The Manchester United Supporter’s Trust have just won backing from Trafford Council to have Old Trafford stadium listed as an asset of community value (ACV). This is an important move, which regulates the future use of the site and provides legal recognition of its non-economic value to the community.
Protecting and defending the social value of public and community assets is a vital democratic concern, which is enhanced by greater community participation. These spaces, including parks, town squares, pubs, sports grounds, theatres, and so on, are meaningful to people and they allow us to interact as citizens. There are a number of ways in which local government could build on current practice to champion ACV legislation and to facilitate its wider use among communities. The Localism Act (2011) gave communities the right to bid to run services, to take ownership of assets, and to participate in planning decisions, if they can show there is social and community value at stake.
Democracy is a two way street, however. Legislative change is not always sufficient to actually change the situation on the ground. If people don’t have the expertise, the confidence, or the organisational muscle to actually take up these powers then they are hardly more empowered. Local government has an important part to play in making this a practical change, not least because there is an opportunity for more meaningful engagement.
There is a credible argument that increased local power might not be entirely positive. It might be seen as exclusive if the most active and passionate begin to dominate, making decisions that effect others, and there will be limited progress if it is seen as a simple way for certain groups to block important developments in their area. The planning process is profoundly important, however, and these changes have the potential for real empowerment. By allowing citizens to help make important decisions for the future of their communities they will be better able to participate actively in civil society.
This is partly about developing a clearer understanding of the legislation and powers, such as Article 4 directions, which allow councillors to intervene in decisions over change of use. Clarity over such powers will help to build confidence amongst councillors and enable them to make more noise what communities can do.
The National Planning Policy Framework contains regulations that relate specifically to the protection of pubs and there are some encouraging examples of community pubs being listed as ACVs in order to avoid redevelopment. Stipulations in the NPPF state that planning decisions should “enhance the sustainability of communities” and “should aim to achieve places which promote opportunities for meetings between members of the community who might not otherwise come into contact with each other.”
Raising awareness of these powers and their significance for meaningful participation would go a long way towards giving practical and material force to community rights. There is a resurgent movement already underway. Initiatives like Spacehive, which crowdsource funding for projects that enhance public spaces, are growing from strength to strength. It has also been suggested that small theatres in London would benefit greatly from council support and from ACV status.
Public space is vital for a healthy civil society because it provides the places where we come together to interact with one another. It can be extremely meaningful for local communities, can help to build shared social capital, and be an indispensable part of the social fabric. Communities have been given the challenge of taking greater control over the future of their public assets, but the challenge also applies to local government. Authorities need to help citizens on the way by demonstrating good practice, and developing their own confidence in using the tools that are available.