lying empty and likewise, in Belfast, Forster Green Hospital. The heritage value of these built assets is not known.

The matter is not confined to the Department of Health & Social Care either; it applies across all public bodies in NI.

The landscape of public land and buildings in NI is uncharted. Work undertaken by the Strategic Investment Board to map the public estate has yet to be finalised and shared with the public, yet it is imperative that we have relevant and timely information with which to make future plans; and it is necessary that that information is shared with communities with an interest in its use. One way of ascertaining the level of the sell-off in NI is by submitting Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, as Locality has done to all 353 of the local authorities in England. 

More and more communities are becoming alert to the potential of asset-based development, but if they are to compete with wealthy private development companies the playing field needs to be level.

What communities need most is money and time. Crowdfunding can be hit-or-miss depending on the level of community engagement obtained and current English legislation gives community groups only six months to prepare a viable bid. No legislation exists in NI, but the NI Executive policy does provide community and voluntary groups with a similar window to make its case.

Via their Save Our Spaces campaign, Locality is lobbying government to create a £200m-a-year community ownership fund which could be accessed by residents interested in preserving their local heritage. The fund would be kick-started by £25m from central government, potentially rising to £200 with contributions from other sources such as the Dormant Assets Fund. Dormant Accounts could be utilised for the same purpose in NI.

Locality’s Save Our Spaces campaign contains four key asks:

  • Reform of the Right to Bid legislation to give communities a year to prepare a bid to purchase rather than the six months that is currently provided.
  • A Right to Buy to replace the Right to Bid, which would give communities first refusal on a purchase.
  • A community asset policy embedded in every council.
  • Low-cost or zero-interest loans for groups willing to buy.

DTNI has made similar calls for change in NI. We are seeking the introduction of a Community Rights Act and reform of how services are commissioned and procured to create resilient local economies. Community participation and ownership are at the heart of the solution.

And community ownership works. In NI we have seen the transfer of Bangor Courthouse to Open House Festival who will manage a permanent arts venue with huge regenerative potential for the town and the surrounding areas.

The transfer of Broughshane Police Station to the community now provides space for commercial lets and will provide social housing for elderly people.

But for every Bangor or Broughshane there will be an unfulfilled asset transfer; one in which the disposing body prefers recouping the capital value of the asset over providing long-term economic and social returns to the community.

Money and time would certainly make the difference in these cases. DTNI has long been lobbying for a community ownership fund like that proposed by Locality. We need to redouble our efforts on access to dormant accounts for NI community organisations and extend our commitment to bring forward community rights legislation, to provide citizens and their communities with the right to buy, to bid, to participate, to challenge and to own.