My last few blog posts have tried to show the value of a range of community spaces to the ways in which people connect, interact, and take action together, locally. Our work in community development in Exeter has entailed our community builders gaining a detailed understanding of the neighbourhoods where they work. Although a healthy, resilient community is by no means defined by its physical infrastructure, the availability of community space, exactly where it is, and how accessible and inclusive it is seen to be, can certainly shape things for better or worse.
So far so uncontroversial. But the truth is that space of all kinds is becoming increasingly difficult to procure, maintain, and defend. And government policy pulls in different directions at different levels. This final blog in the series looks at these threats, their implications, and some of the tools we have to resist them.
Space has become too valuable for its own good
Locality (a membership network for community organisations) published a report ‘The Great British Sell Off’ in June 2018, with data from a Freedom of Information request. This revealed that on average 4,131 publicly owned buildings and spaces are sold off each year across the country. This will include many buildings no longer suitable for community use (in the wrong place, too many stairs, etc), but will also include valuable green space, or buildings lying vacant since the services within them have been cut. The value of property in most parts of the country makes its sale an appealing easy win for local councils desperate to balance the books.
The government’s recently published loneliness strategy acknowledges that the state cannot make friends for people. But it does propose a number of ways in which public policy and institutions can support the conditions that promote connectivity. The strategy advocates, among other things, ‘unlocking the potential of underutilised community space’ – that is, making more use of the likes of youth clubs, school halls and libraries out of hours. Interviewed before her resignation as Minister for Loneliness, Tracey Crouch did come close to acknowledging the crushing irony of this suggestion after years of austerity has resulted in the closure of large numbers of said ‘community spaces’. But hey ho.
In a similar vein, in November 2018, James Brokenshire, the Minister for Housing, Communities and Local Government, announced his Open Doors pilot. This scheme will match landlords struggling to let their empty High Street properties with community groups working with young people and older adults at risk of social isolation looking for space. The aim is to raise the profile of community activity at the same time as increasing footfall in town centres. The pilot is on a very limited scale, but we’ll be watching its progress closely.
Space is not sexy
In his 2018 report for Locality on the loss of public buildings and space, Dan Gregory points out that the mere idea of infrastructure is ‘dreary and unappealing’, and although we’ve accepted the importance of a functional economic infrastructure in order for people to lead decent lives, the idea that we might need to pay attention to social infrastructure (that is, the clubs and buildings that facilitate people coming together in a community) in the same way is less familiar:
There is a disturbing absence of citizens and communities at the heart of our social infrastructure. We don’t own or control the infrastructure upon which we rely, and citizens have little power to shape the infrastructure they need. (p. 34)
Perhaps for this reason, an emphasis on ‘project-based’ funding for voluntary organisations does not take enough account of the cost of securing and maintaining space. Grantmakers can and should make it easier for organisations to be more transparent about the ‘real’ costs of carrying out their activities, and facilitating secure and suitable ‘social infrastructure’ is surely a fundamental aspect of this.
Community space is not all the same
Spaces for artistic and cultural activity are particularly under threat. The recent Civil Society Futures review reported on the lack of adequate spaces for people, especially young people, to come together, and on the value of this space, especially in contrast with the virtual space many young people inhabit much of the time:
These sorts of spaces form the connective tissue of place and offer a qualitatively different means of sociality from chatting to friends on social media. Rather it is about participating in one’s own history through creative expression and learning about shared living through creative practices. (p.46)
It’s an obvious point, but diversity is pretty important here. Different spaces appeal to different demographics and interest groups, but also to different places. That said, a flexible space that can be used by many different people, or different purposes (‘community hub’ is the fashionable term), where those different groups mix and mingle, is genuinely more than the sum of its parts, and a valuable counterpoint to an increasingly stratified social experience based on narrow communities of interest.
The Civil Society Futures review also notes that more deprived places are often also more poorly off for civic spaces, including green spaces, just where they are needed most.
What is to be done?
Community asset transfer – the transfer of ownership or management of publicly owned assets (such as town halls, swimming pools or playing fields) to community groups and trusts, often at below market rates, can be a productive way forward. If a space is registered with the council as a community asset, this facilitates a community’s ‘right to bid’ if the property is listed for disposal, buying time to pull together funding. It’s a substantial undertaking, but securing space in the longer term is a fantastic opportunity. Locality have launched a campaign, Save our Spaces, promoting community ownership, and calling for systemic change to make things easier for groups. Some of these issues have been taken up in the Government’s recent civil society strategy, along with a commitment to support community hubs more generally:
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, in conjunction with the Ministry of Housing, Community and Local Government, will design a programme to look at the barriers to and opportunities for more sustainable community hubs and spaces where they are most needed.
Enlightened grantmaking – grantmakers and other funders have a role here, firstly in directing funding specifically towards community space. Some examples are Sport England’s community asset fund; Trusthouse Charitable Foundation, or the Coop Foundation’s loans scheme. Funders can also help by increasing the availability of core-cost funding as opposed to project-based grants. This way organisations have a better chance of covering the ‘dreary and unappealing’ side of community action.
Beyond these practical actions, we can all continue to celebrate, encourage and champion community space, in all its various shapes and sizes. We can share stories and inspiring examples of how it is being used, and what the benefits can be. We can protest loudly when it is threatened. And most of all, we can use it – creatively, collectively, and locally.