Community asset transfer: news of a Scottish bid and activity in Birmingham

From short-term licences to long leases, local community and voluntary groups are seeking opportunities to take on the management or ownership of buildings and land. ‘Community Asset Transfer’ or in Scotland ‘Asset Transfer’ has enabled thousands of buildings and spaces across England, such as swimming pools, town halls, libraries and parks to be taken on and successfully managed by community organisations for the benefit of their local community.

A community buyout bid is being made for Ulva, a beautiful 12km-long island with fine heather moors and mossy woods, off Scotland’s west coast. 

In 1837 more than 600 people lived on Ulva; there are now only six residents. In the four years to 1851, when potato blight and failure of the local kelp industry left the population destitute, the laird deported three-quarters of Ulva’s residents. Jamie Howard, the resident owner, puts the more recent population slump down to the “special and difficult challenges of living on a small, remote island with rough roads and limited housing stock”.

Barry George, who came to live on Ulva twenty years ago, said there were then 27 residents who would join together for Burns Night and Christmas parties: “The whole community has collapsed. There are five empty houses sitting there, empty . . . It’s quite shameful really.” Many of the buildings on the island show signs of neglect. A stepladder holds up the pulpit roof in the church. Slates are missing and wood frames rotting at the manse and other cottages. He added: “I don’t see what can possibly be wrong with right-to-buy, if the people who own the land are given a fair price.”

When Mr Howard put Ulva up for sale this year, asking for over £4m, local community organisers saw an opportunity for change.

The North West Mull Community Woodland Company, which operates forestry and related businesses on behalf of residents of the area of Mull that includes Ulva, has made a community buyout bid to bring Ulva under the control of local residents. Colin Morrison, chairperson of the Woodland Company, said : “Our drive would be to repopulate it, to bring business. There’s huge tourism potential.” (Left: director of the Woodland Company John Addy). A feasibility study commissioned by the Woodland Company for the community buyout argues that renovation of the housing stock would attract new residents and higher rents would then help the estate to cover its operating costs.

Today the Times reported that the Electoral Reform Society, which supervised the ballot, announced that out of 401 of those eligible to vote 255 had responded, with 163 in favour of the bid and 91 against. Roseanna Cunningham, the Scottish government’s environment secretary, will have to approve the bid and she is expected to do this in the next few days.

Donald Munro sails the ferry across the narrow sound to Mull

In Birmingham:

  • Witton Lodge Community Association piloted Birmingham’s first community asset transfer in 2010 – Perry Common Community Hall – now a thriving community hub.
  • Castle Pool Community Partnership – successful transfer of local community swimming and leisure facility.
  • Spitfire Services (formerly known as Castle Vale TRA) – successful transfer (licence to operate) of Tyburn Library.
  • Moseley Road Baths Action Group – working with a range of partners to secure the future of Moseley Road Baths – ongoing.
  • Wildside Activity Centre – working to support the board and CEO to secure the transfer of the centre and develop the business into a sustainable community asset – ongoing.

Some members of Localise West Midlands are playing a part in the Moseley venture.

 

 

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Rebuild the local economy: prioritise labour-intensive sectors, difficult to automate, impossible to relocate abroad

Colin Hines, co-founder of LWM and convenor of the UK Green New Deal Group, comments on the Guardian’s recent editorial on productivity and robots which ‘repeated the cliché that automation does cost jobs, but more are created’.

He says that the problem with this is that the new jobs are frequently in different places from where they are lost and require very different skills, hence exacerbating the problems for the “left behind”.

Also unmentioned was that just as automation is starting to really bite, the world faces a strong possibility of another serious credit-induced economic downturn, from China to the UK and a perfect storm of domestic unemployment soaring and export markets falling, as happened after the 2008 economic slump.

The answer to these problems has to be a shift of emphasis to rebuilding the local economy by prioritising labour-intensive sectors that are difficult to automate and impossible to relocate abroad.

Two sectors are key:

  • face-to-face caring from medicine, education and elderly care
  • carbon-reducing national infrastructural renewal.

This should range from making the UK’s 30m buildings energy efficient, constructing new low-carbon dwellings and rebuilding local public transport links.

Funding could come from fairer taxes, local authority bonds in which all could invest, green ISAs and a massive new green infrastructure QE programme.

This approach should become central to all political parties, set out in their next election manifestos because “jobs in absolutely every constituency” is the crucial vote-winning mantra.

 

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Anchoring community wealth

Preston’s skyline: Carl Ji, a Chinese student, at the University of Central Lancashire

Austerity has been devolved to local councils and, perversely, areas with higher levels of poverty have been hit hardest, councils have on average faced 40% cuts in their budgets.

In the face of adversity councils such as Preston have responded by bringing together anchor institutions and working with them to drive through a local programme of economic transformation. The government’s Commission for Employment and Skills defines an ‘anchor institution’ as “one that, alongside its main function, plays a significant and recognised role in a locality by making a strategic contribution to the local economy” and ‘tending’ to be non-profit.

By changing their procurement policies, these anchor institutions were able to drive up spending locally protecting businesses and jobs. They are looking at the council pension fund to see if its investment can support local businesses keeping the money circulating in their town.

A study by the Centre for Local Economic Strategies found that six of the anchor institutions in the area are now spending 18% of their budget in Preston, up from 5% in 2013. So an extra £75 million a year is being spent within the city, with the top 300 local suppliers creating an extra 800 jobs last year alone. And others are watching: Manchester city council has now increased its local spend from 44% of its budget to 70%; Lowestoft and Salford are also interested.

Last year this blog reported that Birmingham City Council was to work with Centre for Local Economic Strategies, with funding from the Barrow Cadbury Trust and support from Localise West Midlands, to see how anchor institutions in the non-profit and private sectors, including Birmingham University, Pioneer Housing and the QE hospital, could use their spending power to increase economic opportunities for Birmingham’s communities, businesses and citizens. Read more on the council website here.

In a separate project, Localise West Midlands has been working with the Midland Metropolitan Hospital (under construction, artist’s impression) which will be the closest adult hospital to the centre of Birmingham. The Sandwell & West Birmingham NHS Trust and LWM are partners in Urban Innovative Actions supporting the development of the local economy. The Trust hopes to spend 2% of the new hospital’s annual budget with local suppliers, adding £5-8m to the local economy. It will provide locally sourced meals and the builder has a target of 70% local employment, aiming to source 80% of construction materials locally.

Alice Thomson in The Times pointed out that making a legal requirement that councils buy and hire goods and services locally is banned by EU law at the moment, so it should be noted that the Preston project operates on a voluntary basis.

She commented: “The government should take the idea and encourage it, particularly in hollowed-out market towns where out of town shopping centres have crushed their sense of identity” adding “But (procurement policies) could also be used for more high-profile programmes such as the rebuilding of Big Ben, where the steel has had to come from Brazil, Germany and the United Arab Emirates, or the V&A which showcases Britain’s greatest designs but where the tiles for the new forecourt came from Holland”.

 

 

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Cargonomia: shrinking the distance between producers and consumers 

Planet Local, which highlights examples of localization in action all over the planet, is a project of Economics of Happiness/Local Futures/The International Alliance for Localization. In March thumbnail sketches of three ethical local banks were published here.

The local food movement is about growing food and also shrinking the distance between producers and consumers — and a new initiative in Hungary is doing just that.

In Budapest, an organic vegetable farm, a do-it-yourself bicycle cooperative and a self-managed bike delivery company teamed up to create Cargonomia, an urban food distribution hub which uses locally-manufactured cargo bikes to deliver locally-grown food across the entire city. And the project continues to grow: Two local bakeries have joined Cargonomia which now delivers bread across the city as well as vegetables.

Read more about this one-of-a-kind collaboration here. Within the team of partners, there is expertise in designing and constructing different types of cargo bikes and trailers.

It’s a business model which utilises each partner’s strengths: vegetable deliveries from Zsamboki Biokert are coordinated by Kantaa’s distribution experts and made using Cyclonomia’s bikes. In this way, Cargonomia goes beyond ‘local food’ to encompass the entire local economy. It aims to help local food producers: organic food producers, vineries, apiaries.

It hosts a community centre where local residents can borrow, rent, or buy their own cargo bikes, organise or attend activities focusing on the transition to a local-scale economy and events to connect with other social and environmental initiatives in the city.

Localise West Midlands is a member of IAL, a cross-cultural network of thinkers, activists and NGOs from 58 different countries.

 

 

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Localising new-build housing

Architect and writer Clive Aslet (left) writes about a development of 4,000 houses on 500 acres – houses, small apartment blocks, schools, surgeries, mixed income housing, shops, business premises and leisure facilities and green spaces – on the edge of Newquay. There is an emphasis on local labour, materials and procurement.

“How society chooses to house people is every bit as important as how it chooses to feed people,” says Tim Gray, estate surveyor and chief of operations “If you can get those two things right, you will be happier, healthier and better able to engage socially. the ambition is to build community and engender civic pride, to live so that you can meet your daily needs conveniently on foot, not to differentiate between homes of different tenures, and to be connected socially with the adjacent settlements — this should provide good foundations for deciding how the nation should build homes in the future. There really is an alternative.”

Aslet describes a number of features:

  • a core commitment to spend the money in Cornwall, using local labour and materials and a pattern book with typical Cornish vernacular details, e.g. roofs are made from Cornish slate from a nearby quarry
  • The plans include setting up a town farm in some listed buildings to provide food for residents of the development.
  • There will be mixed-use neighbourhoods, in which the car is subservient to the pedestrian.
  • There will be a community orchard, allotments and ‘edible gardens’.
  • Low-cost rented homes are scattered among the more expensive owner-occupied ones 30% of the housing is affordable.

The area has been given a new lease of life. The quarry provides jobs, and so do the builders responsible for the work — all firms are from the southwest, whose work not only requires local labour, but also helps to establish local supply chains. They form what Gray calls a “consortium” a method that ensures the architecture is practical and appropriate for the local market.

Newquay is poor and homes are particularly needed by young people. Judging from conversations with a number of people in their twenties and thirties and young families met in the area, they like the designs, the edible gardens (herbs and fruit bushes are planted next to houses), espaliered pear trees and bee bricks (bricks with holes laid into the eaves of houses to welcome threatened bee populations), they’re all part of the philosophy — as well as local style, local materials and local employment . . . local food.

This is symbolised by the community orchard. seven acres of land that has been turned into allotments. “Trespassers will be composted”, reads one of the signs. Orchard and allotments are visible signs of the local food web that is being encouraged. They’re also somewhere that people from the new housing can meet long-time Newquay residents.

As Tim Gray said, this should provide a good foundation for deciding how the nation should build homes in the future. There really is an alternative: Aslet sees it as the beginning of a movement that made Britain better to live in.

 

 

 

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FT: American executives turn away from globalisation towards a more localised world

Last month the Financial Times’ Gillian Tett met Inge Thulin, the Swedish-born chief executive of 3M, an American conglomerate at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York (below).

She reports that – though 60% of its revenues and 40% of 3M’s workforce are outside American shores – Mr Thulin, when discussing corporate strategy, prefers to talk about “localisation”:

“Our strategy has changed. If you go back [several] years, there was a strategy of producing at huge facilities at certain places around the world, and shipping it to other countries. But now we have a strategy of localisation and regionalisation. We think you should invest in your domestic market as much as you can.”

Instead of “free” trade, American executives are now calling for “fair” trade, along with “reciprocity” and “equalisation” of trade deals.

When Donald Trump started talking about restoring US manufacturing last year, he tapped into a subtle trend that was already emerging. As the West Midlands Producers’ site noted, the reshoring trend, successes and possible pinch points, have been systematically explored and publicised by Aston University’s Professor David Bailey since 2013; two years it quoted Professor Dr Michael D. Johnson, Department of Engineering Technology and Industrial Distribution, Texas A&M University, briefly in the FT:

“My colleagues and I have found that importing goods from China to developed countries (for example, the US) entails numerous increased costs: transportation, inventory carrying, and production and logistics oversight. The combination of these increased costs, just-in-time manufacturing needs, and increased developing country labour rates contribute to the economic viability of localised flexible manufacturing facilities serving developed country markets”.

Ms Tett recommends a survey of US companies conducted by the Boston Consulting Group which showed that as recently as 2012 American companies were busy building cross-border supply chains, 30% with China – but 31% in 2015 planned to boost production in America and only 20% in China.

  • One reason for this shift is a rise in relative wage costs in China.
  • Another is that production costs in the US have fallen because of automation and cheap energy.
  • However, a third point is that chief executives have realised that long supply chains create political and logistical risks.

“The days of outsourcing are declining,” Jeff Immelt, General Electric chief executive, observed late last year. “Chasing the lowest labour costs is yesterday’s model.” even before Mr Trump arrived in office, the C-suite (slang: important senior executives) was losing its blind faith in globalisation. For better or worse, we face a more localised world”.

 

 

 

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MUFP: 100 city regions hope to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by changing the food system

urban-food-policy-pact

In 2015, led by Milan, a coalition of 100 cities from all continents signed a Milan Urban Food Policy Pact (MUFP) in Milan’s Palazzo Reale and presented it to Ban-Ki Moon, UN Secretary General, in New York on World Food Day, October 16. To read the latest news go to its website.

They now recognise that their food systems are having high health and environmental impacts. As Professor Tim Lang comments in ‘Food Research’: “Aspirations for cheap food have become hard-wired into consumer expectations. Waste is rampant. Governments bow too much to giant food companies selling sugary, salty, fatty, ultra-processed food. Marketing budgets dwarf food education. No-one seems to be in overall control”.

He continues: “Cities are powerhouses of work but parasitic on cheap labour on the land. Their budgets are squeezed but their diet-related costs are rising. Their dense populations could be energy and food efficient but require huge infrastructure and change to be so . . . A new urban politics is emerging, gradually recognising the need to move beyond the neoliberal era’s commitment to cheap and plentiful food which has only spawned an horrendous new set of challenges which it cannot resolve . . .  Waste. The new food poor. Rising obesity. Street litter. Inequalities. Low waged food work”.

17sd-2-g-goals

Though the 17 Sustainable Development Goals are translated as 169 targets, 70 of which involve food, as Lang says: “New techno-imperialists whisper sweet nothings into politicians’ ears, offering another bout of technical intensification to keep this show on the road. This is not just genetic modification, which is already in trouble, yoked as so much is with use of glyphosate, the herbicide previously deemed benign but now in trouble as a probable carcinogen. There’s a raft of new technical sectors offering food fixes: robotics, nanotechnology (putting minute particles into food); synthetic biology; Big Data and the information revolutions; the promise of personalised healthcare applying life science wizardry. Underpinning them all is continued reliance on but nervousness about oil-based fertilisers. It was they who kept the food wheels turning at the last big moment of reflection in the mid 1970s”.

tim-langLang says, “Now we need another package. But which is it to be? Is it more Big Farming or more horticulture? And what sort? Plants not animals are the key to the new metric: how to feed people from declining available growing space”.

He calls for strong political voice and says that the positive news about a sustainable future needs to be grasped: closer foodways, better jobs, healthier populations instead of cheap food, overflowing hospitals and denuded nature.

 

 

 

Birmingham Newsroom: find it and buy it from local businesses to help the local economy

m-mahmood-small-at-rally-supporting-jcBirmingham Newsroom, Birmingham City Council’s online press office writes about Find it in Birmingham, the city council’s procurement portal where the goods and services the council needs to go about its business are bought, aiming to make sure the Birmingham pound is kept local. 

Councillor Majid Mahmood, cabinet member for value for money and efficiency, has talked about how the city council’s procurement portal is helping boost business and jobs in the city, alongside beneficiary Lightpower, who won a contract with Centro. See the short video here.

He adds that all evidence suggests buying from local small businesses will help the local economy, as local small companies are more likely to employ people locally and spend their earnings locally.

birmingham-pound-kl-hubThis is precisely the awareness expressed by Localise West Midlands (LWM) about helping to set up a ‘dedicated’ Birmingham Pound, which would encourage individuals and businesses to source goods and services within the city region.

Years ago LWM organised a conference exploring public procurement, funded by AWM and the Countryside Agency and attended by those involved in procurement, with representation from most of the region’s local authorities and various health and other statutory bodies (Click here).

Two reports were produced: a summary of local public procurement initiatives, and the report of the conference itself. Following discussions at the conference, a regional strategy group and regional practitioners’ group were set up. These are making progress on a range of procurement issues. LWM continues to contribute to these groups, noting that the WTO’s liberalisation agenda has been contributing to the loss of local and national control of purchasing, which has been keenly felt by those prioritising local public services above corporate profit. LWM added its voice to that of many organisations calling for national government to bring such concerns on procurement to the WTO negotiations.

That earlier initiative related to food procurement: the Birmingham Business Charter for Social Responsibility has a wider brief but is also about trying to keep investment local, by making sure that local businesses have the best chance to secure part of the £1bn of investment the Council spends every year on providing services.

There is also now a welcome emphasis on ‘putting the local back into house building’ and, as Councillor Tahir Ali said when the charter was launched, the city’s more diverse house building programme has large sites where the usual house builders offer the best economies of scale but it now also has an ‘emerging portfolio’ of smaller sites. In accordance with the charter, the council wants to enable small and medium enterprises to secure this type of work in the future. He ended:

“This has strong links to Find it in Birmingham which I hope you are all signed up to so that you can see the range of opportunities that are available to small and medium sized enterprises that are located here in the city”.

 

 

 

Sheffield and Balsall Heath: the real march of the makers

julian dobson2The observations of Julian Dobson (Living With Rats blogspot @juliandobson), strike a welcome and hopeful chord after reading the dismal question: “Will Chancellor Osborne cripple the ‘makers’?”

A search revealed JD’s substantial localist credentials – as director of Urban Pollinators, which helps to make sense of regeneration and the editorial director of New Start, the national magazine for regeneration practitioners. He is on the editorial board of the journal Local Economy and writes think tanks and publications such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Centre for Local Economic Strategies and Res Publica. He is helping to create Our Society, a social action network, and Revive Our Town Centres, a network for people involved in rethinking local high streets.

george osborne 2 smallerChancellor George Osborne closed his 2011 Budget speech by eloquently setting out his aspiration for “a Britain carried aloft by the march of the makers”. But recently he caused consternation by closing down the Business Growth Service, including the Manufacturing Advisory Service and the Growth Accelerator programme.

Julian observes that if there’s going to be a march of the makers, it is more likely to take the form of developments such as Portland Works in Sheffield, a stone’s throw from Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane ground, a development born of “a local determination to see Portland Works kept in use as a place for making”.

He relates that a community trust was formed when the previous owner wanted to cash in and convert the premises into flats: more than 500 people bought into a community share issue, reflecting the groundswell of support both for the works’ heritage and the trust’s vision of the future”.

portland works

Portland Works currently has 32 tenants with a wide spread of interest, including a knife maker, engraver, forge operator, several artists, a rug maker, a window maker, a distiller, bike-makers, woodturners, musicians and jewellers.

Though both are beset by the difficulties of maintaining an old building, a similar pattern can be seen in Birmingham (below, rear view) at The Old Print Works in Balsall Heath – first mentioned on this site in 2013 – where ‘makers’ work in low-cost spaces.

old print worksFollowing his account, Julian Dobson concludes:

“If there’s going to be a march of the makers, it is more likely to look like this than the kind of projects favoured by central government and its placemen in local enterprise partnerships, obsessed with projects that rejoice in titles like Catapult and Accelerator.

“It is likely to be a much slower march than the periodic stampedes of real estate and financial services speculators, too. But it has the potential to last far longer and to create more useful stuff in the process.

“And while there’s no doubt that the makers of Portland Works are having to rough it far more than government ministers and their acolytes might be used to, I’d hazard a guess that their work is both more creative and more fulfilling”.

Localism: a rescue plan for British democracy

A notable omission from Localise West Midlands’ extensive range of articles about, or with references to localism, is a review of a book by Simon Jenkins: Big Bang Localism: a rescue plan for British democracy.

big bang localismIn this book he attributes the decline in British voter interest and participation to the over-centralisation of power in Whitehall, ‘one of the most centralised governments in the West’. As turnouts in elections are dwindling, he notes, many are turning to ad hoc pressure groups and direct action.

Centralisation has not worked well, Jenkins believes; levels of satisfaction with health care, education and policing are lower in Britain than almost anywhere in the developed world. He notes a change in public opinion which once, on the whole, believed that the British government works well and is now shifting to a belief that it needs improving, citing contemporary YouGov polls showing a rise in discontent with public services and health care

Twelve years later the need to heed Jenkins’ pre Corbyn message has never been greater as the established on the political left and right frantically attempt to discredit and unseat a democratically elected party leader.

He noted that Britain’s local councillors are outnumbered three-to-one by 60,000 unelected people serving on roughly 5,200 local quangos, managing various functions that may be local but are no longer under local democratic control. Examples include health service, housing, prisons, training and economic development.

Jenkins points out that, across Europe, countries have spent the past two decades refreshing their local democracy – even traditionally centralised countries like France have devolved. The USA operates the most decentralised system of government and in these countries, public services are delivered more locally than in Britain – and win greater public trust as a result.

He sets out a programme for a ‘democratic Big Bang’, to return power to the local level, including control over health, police and education services, to re-enfranchise the British people:

Counties and cities should run:

  • health services
  • secondary schools
  • policing
  • the prison and probation services
  • youth employment and training
  • planning.

Municipalities and parishes should run whatever gives a community its pride and visual character:

  • primary schools
  • old people’s homes
  • nurseries and day-care centres
  • clinics and surgeries
  • parks and sports centres.

Local services should mostly be funded by local taxation, which should be raised from a combination of:

  • residential property tax
  • business rates
  • local income tax.

Jenkins proposes that central government funding of local services should take the form of a block grant, determined by the Local Democracy Commissioner and paid to local authorities with no strings attached.

The “enemies of localism” are vested interests and the national media, but devolution in Scotland and Wales shows that people prefer decisions about local services to be made locally. Simon Jenkins recommends that the Big Bang should start with a “bonfire of central controls” and an end to targets and official league tables, adding “Big Bang Localism is the answer to the failure of Britain’s public services and the loss of faith in British democracy”.