Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Should Public Assets and Services have to make Money?

money_pennies_coins_sterlingGloucester County Council are embracing the Coalition Governments Big Society agenda, with the launch of a new scheme designed to encourage residents to provide services for their communities. The 'Big Community Offer' looks to transfer the management of over 30 community facilities, such as libraries and youth centres, to interested local community groups. Peppercorn rents, asset shares and start-up grants will be available in order to improve take up.

Gloucester are the latest in a long line of councils. The idea of community asset transfer has been around for decades, with all three political parties showing an increased interest in recent years and the previous Government initiating the Advancing Assets for Communities (AAC) programme, now in it's fourth year.

However, since decentralization and localism became the focus of the Coalition Government's vision for a Big Society, it's implementation has stepped up the agenda.  A recent report by think-tank ResPublica and the Development Trusts Association (DTA), who manage the AAC programme, goes as far to say that rapid, large scale transfer is 'essential' if the Big Society is to succeed.

The report states that assets by definition "... are a source of future income", and would be a means of wealth generation within poorer communities. Can that really be said of libraries, swimming baths and community centres, without changing their essential nature? Raising or introducing tariffs may bring profits, but that may then exclude the poorer people from actually using the facilities.

Do the community groups have to run the assets as businesses?

Peppercorn rents and other incentives may make it easier than a profit driven business, but money still has to be made, let alone to pay the bills, never mind to make the actual profits that the ResPublica report suggests. To apply for an asset, a business plan and assurances of sustainability need submitting.

Ok, things need paying for, but how's a library supposed to make money? A few fines? It's not a business. It shouldn't have to make money. But we need libraries, which is why they're paid for by government.  If they replace that funding with a few incentives, it's a save for the Government, but the Public's loss, if those assets can't sustain themselves.

These assets are being sold off because government struggle to sustain them. Do they really expect community groups to do any better, when there's just no money to be made? It shouldn't be about that anyway, but when the libraries can't pay the bills, it may not be too big a surprise if McDonalds step in and offer a big mac with every book borrowed.

The ResPublica report suggest that community groups will need a lot of support from Government, but if such public assets as libraries and swimming baths are to survive in anywhere near the form we see them in today, that support and especially funding will have to be ongoing.

So, what's this got to do with the NHS?

Part of the current redevelopment of the health service in the UK is travelling a very similar path to what is set out above. Communities and local organisations are being encouraged to take up ownership of local health services and will be expected to sustain them. If they fail, will Private firms then be offered the chance to do better? Only a few weeks ago, the first NHS Hospital to be run by a Private firm came into being, when Circle took over the running of Cambridgeshire's Hinchingbrooke hospital, and that may be the future for other locally lead facilities.

As with community assets, local health services aren't businesses. Yes, they should be ran professionally, but they can't always be expected to make money. Funding should come from Government.

And what about marketing?

Well, in all these transfers of responsibility, the change should be positive and an improvement. If it's just a change of ownership, with no noticeable difference to the people through the door, what's the point, except to save the Public purse.

The difference needs to come with those people coming through the door having a part of that ownership and the full community feeling involved. Rather than just passing the keys to a few interested people, there needs to be a true sense of community ownership.

For this to take place, effective and powerful community engagement programmes need to be implemented and maintained. Through these channels, individuals can feel a part of the whole, with a voice that's listened to and acted on. They can then develop a sense of ownership deeper than simply holding the keys, where they take pride in the mutually owned assets that serves themselves and their fellow residents.

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